Dried herbs and spices can pack a powerful punch
That old saying “variety is the spice of life” holds true in most aspects, especially when it comes to the actual herbs and spices we use when cooking. Herbs and spices have been used for thousands of years and are magnificent when it comes to diversifying the end result of our dishes’ flavor profiles.
All herbs and spices cannot be created equal:
- Herbs are the leaves of certain low-growing shrubs and can be used fresh or dried. Common examples include sage, parsley, basil, oregano, rosemary, dill and thyme. Many herbs can be grown both indoors and outdoors. \
- Spices come from the bark, root, buds, seeds, berry or fruit of tropical plants and trees. Examples include cinnamon, ginger, cloves, pepper, paprika, garlic, mustard and many more.
- Seasoning blends are a mixture of dried herbs and spices.
There are certainly more benefits to using herbs and spices in our cooking than just flavor.
There are plenty of nutritional values to them as well, but we’ll leave all that information to the nutritionists and stick with what we operators do best — using them to make great-tasting food.
“An herb is the friend of physicians and the praise of cooks,” said medieval king Charlemagne, and I agree. I love using fresh herbs. It’s easy, especially in the summer when they are more plentiful. I love making my pesto with pounds of fresh basil; however, the kind of volume operators cook in makes it difficult at times to consistently use fresh herbs, and frankly using dry herbs can offer us and our customers a more consistent end product. After all, it is consistency in all the aspects of any business that brings them success. That’s what consumers are looking for –– familiarity, which in essence is consistency.
We certainly lose some of the nutritional components like the vitamins found in our herbs when we use dry. But, then again, that’s not typically why we use them in the first place. It’s for the flavor!
We usually buy our dry spices in large containers, but it’s important to ensure we don’t purchase more than we’ll use in a reasonable amount. We want to get the best quality out of them. Dried herbs don’t last forever.
Here are some conditions that will shorten the life, meaning the flavor and effectiveness, of the herb:
- Moisture, light, heat and air can cause dried herbs and spices to lose their flavor, color and aroma. To expand the life of your dry herbs, simply store them in air-tight containers
- Store away from sunlight, heat and moisture.
- Do not store above any heat-producing appliances.
- Remember that when converting to dry herbs from fresh, you have to consider that the dry herbs are more potent so you won’t need as much. Think about a sun-dried tomato or a raisin. Essentially all or most of the moisture (water) has been naturally removed, which in essence leaves a much more potent, concentrated flavor, just as it is when using dry herbs.
When I make marinara from scratch, I like to add dry herbs to onions and garlic while I am sautéing them (and before I add my tomato products). This process reduces the hours of cooking time in half because I am reconstituting the herbs by adding moisture, which immediately starts to bring out the flavors. When I add my tomato sauce, the flavor of the herbs are now more ready to permeate throughout the sauce much quicker than adding the herbs dry to the tomato sauce, which will then require a longer cook time.
There are certainly some operators that I have met who love to have their sauce on the stove for six or more hours. If that’s the case for you, it won’t really make a difference when you add your herbs since they’ll have plenty of time to fulfill their purpose.
Some operators buy a fully prepared, ready-to-use pizza sauce that needs no alteration, but many buy extra-heavy sauce that they eventually blend with crushed tomatoes or other products of their choice. Then they blend their own pizza sauce using dry herbs and spices. I don’t recommend cooking your sauce for this application. The dry herbs will have the time to permeate into the sauce during its time in the cooler.
There are some pizzerias that not only flavor their sauce with herbs like oregano and basil, but sprinkle some dry herbs on top of their cheese. Some do this before the pizza goes into the oven, while others sprinkle it on when it comes out.
Now that we’re getting into soup season, keep in mind that the sky’s the limit. Blending different herbs and spices will take a soup that is simple and blasé to an ultimate level of culinary satisfaction.
Using some dry basil, oregano, thyme and bay leaves in your minestrone soup or corn chowder with a healthy amount of onion, garlic, pepper and a touch of salt will keep your customers coming back day after day. Think about changing to using gluten-free pasta in your minestrone and you’ve just upped your customer base and excited that growing segment of folks who are gluten intolerant.
Jeff Freehof owns The Garlic Clove in Evans, Georgia. He is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today and a speaker at International Pizza Expo.