Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


Herb or spice? That is the question.

What is the difference between herbs and spices?

I researched the question. Nobody agrees. Here are some of the answers I found:

* Herbs are grown in the northern hemisphere; spices in the southern. (That makes the parsley in my garden a spice. Unlikely.)

* Herbs are medicinal; spices are not. (Like brandy is medicinal and vodka is just for fun?)

* Herbs are the leaves; spices are the seeds. (What about cinnamon? Isn't that the bark of a sub-tropical tree?)

* Herbs are or used to be green; spices are not. (I like this simplistic theory - it would save a lot of argument if it were true.)


* If it's in a brown jar it's a spice; if it's in a yellow jar, it's a(n) herb. (Mine are in assorted plastic tubs, cello packets and screw-top clear glass jars.)

And from The Guardian:

* A Herb is a respected jazz musician; a Spice is one of five talentless C-grade celebrities.

Help me out, please, with serious or not so serious opinions.


Red dirt mummy said...

Hmmm - herbs are leafy and taste herb-y and spices are not leafy and taste different to herbs? Yeah, I can see how that was really helpful LOL.

Julie said...

The definitions bandied about in botany classes have to do with the green parts/soft growth being herbs, and the crunchy bits/hard growth being spices. They aren't really botanical designations, but they're so common, an attempt is made to standardize them. Some of it has to do with primary and secondary meristems and woody growth and I really won't bore you. But generally speaking, leafy green = herb and crunchy bit = spice.

These are the same people who classify mushrooms as plants (they have no chlorophyll, for crying out loud), so take it all with a big grain of salt.

Never, ever, ask the difference between a tree and a shrub.

Sarah said...

I second what Julie said about leaves vs crunchy bits, however, I beg to differ on the mushrooms. Historically, fungi were considered part of the study of Botany because they were thought to be closer to plants (they have a cell wall). However, in the DNA age, it has been shown that they're closer to animals, and thus are no longer considered plants in any way.

Which means we mycologists either get shoved into academic departments either as "botany" (for historical reasons) or "microbiology" because fungi are small (except those really giant ones...)

Selwyn said...

Maybe that herbs are plant leaf based, usually used in the form of loose segments, whereas spices are usually non-leaf parts of plants, typically ground into a powder?

kitchen hand said...

Well, cross the mushrooms off the list, vegetarians! I hope they don't classify lentils as animals any time soon. There won't be anything left to eat.

RDM, your explanation sounds fine, as confirmed by Sarah and Julie.

Leanne said...

Have a look at pages 11 and 12 of "Spice Notes" by Ian "Herbie" Hemphill, Australia's herb and spice guru. He says "For general reference we refer to the leaf of a plant used in cooking as a culinary herb and any other part of the plant, often dried, as a spice." That said, the subtitle of the book is "A cook's compendium of herbs and spices". Maybe they're all spices?

Villi Godi said... told me this about Herbs:

Herbs (IPA: hə(ɹ)b, or əɹb; see pronunciation differences) are plants grown for culinary, medicinal, or in some cases even spiritual value. The green, leafy part of the plant is typically used. General usage differs between culinary herbs and medicinal herbs. A medicinal herb may be a shrub or other woody plant, whereas a culinary herb is a non-woody plant. By contrast, spices are the seeds, berries, bark, root, fruit, or other parts of the plant, even leaves in some cases; although any of these, as well as any edible fruits or vegetables, may be considered "herbs" in medicinal or spiritual use. Culinary herbs are distinguished from vegetables in that they are used in small amounts and provide flavor (are spices) rather than substance to food.