If there’s one thing we know about food, it’s that homegrown, homemade dishes are healthier than store-bought varieties — and the satisfaction behind their creation makes them taste better, too. Why not extend that healthfulness as far as you can? Though buying spice blends for your kitchen might appear to be the simplest option, creating homemade mixes of dried herbs and spices is easier than it seems. Most of the ingredients in the following blends can be grown in a backyard garden, and dehydrating simple spices can be a breeze. This do-it-yourself approach reduces unhealthy preservatives in kitchen creations, too! Try out the following ideas to preserve your harvest and experience delicious flavors year-round.
On the southeast tip of France is an herbal heaven. There, in Provence, an array of summertime herbs grow so fragrant that they even permeate the aroma of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a regional, full-bodied red wine. These herbs can be gathered by the handful and used to impart their distinctive aromas to meats, vegetables, cheeses, soups, and sauces. Because of the region’s proximity to Italy and the Mediterranean, this mix of herbs has a similar aroma to what we think of as Italian seasoning, but don’t be fooled — herbes de Provence contains its own depth of flavor.
The composition of this heady herb blend varies from household to household based on personal preference; it may contain as few as five or as many as 11 different herbs. Thyme is always present, and often so are rosemary and savory. The most surprising ingredient is lavender, which was added to the blend for the benefit of foreigners and tourists who saw Provence’s purple-flowered fields as symbolic of the region. Traditional or not, its sweetness brings something special to the other flavors. Indeed, each herb in the blend contributes just the right degree of sweetness or spicy pungency.
Luckily, many of these adaptable herbs are common kitchen staples. By growing your favorites, you can continuously mix all manner of herbes de Provence blends.
To make your own herbes de Provence, see: Classic Herbes de Provence Recipe.
To use your homemade herbes de Provence, see: Spinach and Watercress Salad with Baked Chèvre Recipe.
“Savory” can refer to one of two plants: summer savory (Satureja hortensis), a slender annual, or winter savory (S. montana), a shrubby, hardy perennial. Both varieties should be planted in full sun and harvested fresh as needed, both leaves and stems. The very name of these herbs announces their flavor, and both savory variations impart a delicious taste to dishes.
Summer savory seeds germinate quickly. Either sow them outdoors, 1⁄4 inch deep, after the season’s last frost, or indoors six weeks before that. The indoor seedlings can be transplanted after hardening off for a few days; plant them 6 inches apart in rich, well-watered, well-drained soil. Planted in light potting soil with good drainage, summer savory can also make a nice container plant. After it reaches 6 inches in height, continually harvest the herb by snipping off the top 4 inches of foliage.
Winter savory is a slow-growing herb. Propagate it from cuttings or by root division in spring, or start it from seed indoors six weeks before the last frost of the season. When the weather warms, transplant those seedlings 10 to 12 inches apart in well-drained, sandy soil. In Zones 5 and colder, this herb is best grown in containers so it can be overwintered indoors. Winter savory requires less water than its summer counterpart. When plants are established, prune them in spring, and then again in midsummer to maintain their shape.
References to this Middle Eastern spice date back to biblical times, but with those mentions comes plenty of confusion. The main herb that flavors this blend is also referred to as “za’atar,” and, to complicate things further, the same name has been bestowed on numerous plants over time, leading to questions about which herb is the za’atar herb. Out of various hyssops, thymes, and oreganos, scholars and cooks agree that the plant that best fits ancient descriptions, biblical references, and Arabic folklore is Origanum syriacum — a plant that, thanks to the compounds thymol and carvacrol, shares a “bite” much like oregano.
In the Bible, this “holy hyssop” was used to cleanse temples, as well as to symbolize humility. In medicine, it has historically been used in infusions to treat digestive problems, constipation, weariness, and heart disorders. The crushed leaves have been used to treat tooth decay and coughs.
While the recipes for the za’atar blend vary from nation to nation, thyme, marjoram, and oregano remain the primary herbs that may be substituted into a recipe when O. syriacum is unavailable — and it often is, as it’s difficult to find in the United States. Some za’atar recipe varieties may add savory, cumin, coriander, or fennel seed. One distinctively Palestinian variation of a za’atar blend includes caraway seeds. But all include the same main ingredients: za’atar, sesame seeds, and sumac.
To make your own za’atar, see: Homegrown Za’atar Recipe.
To use your homemade za’atar, see: Roasted Za’atar Chickpeas Recipe.
Should you go looking for the tart berries so important in za’atar blends, you’ll need to know how to discern edible sumac from poisonous sumac. Luckily, their differences are readily visible.
Edible sumac (Rhus spp.) is common along roadsides, at the edges of meadows, and in thickets in northern temperate regions around the world. Its leaves take on crimson hues before the first frost, and when they appear in fall, the rust-red berries have a tangy, sour taste. Smaller than gooseberries and with very little fragrance, these berries grow in upright clusters. Poison sumac — once known as R. vernix, now listed as Toxicodendron vernix — grows in swampy areas and has white or ivory berries that hang down as they grow rather than perching in cone-shaped clusters above the leaves. Avoid ingesting any white sumac berries. Poison sumac contains an oil resin, urushiol, which creates contact dermatitis that causes lesions and an intense itch, same as poison ivy (T. radicans) and poison oak (T. diversilobum).
The fuzzy red berries of Rhus spp., however, contain a handful of health benefits, in part because of their malic, tannic, and ascorbic acids. These berries can be dried and ground into a powder, as in za’atar, or rinsed and squeezed through a cheesecloth to extract their tart juices. A dash of sumac juice can replace lemon in your favorite recipes, and it’s delicious in lemonade, tea, and fruit punch.
The Hungarians claim full-flavored, brilliantly red paprika as their national spice, and for good reason: It adds a unique richness and beauty to many savory dishes, and it gives blends — including chili powder, taco seasoning, and Cajun spices — a kick. The word “paprika” is also used to name the sweet red peppers (Capsicum annuum) that, when dried, are ground to make the spice.
Although these peppers are associated with Eastern Europe, they’re actually New World natives. When searching for spice trade routes, Christopher Columbus gathered a variety of red peppers that he brought back to Spain. By the late 16th century, the Portuguese and Spaniards were growing these peppers and making what came to be known as paprika. It was the Hungarians, however, who elevated the crimson spice to its current status. The lower classes added paprika to their soups as a substitute for costly black pepper. By the mid-1880s, all of Hungary had embraced it.
Grow paprika peppers at home, and then dry and grind them into powder for use. This plant requires a long, warm growing season, so start seeds indoors 8 to 10 weeks before transplanting. Sow them 1⁄4 inch deep in well-drained soil. After the last frost passes, choose a site with full sun and well-drained, rich soil, and transplant your seedlings. Paprika peppers have shallow root systems, so they need water and shade on hot days, and they also make fine container plants.
To make your own chili powder, see: Homemade Chili Powder Recipe.
To use your homemade chili powder, see: Mango Chili Avocado Smoothie Recipe.
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum), originally from Western Asia, has a smoky flavor and pungent aroma. Popular in India, Mexico, Latin America, and the Middle East, it’s grown for its seeds, which are used whole or ground and have both culinary and medicinal uses.
This herb needs a long, warm growing season, and it takes about four months until its seeds are ready for harvest. To grow your own cumin, start the seeds inside 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost of the season, and transplant outdoors when temperatures routinely exceed 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In warmer climates, seeds can be sown outside 1 to 2 weeks after the last frost. Plant them 1⁄4 inch deep and about 4 inches apart in a site with full sun. Cumin can tolerate a diverse range of soils, but prefers well-drained, fertile, loamy soil, watered regularly.
Harvest cumin seeds after the small white or pink flowers bloom. Allow the seed pods to ripen and turn brown; they should crack easily in your hand. Then, harvest the pods by hand, or pull entire plants to hang upside down to dry in a paper bag that will catch falling seeds. After 7 to 10 days, rub the pods between your fingers, and the seeds will drop out for immediate use or storage. You can use the seeds as they are, but dry-roasting them before grinding will bring out more aroma.
Ranch dressing is a common kitchen staple, perfect for making salads or bland vegetables more appetizing. This hugely popular dip stems from basic buttermilk dressings consumed in the mid-1900s, which were eventually perfected and sold by Steve and Gayle Henson, the makers of the Hidden Valley product we know today. However, bottled, store-bought ranch bears little resemblance to that historic, simple, admittedly perishable recipe of buttermilk, mayonnaise, herbs, and spices. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, by growing a few herbs, a homemade batch of this delicious dressing will never be far from reach.
Lucky for us, ranch’s base is a simple blend of common ingredients: garlic, onion, parsley, and Greek yogurt, to name a few. And, as proven by store brands, the flavors don’t have to stop there. Some dill can add a fresh kick of flavor, and basil’s bright taste combines well with an assortment of other herbs. If you want a variation on classic ranch, add some of that homegrown paprika to give this creamy dressing a little color and spice.
To make your own ranch dressing, see: Greek Yogurt Ranch Dressing Recipe.
To use your homemade ranch dressing, see: Tempeh Taco Salad Recipe.
Many of the homegrown components in these spice blends need drying before use, but without the proper equipment, drying herbs and spices at home requires running the oven for hours, living in the perfect climate for solar drying, or filling every dark, dry area of your home with hanging ingredients. Electric food dehydrators may seem pricey, but they pay for themselves over time, stay out of the way, and simplify the process of drying with suggestions for time and temperature controls. They also tend to be energy-efficient, utilizing heated air and distributing it with a fan into an enclosed space. All you have to do is prepare the food — de-stem herbs, wash and slice produce, and peel garlic and onions — align them on the tray, and set the conditions.
Properly dehydrated foods retain their vitamin and mineral content while maintaining an extensive shelf life; and dried herbs, peppers, and other spices can be ground for further use in the kitchen.
Whether you go big or stay simple, know that the best budget-friendly dehydrators often fall between $100 and $200. Long-lasting brands, such as Excalibur, Nesco, and Presto, produce a wide variety of machines and features, so you can choose the right one for your kitchen.
Being an assistant editor at Mother Earth Living gives Haley Casey constant inspiration for green living, as well as a place to put her bachelor’s in English and her writing experience to good use.
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