5 Must-have Herbs and Spices in Kitchens

5: Oregano

­Oregano refers to a variety of herbs that belong to the mint family. It’s native to the Mediterranean and parts of Asia and plays an important role in Mediterranean cuisine. In Europe, the common name for oregano is wild marjoram. Some recipes say that oregano and marjoram are interchangeable, but the two herbs have slightly different aromas and taste. Marjoram tends to be milder than oregano.

Settlers brought oregano plants to ­North America in the 16th century. It grows well in warm climates. Mexican oregano has some distinctive qualities that set it apart from its European cousins. In general, varieties of oregano from areas that receive more sunlight have a stronger aroma and taste.

Use of oregano in American cooking became more common as pizza gained popularity. It’s used in a variety of dishes ranging from sauces to chili. Oregano’s aroma is very distinctive – it’s an earthy, warm smell. It has a bitter taste, too. Because of its strong flavor and smell, it’s best to pair oregano with other bold flavors, or it could dominate the dish.

4: Rosemary

­Rosemary is an evergreen shrub that also belongs to the mint family. Ancient peoples developed many myths and legends regarding this particular evergreen plant. Students in ancient Greece would wear garlands of rosemary because they believed it improved memory. And European legend says that gardens with thriving rosemary bushes are the mark of households headed by women.

The plant has a bitter, woodsy taste. Like oregano, rosemary can be a powerful seasoning and should be paired with dishes that have bold flavors. It’s also a versatile herb: Cooks commonly pair rosemary with ro­ot vegetables, and hearty stews or soups. Winemakers combine oils from rosemary to dry white wines to produce vermouth.

If you’re cooking and you want your dish to have subtle flavors, slide your thumb and finger down a rosemary sprig to remove the leaves and add the leaves to your dish before cooking. Chopping the leaves will release the oils inside and increase the intensity of the flavors. You can include entire sprigs of rosemary or even use the sprigs themselves as skewers; just be sure to remove the sprigs before eating the dish or you may be in for a bitter surprise.

  1. Basil

Sweet basil is a popular flavoring agent in many tomato-based sauces.

­Basil refers to a family of herbs that grow natively in India and Iran. The tulsi variety of basil has sacred significance in the Hindu religion. During the British colonial occupation of India, government officials required Indians to swear upon tulsi while taking an oath in a court of law.

Basil also plays an important role in folk remedies. Basil tea can be used as a stimulant, and healers have used basil to treat maladies ranging from deafness to insanity.

Basil plants bear leaves that have a strong aroma similar to that of cloves or anise. While the leaves’ odor is powerful, the taste is more subtle. ­Basil has a warm, sweet taste. Many cooks like to use basil in tomato dishes; the two flavors complement one another. Over the years, basil has become an important ingredient in Italian dishes that rely on tomato sauces. Other popular uses for basil include pairing it with salads. Lemon basil is useful in desserts.

You can use either fresh or dried basil in your dishes, just keep in mind that dried basil tends to lose some of the flavor fresh basil has.

2: Garlic
Garlic can add zing to a recipe while keeping vampires at bay

­Garlic is an herb that belongs to the same family of plants as onions, chives and leeks. In medieval Europe, people used cloves of garlic medicinally. People also thought it could keep away harmful spirits like vampires. Today, it’s a staple in many American kitchens, where cooks use it to flavor dishes rather than ward off the undead.

You can find garlic growing in many parts of the world. Even the experts aren’t sure where it first grew – some say Asia, while others point to southern Europe. It’s an important ingredient found in many European, Mediterranean and Asian dishes.

Garlic’s strong odor and taste make it a powerful seasoning. It’s so potent that some cultures regarded garlic as a distasteful ingredient until relatively recently. Today, it’s a popular flavoring agent in many dishes. It’s even bridged the gap between a seasoning and an actual dish – roasted garlic is a popular appetizer on its own at many restaurants.

Garlic can take many forms in the kitchen. Cooks tend to use fresh garlic to season dishes, but you can also find garlic powder and even garlic salt. Fresh garlic tends to have the most robust flavor.

1: Black Pepper

Black peppercorns may be the most popular spice in the world.

­Few spices have as much of a claim to fame as black pepper. The spice comes from the berries of a climbing vine native to India. Its spicy kick has turned many a bland dish into an exciting meal. In fact, it may be the most widely used spice in the world.

Some ancient cultures used pepper as currency. When Visigoths sacked the city of Rome in the fifth century, among the tributes they demanded from the Romans were three thousand pounds of pepper]. In some cultures, pepper was worth more than its weight in gold.

To make pepper, cultivators pick berries off the vines just a­s the berries begin to turn red. They then boil the berries for several minutes and dry them for several days. We call the dried berries peppercorns – pepper is produced by grinding peppercorns.

Most cooks apply pepper directly to food after it has been cooked. Cooking pepper tends to sap its taste and aroma. Some cooks prefer to use white pepper for cream sauces. White pepper has a milder taste than black pepper and requires a different approach during production, although both kinds of pepper come from the same plant.