Herbs vs. Spices

Mint is an herb

Coriander is a spice, cilantro an herb, yet both come from the same plant. Lavendar, basil, rosemary, thyme, sage: herbs. Cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and cardamom are spices. Increasingly, I see the two terms used interchangeably. So what gives? I did some spice sleuthing to get the scoop. Here’s what I found…

A Dictionary

According to Random House a spice is any class of pungent or aromatic substance of vegetable origin, used as a seasoning. Not very helpful since both herbs and spices qualify under this definition. Herbs, however, are flowering non-woody plants that are valued for medicinal properties, flavor, scent, or the like.

A Cookbook

In 1964, authors Avanelle Day and Lillie Stuckey published The Spice Cookbook. Its 1400 simple spice recipes are supported by 80 pages of spicy background. Sure enough, the meaning of “spice” was right on page 63.  The authors point out that in cooking vernacular, “spice” is a catch-all term for all those spices, seeds, herbs, and vegetable seasonings used to flavor food. But if you want to be scientific about it (ahem…like me), “true spices are parts of plants that usually grow in the tropics; herbs are leaves of plants that grow in temperate zones; seeds, such as mustard, caraway and poppy, are actually seeds, or sometimes the fruits of plants that grow either in tropical or temperate zones.” Whew.

Spice Sherpa’s Turn

In general, spices are the dried flowers, fruits, roots or bark (cinnamon) of tropical trees and shrubs. Herbs, by contrast, are always the dried leaves of a flowering plant. That said, there are exceptions. Asafoetida is considered a spice (a very weird one) and it’s the dried exuded sap from the root of a flowering plant. I’ve stumbled across substances given the “spice” label but really come from animals. (e.g. Spanish fly and sperm whale excrement. No joke, the post is here).

While “true spices” have a tightly packaged definition, the common term offers flexibility. But everyone loves categories, so think of it this way: here in Spice Sherpa’s friendly world all herbs are spices, but not all spices are herbs. The same way all reptiles are animals but not all animals are reptiles. Or all shades of green are colors but not all colors are green. Or fruits are food but not all food is a fruit. Got it? Great. Hope it helped or at the very least, entertained you for a few minutes.

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1 denise @ quickies on the dinner table March 11, 2010 at 1:12 pm

I always thought cilantro was the herb – you live and you learn! An informative and enlightening post, as always. Thanks for sharing!

2 Spice Sherpa March 11, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Eeek! How embarrassing! You are absolutely correct..I accidentally swapped those terms! I fixed it. Now I’m really hoping you read this again so you’re not sent out with bad information! But thanks for stopping by.

3 sweetlife March 12, 2010 at 11:38 pm

what a great informative post..I always learn something..thanks


4 The Paris Food Blague March 22, 2010 at 9:51 am

i never knew coriander was considered a spice! thanks for the post…

5 The Paris Food Blague March 22, 2010 at 9:51 am

oops didnt read the comments…

6 Spice Sherpa March 23, 2010 at 5:58 am

The post was corrected as soon as Denise pointed out the mix-up. Coriander is a spice. Cilantro is an herb. Thanks for stopping by and I hope spring in Paris is wonderful for you this year!

7 Stella March 30, 2010 at 6:15 pm

Hmm? Interesting-I don’t know if I will remember it all, but I appreciate the culinary education (smile)!!!

8 Weight Loss Food Plans March 10, 2011 at 12:38 am

Hmmm, sounds like a great way to “spice up” a diet, for sure.

9 Spice Sherpa May 22, 2011 at 8:03 pm

@Weight Loss – Definitely. Spices (and herbs) change up the food flavor giving you a wide array of choices…even with the same vegetable.

10 Rick November 28, 2012 at 5:14 pm

that photo is not of a corriander plant !

11 Spice Sherpa November 28, 2012 at 6:17 pm

@Rick You’re absolutely right. That’s a mint that I had growing in my backyard. I didn’t plan for the photo to match the first word of the post but yes, now I can see how that could be interpreted as a little confusing. My intent was to list a bunch of herbs and spices and used the image to add yet another to that list. Thanks for commenting!

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