If you want to master Italian cooking, learning about the essential spices is a good place to start. Italian food is all about herbs and spices. An understanding of the most commonly used Italian spices and other seasonings is essential if you want to make the classic traditional dishes. The most popular Italian spices are common on the spice rack and staples in most homemade Italian seasoning recipes.
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Garlic is a universal spice and is popular in most parts of the world; however, it holds as a special place in the Italian kitchen. Garlic may well be the most important seasoning of all for Italian food. Pungent and savory, it has been around since the time of the Ancient Romans and continues to be the foundation on which most savory Italian dishes are built. Its earthy sulfur flavor pairs well with those of most other seasonings and can bring depth to many tomato-based preparations. Garlic also has a host of health benefits to go along with its flavor and aroma.
The intense fragrance of basil is essential to the flavor profiles of many Italian dishes. This member of the mint family brings notes of lemon, licorice, and mint to your food. It is essential for tomato sauce as well as for pesto, the green paste made by crushing basil leaves — or the leaves of other green herbs — with olive oil. Basil is versatile enough to work in salads as one of the greens and you can put it in pizzas too.
Unlike basil, rosemary is not at its best when uncooked. This is an herb that benefits from a long simmer. To get the most from this resinous and highly aromatic relative of thyme, you will want to add it to a braised dish early on so that its flavors can be tamed by a long cooking process.
The earthy note that you will detect in any well-made marinara sauce is oregano. Dried oregano is a staple seasoning in any real Italian kitchen. Unlike most spices, you will want to use it dried instead of fresh. Fresh oregano is too pungent and can ruin a dish in some cases. Dried oregano is great in everything from salad dressing to pizza. Oregano is the main flavor in the traditional red sauce used on pizza.
Sage is another herb that shows up in many Italian dishes though most non-Italians may not always associate it with Italian food as readily as they would basil and oregano. In the United States, it is viewed by many as the Thanksgiving turkey herb. In Italy, sage is an important ingredient in gnocchi and risotto.
As an extremely pungent spice, bay leaves should be used carefully. They are added at the start of the cooking time and removed before serving the dish. While they are important for tomato sauces and other dishes that require long braising, a little bay leaf goes a long way and they can dominate a dish if not removed soon enough. Another important reason for removing bay leaf before serving the dish is the potential for it to be a choking hazard.
Similar in flavor profile and application to thyme and oregano, marjoram does have some distinctive benefits. In addition to providing a savory and woody note to your tomato-based sauces, marjoram is a great addition to salad dressings and marinades.