What's the difference between herbs and spices?

April 21, 2016, 6 a.m.
herbs and spices in bowls.
Photo: Andrii Gorulko/Shutterstock

These flavorful ingredients are the key to exceptional cooking, but how do we know when we're working with an herb or a spice?

While both are used to boost the flavor of foods or even to help with illnesses and ailments, the difference between the two is what part of the plant they come from.

Herbs are the leaves of the plant, such as rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, or cilantro. Spices, on the other hand, come from the non-leafy parts, including roots, bark, berries, flowers, seeds and so on. This would include cinnamon, star anise, ginger, turmeric, and pepper.

"Essentially, any part of the plant that is not a leaf and can be used for seasoning would fall into the spice category," clarifies The Kitchn.

Sometimes a plant can produce both an herb an a spice. Cilantro leaves are an herb while the seeds, coriander, are a spice. Dill weed also produces seeds that are used as a spice while the leaves are used as an herb.

Simple, right? Well, there may be a small hitch to this easy definition. Fooducate specifies, "[A]ccording to the American Spice Trade Association, spices are defined as 'any dried plant product used primarily for seasoning purposes'. This really broadens the definition of spices, allowing it to include herbs, dehydrated veggies, spice blends and spice seeds."

Of course, a trade association wouldn't mind broadening a definition to include more products! Just know that if you're ever asked the difference between herbs and spices, you have a simple way to explain the distinction.

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