Herbs, spices and seasonings pack a powerful culinary punch

By Sean Moon

With a history of use as traditional medicines, herbs and spices are some of the healthiest ingredients you can stock in your pantry. For adding flavour, variety and even ethnic personality to a dish, they can be unsung heroes. And for sheer economic value, they can stretch an operational dollar further than almost any other menu component. From the most basic humble pinches of salt and pepper to the most fiery of chilies and peppers, herbs, spices and seasonings pack a lot of creative punch for chefs looking to develop healthy, flavourful dishes that capture their dining guests’ attention.

Food lovers are always seeking out new taste experiences to delight their ever-more discriminating palates. In response, chefs are incorporating a growing number of unique seasonings to add flavour, aroma or even a healthy kick to their dishes. Whether it is the wide array of components used in many ethnic dishes (such as Indian or Caribbean) or experimentation as a result of the influence of TV cooking shows, herbs, spices and other seasonings are proving themselves to be the essential building blocks for many a culinary masterpiece.

A growing trend

“As food lovers continue to seek out healthy yet flavourful foods, the increased use of herbs and spices to flavour dishes is a trend that will only continue to grow,” says Whitney Cottingham, product manager, Food Service Division, at McCormick Canada. “Combining herbs and spices with intriguing health-halo ingredients can also go a long way towards amping up the wellness factor of your meals. Consumers are also looking for bigger, bolder flavours, and are interested in more intense versions of familiar flavours to create new taste experiences.”

Cottingham says Canadians of all ages continue to fall more in love with ingredients such as chili peppers, eagerly exploring all the variations in flavours, formats and heat levels chilies have to offer.

“This is an exciting time for chefs to innovate in using herbs and spices to further elevate their creations across all dayparts,” says Cottingham. “Using spices and herbs in creative ways can add excitement and innovation to parts of the meal that could be normally overlooked, such as vegetables, sides, condiments or sauces. A little extra flavour in an overlooked meal part can positively change a guest’s perception of the entire meal.”

Driving factors

According to Cottingham, innovative and creative use of herbs, spices and seasonings is being driven by several factors including:

  • An increased focus on healthy eating;
  • The accelerated acceptance of new flavour trends, as consumers are exposed to them virtually everywhere they turn – social media, food trucks, TV shows, blogs, travel, and so on; and
  • Increased exposure to global flavours through regional and ethnic diversity, along with more open-minded customers.

“As diners become more adventurous, their palates will demand bolder, more intense flavour experiences and since spices and herbs play such a critical role in the flavour delivery of many global cuisines, exploring different spices and spice blends will be critical for chefs to make their menus well-travelled,” says Cottingham.

Expanding the use of seasonings beyond the lunch and dinner dayparts is also leading to more experimentation with items such as breakfast items, desserts and beverages. In light of this, Cottingham believes there is still a lot of unexplored territory when it comes to the wide world of herbs, spices and seasonings.

“Savoury spices are finding their way into sweet desserts, and flavours traditionally associated with breakfast or desserts are showing up in main courses. In our kitchens, we have tested spiced date cake accented with a shawarma-inspired blend of coriander seeds, allspice, cinnamon, cumin, ginger, and turmeric – bringing warm, savoury spices to the dessert category. We have also combined turmeric, cocoa, cinnamon and nutmeg into a banana milkshake and realized that a touch of cardamom mixed into blueberry compote can elevate a simple waffle! Chilies in a chocolate cake or vanilla in a brown butter sauce for gnocchi are some other ideas. Herbs and spices are versatile and can bring full flavour to any chef’s creative recipes.”

Flavour trends to watch

Blends with benefits: Flavourful herbs and spices add everyday versatility to good-for-you ingredients like matcha and chia.

  • Matcha Green Tea: Ginger and citrus balance the slightly bitter notes of matcha
  • Flaxseed: Mediterranean herbs invite flax to savoury dishes
  • Chia Seed: Chia becomes zesty when combined with citrus, chili and garlic
  • Turmeric: Discover sweet possibilities when turmeric is blended with cocoa, cinnamon and nutmeg

Ancestral flavours: Modern dishes reconnect with native ingredients to celebrate food that tastes real, pure and satisfying.

  • Ancient Herbs: Rediscover thyme, peppermint, parsley, lavender and rosemary
  • Amaranth: An ancient grain of the Aztecs with a nutty, earthy flavour
  • Mezcal: Smoky Mexican liquor made from the agave plant

Tropical Asian: Adventurous palates seek flavours from new regions. Two spots in Southeast Asia—Malaysia and the Philippines—offer distinctive ingredients and signature recipes for vibrant fare.

  • Pinoy BBQ: Popular Filipino street food flavoured with soy sauce, lemon, garlic, sugar, pepper and banana ketchup
  • Rendang Curry: Malaysian spice paste with mild heat made from chilies, lemongrass, garlic, ginger, tamarind, coriander and turmeric

Above information courtesy McCormick Canada, 2016 Flavour Forecast

Sean Moon is the managing editor of Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News.