Difference Between Herbs and Spices

September 18, 2017

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Notice how we keep all our seasonings in a “spice cupboard” and don’t call it an “herbs and spice” cupboard?

Our language has evolved in such a way that we lump together these two biologically different plant parts. While they share many similarities such as their ability to offer flavor, vitality and diversity to our meals, there are many factors that differentiate them.  

Herbs and Spices come from Different parts of the plant

An herb is the green, leafy part of the plant. A spice can come from the root, stem, seed, fruit, flower or bark of the tree or plant. And a plant can be host to both an herb and spice at the same time like cilantro and coriander. Cilantro is the aromatic leaf of the plant, Coriandrum sativum, while coriander is the seed that comes from that same plant. 


Whole spices will retain their flavor and potency significantly longer than herbs

Whole spices such as cinnamon sticks, allspice berries and cloves, to name a few, are whole and intact and not broken down or ground. These types of whole spices will keep their flavor and potency much longer than herbs or ground spices. The moment that a spice or herb is ground it’s surface area is increased and exposed to oxygen. Grinding releases the spices volatile oils and what is exposed to the air will begin to break down faster and lose its potency much faster. That is why it is best to buy your spices whole, store correctly away from heat, light and air, and grind right before you use them.

HOW TO USE Herbs and spices in cooking

Cooking with herbs and spices requires different methods. Herbs, whether fresh or dried are more delicate in flavor and constitution than spices. First of all, herbs can be used fresh while spices are always used in their dried form. There are occasions when fresh herbs are preferred over dried herbs like in a basil pesto or using fresh parsley in a tabbouleh salad. When using dried herbs it is usually optimal to add them towards the end of cooking to maximize their flavor. Spices on the other hand can withstand longer cooking times and often are enhanced by dry-roasting and being added early in the cooking process.  

Herbs and Spices grow in different climates and regions

Of the hundreds of spices that might fill up our spice cupboards, there are only a small handful that can claim they have originated in the Western Hemisphere. Allspice from Jamaica, Vanilla Bean from Mexico and Chile Peppers from America are three of the most popular and most influential in kitchens around the world. The majority of spices we use today grow in more tropical or subtropical regions like the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia and India. Herbs, while also popular throughout the tropical regions can be grown in more temperate and often arid climates and are found in abundance throughout North America, Mexico and Central America. 

About This Blog

Melissa Spencer has long had a fascination with plants and doesn’t discriminate between wild, weed or cultivated. She owns Attar Herbs & Spices located in the beautiful Monadnock Region of NH and is celebrating 50 years of service. She actively writes, speaks, and shares ways to infuse herbs and spices into everyday life.

Herbs and Spices really are little bundles of aromatic seeds, barks, berries and leaves. They can enliven the family meal turning the ordinary into the extraordinary and into a fragrant delight of the senses. They can open up a world of exotic cuisines connecting us with faraway cultures and they provide us with amazing health benefits. Follow along for endless ways to spice up life for the taste of it, the joy of it, and the health of it.


Reader Comments

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Are some people allergic to coriander ?

Coriander allergy

It’s rare, but yes. Some people are allergic to coriander seeds or to the coriander spice made from ground seeds.

I've always differentiated otherwise

I've always considered "herbs" to be more temperate climate plants, parts of which have medicinal uses (the active part may be leaf, root, flower, bark, seed, or different parts may have different medicinal uses). "Spices" tend to be more exotic, coming from the tropics, and difficult to find locally in their fresh form -- or, they are seasoning plants which DON'T have specific medicinal uses (e.g. oregano, basil), usually in their dried forms.
I've been taught that dried seasonings go in the beginning of cooking so their flavor can develop, but to leave fresh seasonings to the last 15 minutes so the heat doesn't destroy their flavor.

medicinal herbs

Herbs also have amazing medicinal qualities. Oil of oregano has proven antiseptic qualities, comfrey is used in cough medicine,sage for urinary tract infection etc. Rodale press puts out a wonderful book on herbs and their uses.

My Neck is Swelling

I'm just getting in to making my own BBQ Rubs. I have purchased a few herbs and spices, but I never gave it much thought about it's Origin. I plan to read more on this...If you can recommend a "beginners" book on herbs and spices...I'd appreciate it and thanks for the article.

BBQ Rubs

Hello Ed,

Welcome to the wonderful, aromatic world of herbs and spices! One of my favorite books for researching herbs and spices is called “Healing Spices” by Bharat B. Aggarwal, PhD.  This book covers 50 different spices. It covers their origins, medicinal and culinary uses. Another great resource is called “Herbs & Spices: The Cook’s Reference” by Jill Norman and Dave King. This book has beautiful photos, descriptions and recipes for any spice you might ever wonder about….and then some! It is a wealth of information. As well, I often enjoy looking at my library or local bookstore/book sales for cooking references and have found many wonderful cookbooks that way. Hope that helps and hope you enjoy your culinary barbecue journey.


Great article on spices

This is really a great article about spices. Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

Herbs and Spices

Hi Vishal,

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I am so glad that you enjoyed it and hope that it inspires you to keep learning and experimenting with herbs and spices!


This is a great article. I did not know this about spices. So, why do I think of herbs grown here and spices in the tropics if they are the same plant? I love herbs and learning about the history of herbs and medicinal remedies.

Herbs Origins

Hi Chris, 

Glad you enjoyed the article. It is true that some herbs and spices can come from the same plant, like cilantro and coriander or dill seed and dill weed. However, there are very few plants that host both an herb and spice and while these plants can grow here in North America they did not originate here. They originated in Central Asia and the Mediterranean. The majority of spices we use everyday do come from more tropical zones.  



I always thought that cumin

I always thought that cumin was the seed of cilantro.

Cumin and Cilantro

Hi Jeff,

Cumin is not the seed of cilantro. Coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant. Cumin, Cuminum cyminum, is in the parsley family (Apiaceae) and is the seed of the plant.  Both coriander and cumin are used extensively in Indian cooking and are primary ingredients in curry. Thanks for your comment.


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