The Art of Herbs

Herbs and spices are natural sources of complex flavors and colors. As with other plant-based material, damage to the plant cells begins a series of enzymatic processes that liberate and develop flavors.

Standard culinary techniques of grinding, grating and chopping herbs and spices increase the surface area of the flavorants. This is another manner in which flavor can be developed. The inherent chemical flavor components are exposed to atmospheric oxygen to develop further unique sensory attributes. Grinding, grating and chopping can also have negative impacts, primarily through exposure and subsequent heating. Generally speaking, flavor molecules are usually relatively small and volatile, and any heating may cause their volatalization and/or chemical decomposition.

One of the tools of the modern kitchen is the use of liquid nitrogen during grinding, chopping and grating. This is a technique borrowed from the chemistry and biology laboratory, where the extremely cold temperature limits the overall chemical changes to the starting material during cellular damage, thus preserving flavor.

In heating herbs and spices, one must also consider the solubility of flavor compounds. The two main media for extracting flavor molecules from herbs and spices in the kitchen are fats/oils and water. Steeping herbs and spices in oils will extract oil-soluble flavors and pigments (such as with chili pepper oil), while cooking in an aqueous medium will extract water-soluble flavors and colors (as with preparation of a brown stock, and the solubility of Maillard reaction products from the browned bones and mirepoix.)

Mixtures of oil and water (emulsions) will extract different flavor compounds due to the overall different polarity of the extraction medium. Ethanol/alcohol is another medium that uniquely extracts flavors and colors.

Another tool in the modern kitchen is the use of rotary evaporation to extract flavor compounds from complex starting materials (e.g., whole herbs and spices). The use of decreased pressure (vacuum), in combination with solvent-based extraction and distillation, allows for the preparation of unique herb and spice extracts that are a result of specific time, extraction temperature, solvent medium and condensation temperature combinations.

Ted Russin is a culinary scientist, food chemist and director of consulting at the Culinary Institute of America.


To satisfy today’s American palate, consumers seek innovative sensory stimulation almost as much as basic nourishment. And, the multi-ethnic, global sophisticates they’ve become encourage processors to meet these desires through bridging herbs, spices, extracts, and esoteric fruits and vegetables into hot-trending cuisine fusions. Expert research chefs react to this consumer requirement by reinventing safe stand-bys with the introduction of non-traditional flavor components to produce an approachable, yet fresh, dining experience. In other words, they coax consumers to the table with something within their frame of reference—but produce it in a way that captivates their imagination—bridging the gap between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Examination of the culinary traditions from any culture provides proof the architects used not only raw ingredient availability and utilitarian pragmatism as their building blocks, but also a deeply imbedded desire to please the palate. In each scenario, it is inevitable that basic laws are followed and applied with what is readily to hand. This is evidenced by the fact that there are many variations on any given theme.

An example of this is the simple hamburger, which has worn more accessories over the years than Madonna, Cher and Lady Gaga combined. It’s been crowned with foie gras and truffles; bedecked with chipotle-spiced fried onion shards; adorned with a basted egg; enrobed in porcini aioli; and even stuffed full of barbecued pork, all with the idea of elevating an already beloved experience.

There are some universals to cultural cuisines. Tomato and garlic is considered Italian; tomato and fines herbes is Provençal French. Tomato and roasted chili peppers is Mexican; tomato with saffron is Spanish; and tomato and cinnamon is Greek. Pad Thai is devoured by epicures and novice diners alike, because of how its flavor components are used to contrast and complement, fused and overlapped, creating harmonic balance. If the tart tamarind wasn’t offset with the subtle sweetness of palm sugar, faces would contort. If the fiery Thai chili peppers weren’t applied with discretion, eyes would widen. If umami-producing fermented soy sauce, nam pla (fermented fish sauce) and roasted peanuts were added too sparingly, it would miss.

Making Fusions Work

A trained research chef is able to intuitively place ingredients into one of the main pillars of flavor: predominantly sweet, salty, sour, hot and bitter. They recognize that sour “likes” sweet in equal proportion; salt complements pepper; and astringent or acid needs sweet or earthy flavors to balance it, hence the use of ginger with cilantro, or tomatoes with garlic.

Following that, it is important to identify ingredients that serve as a connector, or “bridge” flavor, which is key to successfully merging seemingly unlikely flavor combinations. Think of how vanilla does this with ginger and cocoa. In this manner, it is possible to understand some basic rules of combining flavors—without actually having thousands of flavor combinations memorized.

Mathew Freistadt, research chef, notes that sometimes, the fusion inspiration strikes simply because the combination has never been tried. For a Malbec wine and mango-flavored sausage, he employed Malbec red wine in a spray-dried form “for solids, tannins and color.” He then added some tannic acid, smoke notes and a few spices to round out the flavor. Freistadt chose to split the mango between a concentrate and a dry flavor.

“When combined, they gave the correct amount of sweetness and profile, without ‘over-caramelizing’ during the cook cycle,” he explains.

Freistadt points to the need to let inspiration and didactic knowledge harmonize. “The idea is to use your skills as a chef and scientist; seek out the main ingredients that make flavor; and don’t over complicate the formulation. Keep in mind the finished form you hope to achieve, and be aware of the functional limits that you can push.” He recommends starting with small batches of flavorants, then scaling up to a 1kg batch and adjusting accordingly.

Today’s formulator has a countless array of ingredient options to consider, more than they did 30—or even five—years ago. If a tart note is desired, the formulator and ingredient provider can work together to fine-tune the degree of tartness and concept the taste profile to put together the overall experience, prior to choosing the actual flavors. For example, seeking tartness can lead to a fusion of lemony sumac or earthy-sweet amchur (a spice made from green mangos), or tangy and floral hibiscus or slightly bitter loomi (dried black Persian limes).

Even salt is not a simple matter, with the availability of smoked salts, sel gris, Himalayan pink or black volcanic salts, etc., providing subtle mineral properties not available from standard table salt. Saltiness can also come from soy, and even then one can approach a mushroom soy, fermented soy or other variation. Or, try a smooth-textured and deeply satisfying red miso powder accented with some granulated nori (seaweed) flakes.

The next wave of fusion flavors will involve adding unique flavor components that build on timeless combinations so ingrained that they seem to have always existed together, yet with the addition of an unlikely facet. On-trend flavors can thus be rerouted through dissolved paradigms reconstructed to appear vaguely familiar, while being entirely new.

Trending Combos

Healthier choices have spinach and other leafy greens at a peak of popularity. They typically balance their “green” flavor best with earthy cheese and sublime-yet-distinct herbs, such as fennel pollen: The clean, strong, vegetal flavor of spinach yields a cooked spinach with increased acid levels, so pairing it with cheese will offer a balanced flavor, one rounded with the sweet, anise-like “nose” of fennel.

Balancing spicy roots, such as horseradish with apple, is not new, but bridging them with an aromatic like vanilla is. The result? Sweetness, pungency and aroma dominate this dynamic flavor combination. The heat of the horseradish livens up the crisp-tartness of the apple, and the vanilla adds an unexpectedly pleasing, savory background flavor, fusing the two strong flavors. Or, go with green curry, vanilla and cucumber: The intricate, full flavor of green curry becomes more complex and sophisticated by adding vanilla. Though vanilla is typically used for sweet applications, it adds a rich and pleasing aroma to the curry. The cool cucumber provides a mellowing component that can be introduced raw or sautéed.

Vanilla also brings out the naturally caramel-like tones of parsnip. Adding the floral herb lavender—currently enjoying its biggest renaissance since the Renaissance—yields a fusion that is at once savory, floral and fragrant. The natural sweetness in parsnips makes them ideal for a dessert application, too.

Fruits have been riding a crest of popularity, due to their impressive health profile. This has led to cross-cultural mixes of Mediterranean, Central American and tropical combos, such as fig, cantaloupe and passionfruit. Creating a fruit trio offers a true complexity of flavors. In this case, the succulent, luscious fig complements the refreshing, sweet cantaloupe—while the tart passionfruit brings an accent of flavor to elevate the entire combination.

And, since bacon is still trending up, even simple bacon and eggs enters another flavor zone with the addition of a tropical fruit, such as mango: Bacon and eggs is about salt, fat, warmth and richness. The sweet mango naturally counters the saltiness and the smoke of the bacon, creating a more intense flavor mosh-up.

Another fruit often shunted to a corner is the humble peppercorn. Botanically, pepper is a berry, but it is so often mishandled as to lose its sweet undertones. As with all spices, peppercorns get their flavor from their volatile oils and so are best when ground fresh—in fact, the fresher it is, the more sweet will appear with the heat, ultimately leading to greater depth of flavor. Combining black pepper with coriander and cardamom also brings out its fruity notes for an intriguing spice blend in an exotic combination of flavors. This combination also includes the punch of heat produced by the freshly ground peppercorns accented with the nutty, citrusy coriander and highly aromatic, floral cardamom.

Adding these spices to the usual sauces, soups and seasonings for meat and vegetables is still a worthy endeavor. But, folding such aromatic spices into sweet, buttery flour will produce a savory shortbread, which can support cheeses, or be rebalanced to sweet with frozen yogurt or fresh figs and other fruits.

Chocolate and nuts are a traditional pairing with a natural affinity, but adding the flavor of spicy ginger packs an unexpected boost. Chocolate softens the “zing” of ginger, and the nuts impart a pleasing crunch to balance the soft creaminess. Using a less common nut, such as the luscious Brazil nut, deepens the entire fusion.

Pairing sweet with heat is an old Southern/Southwestern tradition. Caramel, corn and Marash chili pepper exemplifies what happens when the burnt-sugar intensity of caramel  and subtle sweetness of corn meets the slightly spicy, fruitiness of the Marash pepper, enlivening the combination and taking it to new heights. Chili peppers also benefit from the traditionally Mediterranean flavor of rosemary, the intensely pleasing pine flavor of the herb adding a bold backbone to which the pepper stands up well. For other interesting flavor fusions, see sidebar, “Building a Better Fusion.” 

Aram Karapetian followed a decade of culinary experience as a restaurant chef with a 10-year career as director of catering and convention services with Hyatt Corp, and director of catering and convention services / food and beverage with The Ritz Carlton hotels. Chef Karapetian currently is director of sales for Woodland Foods/Dallesandro Gourmet and Specialty Foods. Jeffrey Troiola is corporate chef and leader of Research & Development for Woodland Foods/Dallesandro Gourmet and Specialty Foods.


Building a Better Fusion

Some marriages, Like Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, seem as if they would never work in a million years. Yet, the power of attraction comes through by making a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Here are some flavor cross-pollinations that surprise in their ability to succeed against their seeming insurmountable differences.


* Cumin, cinnamon and cocoa: The three flavors play off each other in a unique and pleasing way. Cumin can be a back-note in small amounts or lead in larger proportions, while the cinnamon and cocoa make the whole dynamic. The grouping works as a bold dry rub for meat and game, or a gentler seasoning for shrimp and seafood. It also can be a surprise accent in demi-glaçe and sauces.


* Chestnut, miso and orange: Sweet, delicate chestnuts make for an unusually tasty blend with the Asian-influenced duo of miso and orange. The meaty soy flavor of miso plays off the sweet citrus and is enhanced by the cake-like notes of the chestnuts.


* Cacao nibs, vanilla and smoked hot paprika: The rich, flavor-forward aromatic qualities of vanilla can provide depth to many dishes, both savory and sweet. Chocolate is always made more complex with the addition of vanilla, but the whole gets a hint of heat and ample swath of spiciness and smoke from the paprika.


* Toasted garlic, pineapple and fermented black bean: The tropical sweetness and natural acidity of the pineapple creates enough brightness to accommodate the intense toasted garlic flavor. Fermented black bean provides saltiness and umami to make it all work.


* Orange, saffron and Aleppo pepper: This delicate combination has a rich bouquet that can create several different flavor profiles. Orange’s sweet acidity complements the intense orange color of the saffron and its hay-like, pungent flavor. The Aleppo has a light, lingering heat and provides depth, while visually, the flecks of rich red Aleppo create dimension against the saffron backdrop. This combination can be used in a braising liquid for fish or meat, or in a sauce or paella.


* Persimmon, brandy and green cardamom: The brown-sugar-and-cinnamon sweetness of persimmon is balanced with the alcohol smoothness of brandy, and the sweet, camphor-like notes of green cardamom. Employ as a quick fruit “pickle,” a sauce for pork or with strong poultry, such as turkey. Use brandied persimmon in cardamom bread/muffins/cookies. Make this combination in savory or sweet dishes and with foods including chicken, pork, ginger and ice cream.

n Grapefruit, onion and parsley: Sweet and tart flavors from grapefruit, the savory tang of onion and the herbaceous crispness of parsley make this complex and delicious marriage of flavors. It goes very well with seafood, but also with vegetables, such as mushrooms and beets.


* Parsley, garlic, yuzu (Japanese citrus) and smoked paprika: This combination of herbal freshness, tangy bite and tartness, all with a slight hint of smokiness, creates a full, bright, exciting-yet-light flavor. The mix is well-suited for a variety of applications, such as vinaigrette; in roasted vegetable dishes; or in a marinade for grilled lamb.


* Raisin, mustard seed, amchur powder: Sweet-and-sour applications begin with the fruit (raisin), mustard seeds add a slightly pungent sharpness, and Amchur adds the sour element, resulting in a wonderful sweet-and-sour condiment.


* Mango, cinnamon, tamarind: Sweet and luscious texture from the mango, accented with cinnamon, gives the mango a contrasting flavor component compatible with both savory and sweet applications. Adding tamarind tweaks the flavor with sour notes—just  enough to elevate this combination to new heights.


* Lemongrass powder, kaffir lime, coconut milk powder, galangal and pear: The natural sweetness of coconut makes a perfect base for the citrus subtleties of lemongrass, kaffir and gingery bite of galangal. The pear provides an unlikely source of sweetness whose slightly exotic “nose” fits in well with its Southeast-Asian counterparts. Flavors work well with shellfish, fish, chicken, tofu and curry. It also can be used for sweet applications, such as coconut cupcakes with lemongrass-basil-infused buttercream or coconut lemongrass–galangal tapioca with citrus-basil sorbet.


* Date, chestnut, smoked paprika: The sweetness of the date marries with the delicate nuttiness of the chestnut and gets a jolt of sweet smokiness from the paprika. Because of dates’ high sugar content, they can be used easily in desserts, but also as sweet accents to salads, curries and couscous.


* Pumpkin seed, Szechuan peppercorn, garlic: Crunchy pumpkin seeds with a unique powerful flavor support the mellow spice of the Szechuan peppercorns and the boldness of garlic.