Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.

Miscellaneous QandA

Is the spice sage the same sage as the Native Americans use to smoke or for smudge? LS

The sage we cook with is known botanically as Salvia officinalis. The Native Americans would have used sagebrush, a type of Artemisia native to the North American west and not particularly delicious.


Is Lavender a good moth repellant? SG

Turns out it is. I found lots of articles around the web about using the flowers as a satchel or soaking cotton balls in lavender oil.


I've looked everywhere on the net on how to make rosewater. They all say it has to be refrigerated. But people sell it online... how do they do that if it has to be refrigerated? Is there something I can add when I make mine to preserve it? Having trouble w/ rosewater perfume recipes too. Help!! MS

This is a bit out of my league, but I do have an idea. The bottle of rosewater I have, which is food-grade, lists the contents as distilled rosewater and natural flavors. I suspect there is something in the distillation process that makes it shelf stable. However, it's not clear whether it is the essential oil from distilled rose petals added to water or if the rosewater is distilled. Again, I'm not sure but it might be worth investigating the use of rose oil instead of fresh petals to make your rosewater have a longer life.

Can horseradish leaves be substituted for alum, and if so, how? C

Sometimes the things I learn from this Q&A business amaze me. I thought your question was a little crazy. Turns out quite a few people use horseradish or grape leaves to keep pickles crisp. Does it work? I do not know. I recommend you seek out someone who is a canning specialist, perhaps at your county extension office, to find out how to use them.


Terrific site – especially for those of us who are newbies! Mom prudently and prophetically taught us to “waste not, want not.” I have saved the dill flower on the stem. I’ve not seen any reference to the stem being edible, inedible, OR toxic. Is there a good/wise reason to avoid using/eating the stem? Is it toxic? The Dill Stem is visually intriguing and fragrant. If I get the green light from you, I plan to diagonally cut the stems into small pieces and mix the pieces with the blooms/seeds. BB

Dill stems won't hurt you by any means but they may be rather unpalatable. I've noticed this is the case with basil stems (see the article "A Bounty of Basil: How to Preserve the Harvest" for more info). The best way to decide if you want to include them with your seeds is to give one a nibble.


Hi; I bought Tumeric organic spice. As a first time user, how do you use it. Is it best on vegetables, rice or meats. How much curcumin should the tumeric powder contain to be at its best? Thank you for your reply. HGS

Read everything I know about the subject at "All About Turmeric." Without the power of chemistry I can't imagine how you would find out the curcumin content. I did a little surfing and learned that it is usually between 3 and 4 percent of the dry weight.


We had a garden in Kansas and raised dill. I have a gallon jar, sealed tightly, with the seed & stalk. It still smells like dill, but it has been 14 years. My husband says use it, but I'm afraid to although it still smells like dill. What would be your suggestion? EJR

Fourteen years is a long time. I don't think it would hurt you to eat it but if it makes you uncomfortable, why would you?


I'm looking for a baked bean recipe that was in a Schilling cookbook (maybe McCormich/Schilling) that belonged to my grandmother. I'm sure the book was probably printed in 1930 to 1940, maybe into the early '50's. The recipe called for coffee and pineapple juice, but I can't remember the rest of the ingredients. I lost the book years ago while moving. This is my husband's favorite recipe and I would love to have the book or the recipe again. Thank you very much. MC

I did a little research and didn't come up with anything. You could go to the McCormick website. They have a section where you can write to them with questions.


I too, have a recipe for a playdough that calls for Alum. Is there a substitute? I didn't see anything listed in your article. Thank You LH

There isn't a substitute for alum in the playdough but you can just omit it. It's added as a preservative to make the dough last longer but can cause intestinal distress if ingested.


Please help! I have a bean sprouter, & always have success with this, except in the case of Fenugreek! I water, shake & drain my sprouting seeds twice a day (my sprouter has 3 layers) but, no matter what I try, Fenugreek will NOT sprout for me, but rather turns into a mucousy gunge! Could I add the dry seeds to soups, & if so, how much would I add? Thank you most kindly, PG

Hey, cool! I never thought about sprouting fenugreek. You do want to be sure that you are using seeds specifically bred for sprouting. If you are using those sold as a spice they may be irradiated which could prevent sprouting. The sproutpeople website has step by step instructions for fenugreek seeds. The seeds would be more palatable in recipes if they were ground first. See "All About Fenugreek" for more information.


Here's one that's full of our favorite recipes because we wrote the book! It is also full of information, helpful hints and ideas for using herbs and spices in your kitchen.

No where have I heard what saffron tastes like, except that it is bitter. I know turmeric subs as a color but are there any subs for saffron for it tastes? Thanks, C

The flavor of saffron is so unusual that it is hard to describe. Some call it flowery or spicy. McCormick and Company says its taste "strong perfume and bitter honey-like." One of the reasons it is so expensive is because there is absolutely no substitute for its flavor.


Hi. While using some paprika, I noticed it had a lot of little brown bugs in it. I threw the container away immediately, but I did use it a couple of days ago in another one of my meals, so my family may have ingested some of these bugs. Should we be concerned? The paprika was used while the food was cooking, so I'm thinking that whatever bugs that got into the food got cooked as well. Great website! VH

I'm no doctor but I suppose if they were going to make you sick, it would have happened already. You might want to contact your local health department to make sure.


Dear Sandra & the "Pinch Of" Staff, The webpage about horseradish mentioned the leaves were used in Dutch & German kitchens. Could you tell me how the leaves are used? For example, are the leaves hardy enough to replace the collard greens I usually add to my soups and stews? Or are they more like spinach, good as salad greens and shrinking when cooked? What types of greens would one substitute horseradish leaves for? I would be interested in seeing a recipe you or your family & friends like that includes leaves from the horseradish plant. Many thanks! Sign me - First Time Grower of Horseradish.

I haven't actually grown horseradish myself so I can't give firsthand answers. My research indicates that only the small young leaves are used and most frequently in salads. I will ask around in the little Dutch community where I live to see if I can find any recipes. If I do, I'll post them here.


Can you tell me how peppercorns grow - whether on a bush or a tree? CD

Peppercorns grow on a vine. Find out more at "All About Peppercorns."


We live on the west coast of Vancouver Island in Canada and at present there are crocuses blooming. We are wondering if their stamens can be dried and used as saffron for cooking. ER

The only edible crocus in the one that produces saffron: crocus sativus. You are likely seeing some sort of a hybrid there in your neighborhood and those flowers are not at all fit for human consumption. I found a nice group of photos to help you identify the different types on this wikimedia page.


Can you tell me if you or any of your readers have heard that paprika heals skin wounds? I know a gentleman that swears during World War II in Europe they have him paprika to apply to leg wounds. Thanks JP

My own sources cite paprika and other peppers as good for internal issues but doesn't mention external uses. I'll open it up to the readership...

I bought a jar of sun-dried tomatoes in oil recently and when I opened the jar, although the top popped, the contents fizzed up and over the sides of the jar. I discarded the contents, but wondered if the fizzing meant there was something wrong with the contents or is this normal? I have read that botulism can be a problem with garlic in oil, and there was garlic listed on the ingredients list. JW

Yikes! I would say the fizzing was a definite indicator that something went wrong in the canning process. It was most likely the tomatoes rather than the garlic but it is due to the same problem: too much moisture giving botulism a place to grow.


I have been growing 4 trees which were given to me as seeds. I was told that they were nutmeg, but upon researching nutmeg, these trees in no way resemble it! The leaves bear a slight resemblance to marijuana leaves, have red blooms which produce a round seed which is first green and as it grows turns yellow. Within this contains 4 seeds. Do you know what this could be? Thanks for any help, R

You're right, that's not nutmeg as we know it. Your best bet would be to snip a branch with leaves and flowers and take it to a local nursery that specializes in trees. Maybe they can help you identify it.


Is Cuban oregano edible? Are there photos and descriptions of all varieties? Is it true there are 40 varieties?

Cuban oregano is indeed edible. Read more about it and finds links to photographs in the article "Herb of the Year 2005: Oregano, Family and Friends."


Can you tell me the actual dry measurement in a packet of Sazon Goya - Culantro y Achiote? DS

I can't tell you the "actual" measurement but I will venture a guess. Weighing out 1.4 ounces of Kosher salt came to 2 Tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons. I'll bet this is close.


My question is: How many crocus does it take to yield one gram of Saffron? thank you DF

It takes 70,000 flowers to produce a pound of saffron. According to my calculations it would take about 150 flowers to produce one gram. No wonder the stuff is so expensive!


Here is a story your site and readers may enjoy: When my grandchild Ruby was 3 years old, she overheard a conversation I was having with her mother one morning. Mother asked me to sniff the odor of a new herbal medication she had been prescribed; I told her it smelled like asafoetida. At which Ruby piped up to say, No it doesn't, it smells like fenugreek. her mother and I burst out laughing--was there another 3 year old in the US who knew what fenugreek smells like? But the she lives in San Francisco, the land of infant gourmets. MN

Thanks for sharing your story with us. I can't help but wonder how many grown-ups in the US know what fenugreek smells like.


I am looking for instructions about how long fruits are good for after being frozen. My big question is will dry ice prevent the berries from thawing mushy. SM

You can store fruits for up to a year in the freezer. Since the changes to the berries texture takes place upon freezing because of the water in them expanding, I don't think using dry ice would would make much difference.


I wish Portuguese was on your herbs list! Thanks JG

Ah, wishes really do come true. See "Another Multi-Lingual Herb and Spice Index" for Portuguese as well as Russian, Dutch, Japanese and Chinese.


What happens to the nutritional content of bananas once frozen? JJ

Seems to me it would stay the same since you aren't changing anything but the texture.


Selderij (Dutch) is definitely not celery seed (English). The latter is a seed, selderij is a leafy herb which I think originates in the Mediterranean. It is used a lot in soups in Holland. If you would like to see pictures of selderij just type it into Google. I would like to know the correct English name though as this is what I was looking for. MA

The pictures that you directed me to are called celery in English.


I would like to know what kind of rice you put into spice containers to stop clumping. Does it need to be whole rice or can you use instant rice? CJ

It is the starch in the rice that attracts the moisture away from the salt. Probably either raw or instant rice would work but I would guess the starch content is higher in the raw grains.


Hi. I just read your spiel on Mexican Oregano, quoting Lippia Graveolens as the botanical name. While this is the most common reference, I've also seen plenty of references in internet searches to Poliomintha Longiflora being called Mexican Oregano (and I think I've even seen a third botanical name used, maybe another Poliomintha...?). Are you able to shed any light on this discrepancy for me...? Thanks, JL

Once again, I learn something from answering questions. Our source this time is Diana Kennedy in The Art of Mexican Cooking: " In the North there is a long-leafed oregano (Poliomintha longiflora), in Oaxaca a much milder minty-tasting one (Lippia germinata or Lippia berlandieri), while in the Yucatan the oregano has a much larger leaf and when dried turns a dark tobacco brown." Although she makes no reference to it, I suppose this last type is the one referred to as Lippia Graveolens.


I had stored some table salt in my basement. It is very damp and didn't realize how damp it was. The box of salt very damp and was as hard as a rock. I needed it for a canning recipe, so I tried to use it anyway. I am trying to dry it out in a large bowl in the sun. Do you have any other suggestions? Thank you so much. I love your website. LF

I don't know of anything other than dry air and time that will help your salt. As inexpensive as most salts are, it might be worth the savings in your time and effort to just buy a new box.


Can you tell me the name of the herb, spice or plant that smells like curry. Thank you. JW

There is a plant called "Curry Plant" and the leaves actually do smell like curry.  Fenugreek leaves, sometimes called methi, are said to have a fragrance that is similar to curry. You can find more information about it as a spice at "All About Fenugreek."


I would like to know what McCormick spices are used in stuffed potholders? BL

Stuffed potholders are a new idea to me so I don't really have a "recipe" so to speak. Any combination of the aromatic spices, whole or coarsely crushed, would release a subtle fragrance when meeting the heat. Another idea might be to use a pot-pourri mix.


I have several pepper trees that have many clusters of Peppercorns. Are these safe to dry and use as pepper? Thanks SN

I would love to see your pepper trees! I wonder where you live? One thing, however, pepper as in black and white peppercorns grow on a vine. The Jamaican pepper, also known as pimento or allspice, does grow on a tree. Rather than give you unsound advice, I suggest you contact an agricultural expert in your local area who can tell you how to preserve and use what you have.


I just wanted to find out which countries sesame seeds are imported from. Thanks. M

China is the largest exporter of sesame seeds. India, Mexico and the US also grow major crops.


I was wondering if you know if any varieties of mint are toxic to Parakeets. I am thinking of adding mint to my indoor herb garden and just want to know for sure if its toxic or not. Thank you. LC

I'm no expert on parakeets so I refer you to this site. It has pages and pages all about the care and feeding of the little birds.


I have a jar of granulated garlic. I usually use fresh garlic when I cook. I was planning on giving the granulated to my dog. Does granulated garlic have the same exact health benefits as the fresh. Or does it lose something when it is dehydrated. SS

I'm sure some of the health benefits are reduced during dehydration. Studies are still being conducted on all the advantages of garlic. Check out the article Herb of the Year 2004: Good Old Garlic for plenty of links to read more about the research.


I happened to see your website in search of Chinese herb names. Though I couldn't find what I wanted but I saw your question on what "hsiang" means. "Hsiang" or "xiang" means fragrance or aroma, it is used as a pre-fix or post-fix in Chinese words that mean spices add fragrance to food or body. Hope this is useful to your understanding of some Chinese characters. Best regards,GLI

Thanks for answering the question I had in "Another Multi-Lingual Herb and Spice Index."

What spice can be used to substitute juniper berry? JB

Juniper berry is a such a distinctive flavor (rather like gin) that I don't think you will get that taste from any other plant. Depending on the recipe, you might try adding a bit of gin or just leaving it out all together. You could also try going for a different flavor like marjoram, thyme or rosemary, again depending on your recipe.


I just purchased a bag of Menudo Mix (oregano, onion, chile & lemon peel. ) thinking it was for salads. After looking at it I am wondering if that is it's proper use. Can you help me? Thank you, JH

Your menudo mix sounds like a nice mixture of herbs for a soup or a salad. The traditional menudo is a spicy stew made of tripe (animal stomach lining) and hominy (lye-soaked corn).  Some folks swear by it as a hangover cure.


I am trying to find the research that says why people have an aversion to the taste of cilantro...I understand it is because those with an aversion do not produce the enzyme necessary to digest it, hence it tastes like soapy. Can you help? JJ

You already know more about it than I do! Although I have often quoted this fact, I never thought about the science behind it.  Now I'm curious and will look for more information but meanwhile, anyone out there know why?


I live in CA, but have been to Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca many times when my son-in-law attended Cornell and I visited...I just purchased Maranatha organic roasted tahini and want to make baba ganoosh...which I am unsure I'm spelling incorrectly. It is a mixture of roasted egg plant, tahini and lemon and fresh garlic. I have three Moosewood cook books, but this recipe is not in them. Can you help? KC

If you have the Enchanted Broccoli Forest, check out the recipe for Spicy Eggplant Puree. I found another simple one in Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone that combines a roasted eggplant with 3 cloves of garlic, 1/4 cup tahini and the juice of a lemon. Season it with salt and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. In Mediterranean Light, Martha Rose Shulman uses 2 eggplants, 1 lemon, 2 cloves of garlic and lightens it up by using 4 Tablespoons of plain yogurt and only 2 Tablespoons of tahini. She also adds a tomato and a green pepper. By the way, Deborah spells it Baba Ghanoush and Martha Rose spells it Baba Ghanouj.


Good afternoon, Could you give me an idea where I might find the ISBN for an old Sunset book on making curries and curry powders. Regards, JN

That's a tough one if you don't have the specific title. Check with the folks at Jessica's Biscuit, a major online cookbook shop. I found quite a few books about curry from Sunset there but most were recently published.


Hi. My wife is interested in taking curcumin, what % of curcumin is there in Tumeric? Thanks, regards TT

The short answer is: I don't know. The long answer is: I try really hard not to give information that may be used for medicinal purposes rather than culinary. Please follow this link Just the Facts for information without hype on herbal supplements of all kinds. For cooking with the spice, be sure to see "All About Turmeric."


Where are Chives grown? When are they harvested? What variations are sold? Give me some history on the food? Does it have any mythological or mystical features? What type of nutrition does it provide? HC

 I trust you have read All About Chives. Chives are native to Europe and Asia but are cultivated all over the world today. I have seen regular chives, garlic chives and a fat-leaf chive that is good for freezing. Freeze-dried chives are a common commodity. They have been used as a food for 5000 years but are rarely considered a medicinal herb. Chives may be snipped from the plant (about 2 inches from the ground) anytime after the plant is six inches tall. They can be grown year around if brought indoors during the cold season. Otherwise they will die back and go dormant for winter. Chives have been thought to drive away evil spirits and disease when clumps are hung in the home. Nutritional information about herbs is difficult to come by so I am uncertain on that subject.


Do you have recipes using epazote? M

I have only recently begun experimenting with this delightful herb. Although I haven't written any recipes with epazote yet, I love adding it to beans and stews. Rick Bayless' cookbook Mexico, One Plate at a Time puts the herb to good use. Update: Introducing "All About Epazote."


What type of herbs and spices were used during the time of the Louisiana Purchase? Thanks for your help. J

The spice trade was alive and well in 1803 America. Black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, allspice and ginger were typical spices.  Thomas Jefferson is known to have served ice cream flavored with vanilla beans and sesame seed cookies. Many herbs were grown in home gardens including sage, mustard and dill.


Turmeric and tumeric. Are they one and the same, just two different spellings? Or are they two different herbs/spices all together?? txj

I believe they are one and the same with turmeric being the correct spelling. Funny, I had never noticed this discrepancy before receiving your question. Then, the very next day I was given a beautiful plate with different Indian spices illustrated and spelled out. It was spelled "tumeric." One source I checked listed the spice as Turmeric but misspelled it once as tumeric in the text. There is no entry for tumeric in the dictionary.


I have been told that fenugreek has many medicinal purposes. I am taking it in pill form for fibromyalgia and weight loss.  Am I wasting my time? It is also supposed to give me energy and loss of appetite. Please give me info. Thank you..Peggy

These are questions you really should ask your doctor or a holistic practitioner, Peggy.  Here at aPinchOf I go out of my way NOT to offer advice on using herbs for health simply because I am not an expert on this aspect. You can find out more information about the spice in general at All About Fenugreek.


How are sesame seeds hulled?  LD

I loved this question! It had never occurred to me how they might do it although I have always heard the term.  The procedure may be done chemically or mechanically and varies from country to country.  The chemical process is much quicker, apparently, and the seeds are soaked in caustic soda.  The mechanical procedure involved soaking the seeds and then applying some sort of friction and, perhaps, steam.  An Indian method requires soaking the seeds for 10 to 12 hours before pounding with wooden hammers.  Other methods use a sort of stone grinder that crushes the hulls.  The seeds can be dried in the sun or in mechanical dryers.  For home hulling, I found a website from the University of California-Davis that illustrates a device for hulling grains like rice, millet and sesame seeds.  It looks an awful lot like a meat grinder to me.


I see all the different grades of olive oil on the shelves. What is the difference in them and what are the uses for them?

Olive oil grades, extra-virgin, mild and so on, are based on which "pressing" the oil comes from. Pressing is when the olives pass through the grinding stone and the oil is extracted. Extra-virgin is the first pressing resulting in a very green oil with the most flavor and least oleic acid. After the first "cold" press, heat or chemicals may be applied resulting in the various other grades. Like wine grapes, olives vary from region to region and the best way to find your favorite is to taste. In Italy this is done with a fettunta, or an oiled slice--grilled bread rubbed with garlic and doused with a new oil. As a general rule in my kitchen, I keep both extra-virgin and mild olive oils on hand. For salad dressings or as a final garnish, I use the extra-virgin but if I will be using it for cooking, I use the mild. Heat will break down the delicacy of the extra-virgin oil and sometimes make it bitter. For more information on olive oils, visit the olive oil source site.



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