The Way of the Kitchen Witch

by Jon Oleson, CH

When I was attending clinical herbalism school in Colorado, the amount of new information concerning herbs and their actions was intimidating. There were clinical terms, referencing of “energetics,” and differences in form and preparation. We had an ongoing assignment called “Herb of the Week” for which we were required to pick an herb and experiment with all its forms for one week, journaling the experience. While this was an amazing way to begin developing relationships with the plants, I soon recognized another venue in which to experiment.


Most of us cook at least one meal a day. For me, it’s breakfast. Starting the day with a big, fatty meal of meat and vegetables really helps to regulate my mood and energy. In Colorado I lived with two other herbalists. We would cook together, or often share the kitchen while preparing meals. One day I noticed that my spice cabinet and my repertoire were rather limited. There was always salt and pepper. I grew up with oregano and thyme in the garden, so always had them on the shelf. Cayenne. Cumin. Garlic. Ginger. To me these were the extent of spice flavors. My roommates, on the other hand, had bags of things that I couldn’t even identify, let alone know how to use them or pair them with the right flavors; spices like marjoram, fennel, dill, tarragon, orange peel, caraway, sage, clove, cardamom, mace, anise, cinnamon (on and on)….


Next I realized that spices make cooking more fun. They also make the food so much more enjoyable. The difference between a burger patty cooked with salt, pepper, fennel, and orange peel, and one cooked with just salt is like heaven and earth. Sure, the latter will nourish you, but the former is the organoleptic equivalent of paradise in my humble opinion. One of the best spice recipes for baked chicken I learned at this time—1 part tarragon, 1 part marjoram, salt, and pepper. It’s simple and incredibly delicious. The amount is up to you. I like to go heavy for the most taste and medicinal effect.

Another reason to develop strong relationships with culinary herbs is for the medicinal benefits. In addition to deepening your relationship with the natural world, most cooking spices help to regulate and maintain healthy digestion in some way. Some are considered stomachic, some are carminative, some are anthelmintic, some are prebiotics, some have bitter liver-stimulating properties, and most contain ample amounts of vitamins and/or minerals. This is just a short list, by the way.


Consider some of the traditional ways you’ve seen culinary herbs utilized. At Indian restaurants you’ll often find a glass bowl near the register filled with fennel candy. Indian food can be quite heavy, so the fennel helps promote optimal digestion. Sage is traditionally cooked with rich, fatty meat. This is because it helps to alleviate gas and bloating. Arabic coffee includes cardamom. Coffee is considered “cold” and astringent energetically. It causes tissue to tonify and contract. Adding the cardamom, which is a warming herb, helps balance the energetics, thus helping to prevent imbalance in the digestion.

We could go on all day with examples. The point is that culinary herbs are here to make our lives better. They are a gift from the Earth to allow us to enjoy nourishing ourselves, encouraging optimal health and wellness in connection with that which gives us life.


If this article has you contemplating a spice cabinet expansion, then you’re in luck. Not only does HAALo stock high-quality, organic spices, but they are also now 30% off through July 31.

Six Tips for Using Culinary Herbs

  1. If you’re using both oil and herbs, mix them together first. For example, when making baked chicken, heat the oil slightly, powder the herbs, and then mix the two together. That way, when basting the chicken, there’s optimal flavor coverage.
  2. Infuse oils to use in cooking or as dressing. Gather some dry herb and place a generous amount in olive oil (or your oil of choice). Let this sit for a few weeks and then strain and enjoy. Alternatively, you can place the mixture in a mason jar and lightly heat in a double boiler (pot filled with water). When I’m making Italian food, I like to chop garlic into olive oil and heat on low while I’m cooking the rest of the meal. By the time I’m done cooking, I’ve got delicious garlic oil for garlic bread or dressing.
  3. Look at traditional recipes to learn which flavors pair well, and then experiment.
  4. Fresh herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro, dill, etc.) make a delicious addition to salads. If you’re cooking with fresh herbs then add them toward the end to preserve aromatics and flavor.
  5. Add tough roots or barks (e.g. cinnamon, ginger, burdock) first to allow them to extract longer. Sometime in the middle of cooking add aromatic seeds (e.g. cumin, fennel, caraway) to allow them to soften but not overcook. Add leafy herbs with delicate aromatics (e.g. basil, cilantro, mint, oregano, thyme) near the end to preserve flavor. The flavor-filled essential oils cook off with heat and time. There are exceptions, but this is generally my method for cooking with spices.
  6. Infuse things with flavor! Add spices to honey, vinegar, oil, or anything else you can fancy and macerate (let infuse for 2-4 weeks). You may choose to strain or not. A cabinet full of potions makes experimenting in the kitchen more fun and interesting.

Jon OlesonHerbalist Jon Oleson is available for over-the-counter consults at HAALo on Tuesdays. In addition to culinary and medicinal herbs, he's also a wonderful flower essence clinician.

The 30% off sale on bulk culinary herbs ends July 31, 2015.

«  Previous Post:   | 
Next Post:  »