Expert Q&A

Herbs and spices: Food pairing guidelines

Which herbs/spices should I use for which foods? Are there any easy guidelines?

There are many ways to pair herbs, spices and recipes for optimal flavor. Is there an easy guideline? Some grocery stores offer handouts on this very topic, along with recipes. However, new cooks and people aiming for simplicity can find these confusing. This is why I recommend basing your seasonings on the cuisine you’re cooking, rather on individual recipes, herbs or spices. This system makes more sense. 

To follow this system, stock up on herbs and spices that you use most often according to your/your family’s preferred cuisine. Is Italian food the mainstay in your home? Then buy small quantities of basil, oregano and garlic powder. 

So, instead of choosing basil because it pairs well with tomatoes, Italian food, green beans, beef stew and broiled fish, or choosing sage because it pairs well with pork, stuffing, cheese and French cuisine, choose the basil for the Italian food, the sage for the French cuisine and go from there…picking out individual packets of herbs and spices for those ‘special’ recipes or occasions. Again, choose smaller packets or containers. It may be more expensive but they will stay fresher and serve their purpose better…to provide flavor! 

‘Make Your Own’ Mixes of herbs & spices

For the following mixes, plan on making more than one serving. Store unused portions in airtight containers kept in dark, cool, dry cupboards. Mixes stay good for up to 1 year. Use amounts to taste, depending on the recipe. 

Chili powder: 6 tbsp paprika, 4 tsp oregano, 2 tsp each cumin, turmeric and garlic powder and 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper 

Poultry seasoning: 1 1/2 tsp marjoram, and 1 tsp each thyme, marjoram, rosemary, bay leaves, rosemary and pepper 

Oriental: 1 tsp each ginger, nutmeg and anise, 2 tsp cinnamon and ½ tsp cloves                                   

Fish: 1 1/2 tsp parsley, 1 tsp each onion powder and sage and 1/2 tsp each marjoram and paprika

Pork: 2 tsp parsley and 1 tsp each sage, rosemary, pepper and thyme 

Tomato sauce: 4 tsp basil and 2 tsp each bay leaves, marjoram, oregano and parsley              

For ultra-easy preparation, simply buy pre-mixed seasonings according to cuisine, such as poultry seasoning, Italian seasoning, Cajun/Creole spices, BBQ ready, etc. Be aware that these mixes are often full of salt and limiting.

Michèle Turcotte, MS, RD/LDN
Contributing Expert

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