Difference between Herbs and Spices

Key Difference: Both herbs and spices come from plant. However, they differ in which part of the plant they are sourced from. Herbs are the green, leafy part of the plant, whereas a spice can come from the root, stem, seed, fruit, flower or bark of the tree or plant.

HerbsEveryone who cooks uses herbs and spices. In fact, herbs and spices are such an integral part of cooking that even someone who doesn’t cook has heard of them. Nearly every recipe will call for a herb or spice. However, the two terms are always mentioned together, ‘herbs and spices’, so what is the difference between the two? Are they the same thing, or do they refer to different things?

Both herbs and spices come from plant. However, they differ in which part of the plant they are sourced from. Herbs are the green, leafy part of the plant, whereas a spice can come from the root, stem, seed, fruit, flower or bark of the tree or plant. They also don’t need to belong to different plants; the same plant can be used as a herb and a spice. For example, the cilantro and coriander; cilantro refers to the leaves of the Coriandrum sativum plant, whereas coriander is the seeds of the same plant.

Additional differences between the two include the following: Herbs also tend to be less aromatic than spices, and can be used fresh or dried. They often require less processing as well, especially when compared to a spice. Spices tend to be more aromatic than herbs and commonly used dried, which is why they tend to require more processing. This is also one of the reasons why spices tend to last much longer than herbs, especially fresh herbs. Spices can be stored for much longer durations as they can keep their flavor and potency much longer. Whole spices can be stored for the longest, as grinding the spices tend to expose it to too much oxygen. Ground spices and dried herbs last about the same, whereas fresh herbs can be stored for the least duration, often only for a few days. 

SpicesAnother difference between the two lies in how they are used during the cooking process. Herbs then to break down much faster and hence are often added later on in the cooking process. There are a few recipes that require the herbs to be added in the beginning or as the base, however, those recipes are rare and they typically don’t have a long cooking process. Spices, on the other hand, often require long cooking times, as their flavor is often enhanced by dry-roasting and by the longer cooking processes.

Did you know that herbs and spices were originally used as forms of currency in trade? Like today, some herbs and spices were considered to be more valuable than others. Their value comes from demand, which varies depending on the taste of the herb and spice, and how easy it is to grow and source. For example, saffron which is quite a famous spice is very expensive. The reason for that is because saffron comes from a small part of the plant. What we use as saffron is the stigma, i.e. the pollen-germinating part of the flower. Each flower only has three stigmata, which means that it takes 75,000 saffron flowers to make one pound of saffron spice. Not to mention that the saffron must be harvested only by hand. Taking all that into account it is no wonder that saffron is as expensive as it is. Compare that to herbs like cilantro or parsley, which are quite cheaper because they are easier to grow and harvest.

Comparison between an Herb and a Spice:

 

Herb

Spice

Source

Plants

Plants

Part of Plant

Green, leafy part of the plant

The root, stem, seed, fruit, flower or bark of the tree or plant.

Purpose

Add flavor and complexity to food

Add flavor and complexity to food

Complexity

Less aromatic, more mild

More aromatic, and more complex

Consistency

Can be fresh or dried

Is typically dried

Processing

Usually requires less processing

Usually requires a lot more processing, i.e. must be harvested, dried, and processed

Flavor

Less Flavorful, as compared to spices

More flavorful when compared to herbs

Potency

Tend to lose their flavor quickly

Tend to retain their flavor for long periods of time

Storage

Fresh herbs spoil rather quickly. Can be dried and stored more effectively

Are often dried, and can be stored for long periods of time

Cooking process

Often added at the end to maximize flavor. Longer cooking can change flavor. Often used as garnish

Usually have a longer cooking time. Flavor is enhanced by dry-roasting

Reference: Wikipedia (Herb, Spice), Britannica, Britannica, Farmer’s Almanac
Image Courtesy: hubpages.com, sweetpeasandsaffron.com

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