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Old 01-05-2011, 08:43 PM   #1
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How do you know what herbs/spices go with what foods?

Hi everyone,

I just joined the forum because I've become much more interested in cooking lately and this seemed like a good place to bounce my questions off others.

I've decided to try to learn cooking from a ground-up type method - instead of just following recipes mechanically like I've done for years without actually learning anything or understanding what I'm doing, I really want to understand the relationship between foods and flavours. Why some things taste amazing while others taste horrible, and why certain flavours mix with certain foods.

I'll start off with my title question: How do you know what herbs and spices go with what foods? What do you base it on??

I know a little bit about this.. I know that for example herbs like basil and oregano go well with tomato sauces, and that things like cumin and cardamom go very nicely in a curry. But I don't know much, so please teach me!

Also, I had a more specific question. Because I'm going with a ground-up approach, I've been trying various foods with only one or two spices instead of combos, because I really want to get a sense of how individual spices taste with different foods, and then how they taste if I add one or two and begin to layer.

I tried this very simple chicken dish the other night, "chicken paprika." I fried some onions and butter, threw in a couple tbsps of paprika, some chicken broth, and then cooked the chicken in it. It was delicious! Soon after, I tried the exact same recipe but with beef instead. And it was pretty bad.

These are the kind of things I want to figure out. Why did the paprika make the chicken so delicious yet did very little to the beef if not worsened its flavour? What are the differences between various meats and how they should be treated in terms of sauces, herbs, spices?

I will stop with the questions now. Any tips, advice, wisdom - greatly appreciated!

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Old 01-05-2011, 09:07 PM   #2
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First of all, beef and paprika go very well together in a Hungarian dish called goulash.

I understand your desire to learn from the ground up, but don't turn your back on centuries of cooking knowledge. We all have learned what goes with what by using existing recipes as a foundation of flavoring successes.

Sage and poultry, lamb and rosemary, etc. Someone else has already done the dirty work.

Find a book on herbs and spices and their uses and experiment with their uses in different combinations. Keep it simple. It doesn't take a lot of different flavors to make a dish great.
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Old 01-05-2011, 09:14 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by custard View Post
Hi everyone,

I just joined the forum because I've become much more interested in cooking lately and this seemed like a good place to bounce my questions off others.

I've decided to try to learn cooking from a ground-up type method - instead of just following recipes mechanically like I've done for years without actually learning anything or understanding what I'm doing, I really want to understand the relationship between foods and flavours. Why some things taste amazing while others taste horrible, and why certain flavours mix with certain foods.

I'll start off with my title question: How do you know what herbs and spices go with what foods? What do you base it on??

I know a little bit about this.. I know that for example herbs like basil and oregano go well with tomato sauces, and that things like cumin and cardamom go very nicely in a curry. But I don't know much, so please teach me!

Also, I had a more specific question. Because I'm going with a ground-up approach, I've been trying various foods with only one or two spices instead of combos, because I really want to get a sense of how individual spices taste with different foods, and then how they taste if I add one or two and begin to layer.

I tried this very simple chicken dish the other night, "chicken paprika." I fried some onions and butter, threw in a couple tbsps of paprika, some chicken broth, and then cooked the chicken in it. It was delicious! Soon after, I tried the exact same recipe but with beef instead. And it was pretty bad.

These are the kind of things I want to figure out. Why did the paprika make the chicken so delicious yet did very little to the beef if not worsened its flavour? What are the differences between various meats and how they should be treated in terms of sauces, herbs, spices?

I will stop with the questions now. Any tips, advice, wisdom - greatly appreciated!
Hi, and welcome!

Herbs and spices are one of my favourite topics EVER. First of all, I was taught long ago that whatever grows together goes together. For example, in the Mediterranean climate wild sages, thymes, oreganos, etc. grow in abundance, not to mention tons of rosemary and lavender. Those types of things go together. Same goes for tomatoes and basil. They go together.

There are some seemingly odd combinations that are amazing (i.e. blue cheese and chocolate sauce for savoury foods). Same with herbs and spices.

I have over 80 spices in my pantry; I buy whatever I can whole, toast and grind them myself for dry rubs, seasoning salts, blends, everything.

I recommend the excellent "Spice and Herb Bible" by Ian Hemphill - I have several books on the topic and I like his best. In the margins beside each thing he is discussing is a list of things that go best with that particular item. He has a section of spice blends in the back, too. For nearly all the herbs/spices he discusses (quite a few!) he includes a recipe.
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Old 01-05-2011, 09:28 PM   #4
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Thanks for the advice guys. @ Andy M: I'm certainly not attempting to disregard age-old recipes, and am definitely using them as a guide. I was more asking not what, but why? It's great to know that goulash with beef and paprika and additional spices is delcious, but I want to understand why did the paprika alone taste excellent with chicken and terrible with beef? I'm trying to get a real core understanding of the meats (and other foods) themselves and what type of flavours compliment them best so I can begin to figure it out and thoroughly understand why, not just memorize information of what goes with what.

@ fricassee: thanks for the tips, and maybe i will check out that book it does sound enticing! (gotta wait for the next paycheque tho... :P)
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Old 01-05-2011, 09:52 PM   #5
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Originally Posted by custard View Post
Thanks for the advice guys. @ Andy M: I'm certainly not attempting to disregard age-old recipes, and am definitely using them as a guide. I was more asking not what, but why? It's great to know that goulash with beef and paprika and additional spices is delcious, but I want to understand why did the paprika alone taste excellent with chicken and terrible with beef? I'm trying to get a real core understanding of the meats (and other foods) themselves and what type of flavours compliment them best so I can begin to figure it out and thoroughly understand why, not just memorize information of what goes with what.

@ fricassee: thanks for the tips, and maybe i will check out that book it does sound enticing! (gotta wait for the next paycheque tho... :P)
When I have more time tomorrow or Friday I will post further info that explains why things work the way they do. One of my food passions is food science so I will help all I can! Another highly recommended book (once you get that paycheque!) is McGee's "On Food and Cooking". It is an excellent reference book that most food people own and love. Until you do get a book or two, read http://www.passionatehomemaking.com/...bs-spices.html
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Old 01-05-2011, 11:04 PM   #6
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Thanks a lot man, I would really appreciate that. I am also incredibly interested in food science - I figure you can have such a deeper and richer understanding of the food you cook if you actually know why it tastes good! (and after all, cooking is chemistry.) I'll keep those two books in mind. Look forward to your wisdomly words. (you can also PM them if you want)
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Old 01-05-2011, 11:06 PM   #7
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oh and i didn't even notice the link! will check it out tomorrow after work.
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Old 01-06-2011, 12:33 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by custard View Post
Thanks a lot man, I would really appreciate that. I am also incredibly interested in food science - I figure you can have such a deeper and richer understanding of the food you cook if you actually know why it tastes good! (and after all, cooking is chemistry.) I'll keep those two books in mind. Look forward to your wisdomly words. (you can also PM them if you want)
Cooking indeed is chemistry! Does it ever help to understand why things work the way they do. I have an extremely insatiable curiosity. It definitely makes me a better cook, both with ingredients and on a technical level. But then I've loved cooking since I was in Grade 1 and believe that somehow it comes naturally to me for which I am thankful. My Mom always has been a poor cook so no help there! I will definitely get you as much info as I can, from one passionate cook to another!
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Old 01-07-2011, 10:20 AM   #9
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I mentioned this to my BFF in Florida and she had a great suggestion. Use the McCormick spice cards and recipes to get a feel for what goes well with what.

It makes sense to get the information from a spice company.
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Old 01-07-2011, 03:30 PM   #10
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Yes, cooking is chemistry. But, also remember that taste is a neurological perception that has absolutely nothing to do with chemicals. So, the capsaicin molecule of hot peppers triggers your taste buds to fire off an electrical charge. The electrical charge cascades through your nervous system, and gets bounced around all over your brain. Whether you feel capsaicin tastes good or not is a function of an individual's neural web, and has nothing to do with the chemical itself.

I think your first experiments with spices and herbs should be approached in converse fashion. Rather than take one spice (paprika), and apply it to different foods (chicken, beef, etc.), you should take one food base and apply different spices. This will give you a better, calibrated sense of what that spice/herb is. So, split a bunch of grape tomatoes in half. On each slice, top with different spice/herb. Eat them analytically, with a palate cleanser of water inbetween. When you do that, you'll have a couple of "aha" moments when you sense that a spice might go well with an x-food, along with some sense of why.
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