Many of us know when food tastes good, but we can't isolate which herb or spice -- or combination -- produces the flavors we want.
Thus, some cooks choose seasonings out of habit, rather than from a real knowledge of how herbs and spices work together. If it's Mexican, grab the chili powder; Italian, reach for the oregano.
Knowing how spices taste can help you figure out what's right or wrong with a dish. And the only way to learn how things taste is to sample them.
You won't learn by reading. Spice containers tell how to use the spice -- but not how it tastes. Herb books describe the plant and how it grows -- but not the taste.
"I've never seen a flavor wheel for spices and herbs," says Steven Wirtz, technical services manager for Speciality Brands Inc., maker of Spice Islands products. Such wheels, available for other food products, such as wine, plot the taste range of an ingredient on a circular chart.
Understanding herbs and spices is as simple as using them, learning as you go with the sniff-and-taste method. Do it every time you cook, and gradually you'll build knowledge of how each spice tastes and smells.
Whether you're using fresh or dried, sprinkle a little of the herb or spice into your palm. Rub it in with your thumb to release its aroma, then take a good, deep whiff.
Aroma is integral to taste; Mr. Wirtz says people's sense of smell is about 10 times more sensitive than taste.
Once you've learned the aroma, taste a pinch, rolling the herb on all areas of the tongue and palate.
To find out how a spice affects the other ingredients in a recipe, taste the basic concoction, then stir in one seasoning. Let things cook a bit to release the spice's full flavor, and taste again.
A guide to herbs and spices
Most cuisines start with a pinch of salt, some kind of pepper and an onion. Beyond that, each cuisine uses a recognizable repertoire of herbs and spices. Some are especially associated with standard American preparations of meat, poultry and fish. Here's what the books have to say about some common seasonings; to really understand them, however, you have to taste them.
Pepper. Black, white and green pepper are forms of the same berry, or peppercorn; each is harvested at a different state of maturity.
Salt. Actually the mineral sodium chloride, salt is probably the most often used seasoning in the world. It intensifies the natural flavor of foods.
Onion. A white, yellow or red bulb vegetable with a sharp flavor when raw; turns mellow and aromatic when cooked. Fresh onions sold in the spring and summer contain more sugar and water and generally are milder and sweeter than those sold in the rest of the year, which have been in storage.
Bay (laurel) leaves. The leaf of the bay laurel tree; usually sold dried. The aroma of the crushed leaf is fragrantly sweet with a delicate lemon, clovelike perception. The taste is mildly aromatic at first, intensifying within a few minutes. One leaf is enough to flavor six servings of stew or soup; add too much and the food becomes bitter. Use the whole leaf, but remove it before serving.
Garlic. Strongly scented, pungent bulb of a plant related to the onion. Garlic is almost odorless until bruised or cut.
Parsley. Herb used for flavoring and garnish; available dried or fresh. The aroma is pleasantly fresh, slightly spicy and fragrant. The taste is tangy, somewhat grassy, sweet and pleasant. Fresh curly leaf parsley has a slight peppery taste.
Rosemary. Herb available fresh, dried or powdered. When crushed, rosemary has an agreeable, fragrant, eucalyptus-like aroma, with a cooling, camphoraceous scent. The taste is somewhat peppery, spicy and astringent, with a slightly bitter aftertaste. Finely grind the needlelike leaves or contain them in a piece of cheesecloth when cooking; remove before serving to keep them from getting stuck in a diner's throat.
Sage. A member of the mint family, sage is very aromatic, herbaceous and spicy with a unique balsamic, bitter taste.