By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Food is a big part of growing up Italian—both eating it and cooking it. I learned my way around the kitchen from my father and grandfather, who were both amazing cooks. And when I was old enough to cook on my own, I embraced it with abandon.
I’m a big believer that, with a little practice, anyone can learn to make great meals. Part of that learning process, though, is figuring out how to use herbs and spices. These flavor enhancers can be the difference between a dinner that’s just okay and one that people can’t stop talking about!
I also like herbs and spices because they bring a lot to the table healthwise. For example, they—
- Contain antioxidant flavonoids and polyphenols, which help boost the body’s ability to neutralize free radicals and keep inflammation under control
- Get their distinctive aromas from essential oils that contain compounds shown to help protect against infection from bacteria, fungi, and viruses
- Contain additional vitamins and minerals that increase the nutritional value of a meal without a lot of bulk or calories
- Have a long history of use in traditional medicine, for everything from heart disease to hemorrhoids
13 Must-Have Herbs and Spices for Your Cupboard
Adding more herbs and spices to your cooking may involve some trial and error, but it will be well worth it—for both your taste buds and your overall health. If you’re not sure where to start, go with these 13:
I love, love, love turmeric… the spice which gives yellow curry powder its distinctive color. It contains a compound called curcumin, which has powerful anti-inflammatory healing potential. Some researchers believe the predominance of curry in the Indian diet explains why there is so little arthritis or Alzheimer’s disease there, compared with the U.S. Curcumin has a long history as an anti-inflammatory agent in Chinese and Indian medicine, and has proven itself in numerous clinical studies. Here’s more on why it’s so healthy, and a Turmeric Milk recipe I hope you enjoy.
Oregano contains vitamins A, B6, C, E, and K, as well as magnesium, and potassium, and there’s even some evidence that suggests oregano oil may be helpful in fighting MRSA—but mostly we know it because it makes pizza taste great!
How to use it: Add oregano to rubs, marinades, and sauces—and of course, homemade pizza.
If you think parsley is just decorative, think again. It’s also a great source of vitamin K and has been linked with lower blood sugar, less insulin resistance, and may even have some anti-cancer properties.
How to use it: Blend a few parsley sprigs into your morning smoothie, top off a breakfast omelet, or mix parsley into salads. I use it for extra flavor in my signature pasta sauce!
Thyme is rich in vitamin C, which makes it a good immune booster. If you still get sick, though, don’t worry—thyme also can help stop coughing and soothe sore throats. It also can help protect against food-borne pathogens.
How to use it: Add thyme to rubs and marinades, or steep it as a tea.
One of the top health benefits of cumin is its ability to stimulate good digestion. You’ll find cumin as a seed or a yellow-brown powder, and it can be eaten either way.
How to use it: Cumin is a staple in many curry recipes, but it can also add flavor to stews, chili, and meats.
Technically, garlic is a root vegetable, but most people use it as a spice. I like garlic for its ability to help lower blood pressure, balance cholesterol levels, and thin the blood.
How to use it: Include as much fresh garlic as you can handle in seasonings and sauces. Eating it raw is best. As garlic is chopped, crushed, or chewed, a sulfur compound in it called alliin combines with the enzyme alliinase to form allicin—garlic’s most medicinal compound. Unfortunately, heat deactivates allicin. If you’re on a prescription blood thinner, don’t go overboard with garlic. It can combine with those meds to excessively thin your blood.
Onions belong to the same vegetable family as garlic, so they share many of the same health benefits. They’re also rich in quercetin, a micronutrient that’s been associated with reducing allergy symptoms.
How to use it: For maximum benefit, eat onions raw, in sandwiches, salads, or salsas. If you have to cook onions, use low heat, which will preserve the integrity of quercetin. Onions also can be simmered in soups.
If you like spices that bring the heat, cayenne is a must. Capsaicin—the compound that makes cayenne hot—is linked with lower blood pressure, and may be able to help you lose weight, too. Too much cayenne can harm cellular DNA, though, so limit eating hot peppers to once a week.
How to use it: Add a dash or two of cayenne to soups, stews, or teas, or use it to spice up omelets and marinades.
Rosemary is especially healthy when cooking meat. High heat—such as frying, broiling, or grilling—can cause the formation of carcinogens called heterocyclic amines (HCAs); however, the carnosic and rosemarinic acids in rosemary can help prevent HCAs from forming.
How to use it: Add more rosemary to your diet by marinating meats and poultry in chopped, fresh rosemary before cooking, or add fresh rosemary to salads and sauces.
Most people think of these two herbs as separate things, but they’re actually different parts of the same plant—cilantro is the leaves, coriander the seeds. In addition to being high in beta-carotene, cilantro is terrific for supporting detoxification, since it can help remove mercury from the body.
How to use it: Add cilantro to tacos, homemade guacamole, or this favorite recipe, black bean salad. I also love to add chopped cilantro to high-protein pasta with marinara sauce!
In traditional medicine, healers have used basil for everything from headaches to digestive and liver ailments. I like it for its ability to thin the blood and relax blood vessels.
How to use it: Basil is the main ingredient in pesto sauce. It’s a favorite with pasta, but it also can be paired with meats, spread on sandwiches, or mixed with veggies. You can also infuse basil in extra virgin olive oil, and eat it with salads.
This seasoning, which looks like celery but tastes similar to licorice, will add potassium, folate, and fiber to your diet. One study has shown that fennel also may suppress appetite, which is good news if you’re trying to lose weight.
How to use it: Add fennel to soups and salads, or roast or sauté as a side dish.
Salt, Pepper, and Sel Gris (Gray Salt)
Even with all of these other spices in the kitchen, there’s still room for good ole salt and pepper. Black pepper, especially, can help make nutrients in other foods easier for the body to absorb and use.
Don’t fall victim to the notion that you should cut salt from your diet, either. You need some salt in order for your body to function properly. Just make sure it’s a healthy salt—not a highly processed one—and that you hit the “sweet spot” for salt intake.
I know this has been a long list, but give the spices a try one at a time until you know what you like. Just remember this: Whenever you cook with spices, a little goes a long way—so start with a pinch here and a dash there. As you gain confidence, you’ll gradually start mixing and matching. Before you know it, you’ll be on your way to becoming a great cook yourself!
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