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Cooking With Herbs and Spices: Tips and Health Benefits

herbs-spices-cookingby Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., C.D.E.

Legend has it that Charlemagne said an herb is “the friend of physicians and the praise of cooks.” He sure knew what he was talking about, and that was more than 1,200 years ago!

“They’re a great calorie-free way to add depth and incredible health benefits to your favorite dishes,” says registered dietitian Karen Ansel. For example, “chives give us allyl sulfides, the same plant compounds in onions and garlic that likely protect against cancer. Marjoram and mint contain limonene, which may ward off breast cancer.”

Tips for Cooking With Herbs and Spices

For disease prevention, variety and abundance are key. Use a lot of seasonings and use them often. “Allow them to take center stage,” suggests Michelle Dudash, R.D., owner of Chef Dudash Nutrition, a nutritional coaching service in Phoenix. Use ample parsley in tabouli; flavor pasta and vegetables with a cilantro pesto; and feature a red chili sauce on pork or poultry, she says.

Chef Carrie Peacock, R.D., owner of Peacock Personal Chef & Nutrition Consulting in Portland, recommends using both dried and fresh herbs in a single recipe to create a more complex flavor. “I’ll add dried thyme early in the cooking process, and garnish the dish with fresh thyme and fresh lemon thyme. Fabulous,” she says.

Peacock also suggests infusing cooking oils with your favorite herbs or spices. (Learn how to do this in the box to the right.) “Since fats carry flavor, the more flavorful the fat, the less you have to use and the more interesting the dish.”

To get the most flavor from dried herbs, crush them between your palms and add them early in the cooking process, says holistic chef Cindy Hartman, R.D., of San Antonio. Add fresh herbs in the last bit of cooking. And to get the most from your spices, heat them in oil before cooking, she says. Alternatively, toast them in a dry pan on the stove.

Get the cancer fighters in garlic by chopping it several minutes before cooking. “Chop, then stop,” says the American Institute for Cancer Research. Chopping or crushing garlic activates its natural disease-fighting compounds, but heat instantly deactivates them. Allowing the chopped garlic to sit at room temperature for as little as 10 minutes before cooking helps retain most of its health-promoting properties.

Want more? Get tips on using specific herbs and spices here.

JILL WEISENBERGER, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., is a registered dietitian and consultant to the food industry with her company, Jill Weisenberger Health Communications LLC.


Last updated and/or approved: April 2011.
Original article appeared in September/October 2008 former print magazine. Bios current as of that issue. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.
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