How would you answer if I asked your question “What do you think are the top 5 herbs used in a home kitchen?” Many herbs would immediately spring to mind – oregano, parsley, ginger, rosemary, turmeric, thyme, basil, marjoram, cardamon, garlic and chilli. Perhaps not chilli, but as soon as you start to think about spices associated with a good curry, chilli would probably be the first spice you would think of.
Spices are also classified as herbs as both herbs and spices come from plants. Herbs tend to be from the fresh part of the plant – leaf and flower, while spices tend to be the root, bark, berries and seeds.
Herbs whether used dried or fresh, are a fabulous addition to home cooked dishes added during the cooking process as well chopped or roughly torn and then sprinkled on at the end to give that final touch that gets the taste buds stimulated through the mouth-watering appearance of the final dish. Common fresh herb garnishes include mint, fresh coriander, parsley and dill and for desserts nuts and seeds of various kinds as well as things like blanched orange and lemon rind, lavender and rose petals.
Here are some of my favourite herbs that are always available in my kitchen cupboard ready to be used liberally depending on what I am cooking that day. All these herbs and spices lend themselves well to any diet, whether paleo, keto, vegan or just what happens to be in the fridge type diet.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Thyme belongs to the Lamiaceae family. A commonly used, versatile herb that is added to many meals and dishes, such as stews, casseroles and breads. It can also be left to infuse in vinegars and oils that are then used to make dressings as well as flavour foods. Most herbs within the Lamiaceae family are rich in aromatic essential oils. It is often the essential oil that is the active constituent of the herb, in the case of thyme, thymol and carvacrol which are both antiseptic as well as antibacterial helping to relieve colds and flu by releasing them from the lungs, sinuses and airways. Thyme is also an antispasmodic, relaxing and opening up the airways while also calming the digestive tract.
Try head steaming with dried or fresh thyme in the boiled water, you will find when inhaled that the aromatic steam relieves pressure in the head and helps to expectorate any phlegm sitting in the lungs while addressing any bacteria present.
Ginger (Zingeber officinalis)
Ginger, a member of the Zingiberaceae family, is warming and pungent. The main constituents shogaols, formed as the plant dries, are more intense and acrid, which is why you need less when using dried ginger root or powder. The other constituent are gingerols and are mostly responsible for the herbs hot taste and stimulating actions, stimulating circulation, including peripheral arterial circulation, making it a primary choice for improving all forms of circulatory inefficiencies, while also easing congestion throughout the body. This is an ideal herb if you generally feel the cold.
Ginger is also well known for the treatment of nausea and motion as well as morning sickness, decreasing the severity of both nausea and vomiting when taken regularly as a tea. A slice of fresh ginger can be added to other teas to increase the flavour or simply used on its own to provide these benefits. Adding it into your cooking to flavour savoury dishes, such as meat and vegetable curries, casseroles, porridge and various cakes will also help the body deal with nausea
As a warming herb it can relieve painful musculoskeletal conditions, encourages and increases perspiration. It is helpful during a fever to improve peripheral circulation and if airways are blocked, ginger can increase blood supply to the mucosa and loosen any mucus congestion.
As if that wasn’t enough, ginger is also a digestive and carminative herb that is able to activate digestive enzymes to increase and aid complete digestion. When taken as a tea is can relieve feelings of over-eating, indigestion, gas and bloating.
Cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum spp.)
Cinnamon, a member of the Lauraceae family is similar to ginger in that it has warming qualities, as well as having a drying effect and can be used in almost the same way as ginger for digestive problems and for the treatment of colds and flu. The flavour is sweet as opposed to acrid and that tells a lot about the action of this spice in reducing blood sugar levels and aiding weight loss by dampening sugar cravings.
There is evidence that cinnamon reduces resistance to insulin, decreases inflammatory markers, and lowers glucose, lipids, and blood pressure in people with ‘metabolic syndrome’ (‘insulin resistance’ or pre-diabetic state) (1).
Cinnamon’s medicinal value is largely due to the volatile oils cinnamaldehyde and eugenol which have antiviral, antiseptic, antispasmodic and carminative actions making it effective for any condition where cold is indicated. For example, respiratory infections, joint pain and most digestive problems caused by too much cold or digestive problems associated with fatigue and generally feeling run down, as well as for anyone who is convalescing.
Sprinkle liberally on cereal, add to porridge, overnight oats, stewed fruit, bottled fruit, fruit pies, chutneys and curries. Simply make cinnamon tea with the bark by infusing and then gently heating before drinking.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), also part of the Lamiaceae family is a hardy Mediterranean shrub that not only looks gorgeous, smells divine but has many health benefits in addition to it being a wonderful herb for flavouring lamb, adding to stews and casseroles, to breads, muffins, as well as for flavouring desserts. Both aromatic and bitter it can be used to stimulate the appetite, digestion and absorption as well as for calming irritation and inflammation. Beautifully versatile!
Active constituents include volatile oils borneol, camphene, camphor and cineole which are analgesic and stimulating. Rosemary, is commonly thought of for improving memory as it increases blood flow to the head and brain heightening, concentration and memory. It raises the spirits, eases headaches and migraine. Also, restorative it can aid recovery from long-term stress and chronic illness.
Used in an infuser, it can uplift the spirits, aid concentration and increase memory. It is perfect for long revision days and nights and a much better alternative to caffeine! Studies have shown that used daily, memory and cognitive function in the elderly improved significantly. (2)
Rosemary stimulates the appetite and improves absorption, as well as aiding digestion of fats and helping both hepatic and cellular detoxification. Tannins present in rosemary protect the gut lining from irritation and inflammation.
Used externally as an infused oil it is excellent for respiratory problems and catarrhal congestion. It can be used on aching muscles to soothe muscle and joint pain, sciatica, neuralgia, and arthritis. Rubbed into the scalp it can cure head lice as well as stimulate hair growth. The oil can be applied to the temples to relieve tension headaches, stress and drowsiness.
You can now see why rosemary is the preferred herb for flavouring lamb as it breaks down fat, increases absorption of vitamins and minerals as well as aiding digestion.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
This aromatic, bitter and cooling herb is commonly found in the kitchen for adding into sauces, chopping up and sprinkling on top of cooked vegetables, fish and meat dishes. A member of the Apiaceae family, its medicinal uses are indicated primarily within the urinary tract and the kidneys. Containing volatile oils, myristicin and apiole, as well as flavonoids that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant actions.
Parsley is also a digestive herb, the myristicin and apiole have diuretic properties as being able to calm an over-active digestive system where there is pain and muscle cramping, acting as an anti-spasmodic to relieve flatulence, colic and digestive spasms.
An effective diuretic, encouraging the elimination of excessive water and toxic heat from the body. The stimulating properties of apiole in parsley is helpful in conditions such as kidney stones and jaundice, where the flow of blood and bile is in some way inhibited, influencing the build-up of inflammation within the urinary tract. (Note, for kidney issues always consult a doctor).
Parsley is a nourishing herb containing a rich source of vitamins A, C and E and also contains high levels of iron aiding in the treatment of anaemia. The whole of parsley can be eaten, with the exception of the root and is a very tasty addition when chopped and added to salads, soups, stews, on steamed vegetables, in sauces as well as added to butter for use on crackers and toast. Or if you prefer simply wash and eat as it is!
Note: Always consult a medical herbalist if you are pregnant before supplementing with herbs or eating excess amounts of a fresh herb.
(1) Medagama, A.B. (2015). The glycaemic outcomes of Cinnamon, a review of the experimental evidence and clinical trials. Nutrition Journal, [online] 14(1). doi:10.1186/s12937-015-0098-9.
(2) Pengelly A, Snow J, Mills SY, et al. (2012) Short-term study on the effects of rosemary on cognitive function in an elderly population. J Med Food. 15(1): 10-17
Dispensing with Tradition, Anne McIntyre, Michelle Boudin
Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, Andrew Chevalier