The Flavor of an Herb or Spice Is Several Flavors Combined

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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As we’ve seen many times and in many foods, flavor is a composite quality. A ripe fruit may contain hundreds of different aromatic compounds; and the same goes for a roast. Though we tend to think of a particular herb or spice as having its own distinctive flavor, it too is always a composite of several different aroma compounds. Sometimes one of those compounds predominates and provides the main character—as in cloves, cinnamon, anise, thyme—but often it’s the mixture that creates the character, and that makes a spice well suited to serve as a unifying bridge among several different ingredients. Coriander seed, for example, is simultaneously flowery and lemony; bay leaf combines eucalyptus, clove, pine, and flowery notes. It can be fascinating—and useful—to taste spices analytically, trying to perceive the separate components and how their flavors are built. Terms from perfumery can be helpful: there are “top notes,” perceived right away, ethereal and quick to fade; there are “mid-notes,” the main flavors; and there are “bottom notes,” which are slow to develop and which persist. The charts list the prominent aroma components in a selection of herbs and spices. There are two particular chemical families that contribute many of the aroma compounds in herbs and spices.