The difference between a good meal and a great meal frequently comes down to herbs and spices. A basic knowledge of these flavor-enhancing beauties can elevate even the simplest plate of food or add a new dimension to an oft-cooked family favourite. Here's our list of the ten herbs and spices no self respecting chef would ever be without.
Salt and pepper
Salt and pepper
Obvious, yes, but if you only make one change to your cooking habits, make it an investment in fresh black pepper and a good quality salt, such as Maldon. You'll notice the difference immediately - and good salt tastes stronger so you'll use less and keep the health police happy.
The deeply aromatic coriander plant is one of the culinary world's most versatile flavours. The leaves add a fresh, lemony depth to Thai, Mexican and Indian dishes, as well as adding punch to a green salad or sprinkled over steamed vegetables, particularly carrots, while the seeds add a warm, almost orangey, depth to curries and soups.
Lamb cries out for a mint sauce and you can't beat one made with freshly chopped leaves from a (very easy to grow) plant on the windowsill. Mint is also brilliant as a tea, of course - just add some torn leaves to the pot - as a garnish to a Pimms, stirred into peas, sprinkled on a strawberry...
While we're on the subject - sort of - of lamb, rosemary will give it a lovely floral zing. It works equally well, however, with other roast meats like chicken, pork and rabbit. It also works beautifully when paired with tomato and garlic. It'll also breathe new life into your roast potatoes.
Grated - if using fresh - or sprinkled, nutmeg adds a little warmth and fruitiness to any cake or, for example, the biscuit base of a cheesecake. It's also lovely used sparingly over vanilla ice cream. But it has savoury uses too, adding zing to your curries, stews and soup. It's also amazing added to creamy mashed potatoes for a proper winter warmer.
You can't have nutmeg and not mention cinnamon, of course. Apples love the stuff - it'll brighten a pie AND a sauce, should you feel like a twist with your roast pork - and it gives a kick to anything chocolate based. A pinch in a curry or stew - or in a rub for roast chicken - also works well, giving your savoury dishes a sweet fragrance.
Possibly a controversial choice but the sweet smokiness of paprika is a delight. Add it to a beef stew to give it that goulash-style edge, but go mad! Potato salad is enlivened with a pinch, it's great on a cooling guacamole (or sprinkled on houmous), it bolsters tomatoes almost as well as basil and mixed with cream makes a delicious sauce for chicken.
Ah, dill, you lovely little herb you. Its soft, sweet, gentle aniseed flavour is perfect with fish - just make sure you add it at the end otherwise it will give up all its flavour. Aside from fish however, it can be used to give an edge to a white sauce, and loves salad and potatoes, while the seeds are a vital part of pickling: you've heard of dill pickles, right?
Vibrant, green and fragrant, fresh basil will liven up everything from a salad to a pizza and works particularly well with tomatoes. As such, it's a massive part of Mediterranean cooking - and life doesn't get much better than a plate of sliced ripe tomatoes, olive oil, salt and pepper scattered with a generous handful of basil leaves.
Another controversial choice - particularly as parsley, sage and thyme haven't made the list. Or cumin for that matter. But the pungent, peppery heat of turmeric - not to mention its shirt-staining yellow colour - is too vital a part of curry to ignore. Try it sprinkled over stir fired vegetables - courgettes or broccoli in particular - for a stirring accompaniment.