Expert Q&A

5 herbs and spices questions answered

Pamela Clark answers all your spice and herb questions.

Q: Can I substitute dry herbs for fresh?
A: As a rough guide, dried (not ground) herbs can be used in the proportion of one to four, i.e., use 1 teaspoon of dried herbs instead of four teaspoons chopped fresh herbs. However, this depends on the actual recipe and the pungency and freshness of both dried and fresh herbs.
Q: What is the difference between sea salt and rock salt, and in what instance should you use each?
A: Rock salt is the lowest grade salt you can buy – you would use it as a cooling agent only (salt lowers the freezing point of ice, so it absorbs heat from anything around it, keeping things cooler for longer). It is the sort of salt you see oysters served on. It is very strong in flavour and completely unrefined. Sea salt flakes are harvested from salt plains (evaporated sea water) and have a much more subtle flavour. It includes very small amounts of other minerals, so you can’t really use it for preserving food. It is the best salt to use on the dinner table as a last minute seasoning for food. It is also good to cook with.
Q: What is the difference between sweet, hot and smoked paprika?
A: The word paprika is actually a derivation of the Latin word for pepper, “piper”, and the spice is one of the many fruits belonging to the capsicum species. Hungarians grow more than 40 variations of the varieties of capsicum fruit used to form paprika. Each of the six Hungarian paprika types (fiery hot, hot, medium sharp, semi-sweet, sweet and exquisite delicate) is produced from a different permutation of the capsicum. Spain grows a different type of large, round capsicum called a pimenton that can be sun-dried or smoked before being ground. It is sold as three individual paprika – dulce (sweet), agridulce (semi-sweet) and picante (spicy hot). As for usage, the sweeter or more delicately flavoured paprikas are usually mainly for colouring, with a hint of flavour while the heat of the spicy paprika is for the cook who likes this flavourful seasoning to dominate the dish.
Q: Are allspice and mixed spice the same thing?
A: No, allspice, also known as pimento or Jamaican pepper, is a berry, so-named because it tastes like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, and cloves – all spices. The berries, dark brown in colour and about the size of a pea, are the dried, unripe fruits of a tropical evergreen tree native to Jamaica. It can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes and is available ground or whole. Ground allspice should not be confused with mixed spice, which is much milder and sweeter in flavour. Mixed spice is a classic mixture containing cumin, caraway, allspice, coriander, nutmeg and ginger, although cinnamon and other spices can be added. It is used in sweet dishes such as fruit cakes, fruit pies, biscuits and a lot of sweet, baked items.
Q: How do you use a vanilla bean pod?
A: To use a vanilla bean pod, cut the bean in half, length-wise and scrape out the seeds and pulp; add this, along with the pod, to the liquid and stand for the specified amount of time. The pods can then be removed. Wash the pods in cool water, dry them thoroughly, then put them into a container where you store sugar (usually caster sugar) for baking. This way, you’ll always have some vanilla-flavoured sugar on hand. Some recipes call for whole pods, in this case, the pods can be washed in cool water after use, dried thoroughly and used again.

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