A key element of any great recipe is fresh herbs and spices. Both are introduced to recipes to enhance flavor, texture and often color. In Italian cuisine, herbs and spices are just as vital as, say, a spaghetti sauce bib.
Each time you pluck a basil leaf from the potted plant in your windowsill or sprinkle rosemary on your roasted potatoes, you are participating in a tradition that goes back centuries. Herbs link us to the earth and history—both tangibly and metaphorically. Legends about herbs are woven throughout ancient mythology; literature abounds with references to them. Many of the most well-known aromatic herbs grow naturally and abundantly throughout the Italian countryside and are an integral part of its cuisine. These herbs—such as basil, rosemary, oregano, and sage—play an essential role in creating the unique flavors and mystique of Italian food. It’s virtually impossible for an Italian to think of cooking without the addition of their beloved herbs and spices.
Like an unhurried walk through the Italian countryside, it’s a joy to wander through – or skip around – the descriptions, legends, and uses of the various herbs and spices used most often in Italian kitchens. But first, just a brief note to clarify the difference between herbs and spices: Though both are used to add flavor and aroma to food, herbs are obtained from the leafy green parts of a plant; on the other hand, spices are derived from other parts of a plant, such as the seeds, berries, bark, root, fruit and flowers. Also, it is important to note that herbs are often used in larger quantities than spices, which are used more sparingly because of their potency.
Some of the most commonly used herbs and spices in Italian cuisine. Learn more: