Real Life Paleo

Tutorial Thursday: Herbs and Spices and How to Use Them to Make Your Own Spice Blends

tutorial thursday by paleo parents




It’s our FOURTH installment of Tutorial Thursday, having previously shared All About Apples, Spaghetti Squash, and All About Pumpkins. This week, we’re switching it up a little bit and talking about not just a particular food, but how to flavor foods in general. And stay until the end where we’ll be sharing our spice blends from Real Life Paleo!

How To Spice Blends Tutuorial on Paleo Parents from Real Life Paleo

Herbs and Spices

Today, we’re flavoring our food and delving into the vast catalog of botanicals that people use in cooking. It may seem extremely intimidating at first, but it’s our hope that we can help you dip your toe in and learn a little bit about herbs and spices.

tutorial thursday how & why by paleo parents




First of all, you may be wondering what the difference is and how to tell one from the other. Essentially, herbs are always from the leafy part of a plant, while spices are anything else you would use in flavoring that is not a leaf (the bark, the seeds, the roots, etc.). Once humans invented cooking for flavor (which we did independently in various cultures throughout the world), finding new and interesting flavors became a bit of an obsession for us. Each region of the globe has a certain number of native flavorings that contribute to that region’s flavor profile. For example, South Asia is the home of cardamom, cinnamon, cumin and turmeric, which is why Indian curry prominently features those flavors. In Southeast Asia, you find lemongrass, coriander, kaffir lime, and ginger, all of which are prominent in Thai cuisine. Meanwhile, over in Northern Europe where my ancestors are from, we have a veritable culinary wasteland. Which is why there is no such thing as English cuisine.

I kid.

But it is this particular dearth of spices (there are some, of course, native to Northern and Central Europe like horseradish, caraway (which is why it’s the classic sausage flavor), and rosemary), is what prompted so much of the trade between Europe, the Mediterranean, South Asia and Southeast Asian. Once Europeans realized that food could taste good if only the cooks of Asia would share a little flavor, caravans and shipping routes started flourishing. In fact, one might argue that this desperate desire for taste is a significant factor that made European sailors, not Chinese or Middle Eastern sailors, the ones to discover the New World. Why sail around Africa or face the mountains and bandits of the overland route if you can use take the Atlantic shortcut to China?

Unfortunately, there was a continent in the way.

But the history of the spice trade is a fascinating one and worth looking into. For example, did you know that people went to war over the Banda islands, a group of small Malaysian islands, on and off for centuries because it was the only place you could acquire nutmeg? But for our purpose, let’s talk about why we use it and how to do it best.

Health Benefits

For the entire course of human history, we’ve been seeking out various plants to use as medicine. Some of those ancient discoveries have proven to be so effective that we are still using them today. The old practice of chewing willow bark has now been replaced by modern aspirin. Several culinary herbs are still used that way by natural practitioners and the proverbial old wives alike. Dill and mint are used to calm the digestive system. Chile peppers help the circulatory system. Cinnamon lowers inflammation. And I hear that oregano kills everything microbial, but leaves your own cells alive.

All of that is well and fine, of course, but in the amounts you’ll get from one serving of your food, it doesn’t seem likely to be a high enough dose to cause a profound response. Personally, I don’t think about these potential benefits as I cook, but it’s nice to know that the benefits are there!

Organic vs. Not

Whether to buy organic spices is really a matter of personal preference. Because your dose of herbs and spices will always be low compared to the rest of your food, the amount of pesticides you will ingest will also be very low. However, often you’ll find not much difference in cost between organic and non-organic spices. For example, here’s McCormick conventional cinnamon for $2.50. And here’s Simply Organics cinnamon for $3.73. And the bottle size is also very similar.

If you get into the really gourmet spices through companies such as Penzeys, though, then we’re talking three times the price of conventional.

We personally prefer to buy mid-grade spices and dried herbs (almost always through Tropical Traditions) for daily use, because we can be assured the ingredients are clean and flavors more rich than the cheaper versions which can often be stale already at the time of purchase.


The good news about dried herbs and spices is that they keep their flavor for a very long time and will never spoil! How long? Well, the rule of thumb is to use them until they no longer flavor your food as strongly as you’d like. For whole spices, that may be as long as 4 or 5 years. Dried herbs will keep for 1 or 2 years and ground spices may last 2 or 3. Using them all within the first couple months of opening your spices will ensure they remain flavorful.

As for fresh herbs, that may vary as well, but not long at all. Kept loose in your fridge, you should use them within a week. Using a container like this may allow you to keep them for 2 weeks.


How To Spice Blends Tutuorial on PaleoParents from Real Life Paleo


What are the most common herbs and spices you’ll find? Well, let’s talk about them!


  • Parsley – A very mild, peppery leaf that is used mostly as a garnish in European and Mediterranean cuisine
  • Basil – An herb common in both Italian cuisine (Sweet basil) and Southeast Asian (Thai Basil), it is Stacy’s favorite herb.
  • Oregano – Oregano is the pizza herb. It’s used in Mediterranean cooking, but a stronger flavored cousin is also used in Mexican cuisine.
  • Rosemary – Rosemary is a very fragrant herb used in Italian and European cooking used on meats and sauces.
  • Thyme – Thyme has a lemon-minty flavor and is often paired with other herbs like parsley and bay leaf or rosemary and sage.
  • Tarragon – Tarragon is the herb that adds that “chicken soup” flavor and is similar in taste to anise or licorice, we think this herb is woefully underused!
  • Cilantro – Cilantro has a bright flavor and is common in Latin and Asian cuisine (where it is known as coriander). Interestingly, some people, including Julia Child, experience the flavor as an unappealing, soapy taste.
  • Bay Leaf – Bay leaves come from the laurel tree and add subtle flavor in soups, stews and braises.
  • Dill – Dill is the major flavor of the best kind of pickles, and is also a part of tartar sauce and ranch.
  • Marjoram – Marjoram is a cousin of oregano, though it is milder in flavor.
  • Sage – Sage is a savory herb often used in pork, poultry and sausages.
  • Mint – Mint is a overpowering weed that has prevented me from growing an herb garden for 6 years. It’s an aromatic herb that lends itself to desserts, tea, and lamb dishes.
  • Chives – Chives are a form of onion that can add a mild onion taste to food; they happen to be Cole’s favorite herb.


  • Cinnamon – Cinnamon is a flavorful tree bark that is not only used in a variety of sweet preparations, especially with chocolate, apples and pumpkin, but savory dishes from the Middle East and India as well.
  • Allspice – Allspice is a berry that got its name from its flavor, a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. It’s useful in sweet dishes (The Paleo Mom uses it in pumpkin pie) as well as being one of the main flavors in Jamaican jerk.
  • Ginger – Ginger is a rhizome that can be grated fresh or used dried and powdered, though that version is sweeter and lacks the spicy bite of fresh ginger. It is pervasive in Asian and Indian cooking in both sweet and savory preparations.
  • Cumin – Cumin seed was so popular in ancient times that ancient Greeks kept it on the table like you may keep pepper. It’s popular in meat dishes in the Mediterranean, South Asia and even Latin America.
  • Cardamom – Cardamom seed pod is a popular spice in Indian cuisine where it is used in curries and desserts.
  • Caraway – Caraway seed has a distinct rye flavor and is found in sausages in German cooking and in sauerkraut.
  • Paprika – Paprika is made from ground sweet red bell peppers. It’s the national spice of Hungary and is popular in the Mediterranean and Middle East as well.
  • Cayenne – Cayenne, as with other ground chilis, is an extremely hot spice used to add heat to savory dishes. It can also pair with chocolate.
  • Nutmeg – Nutmeg is a seed spice that is perfect in baked goods as well as other dessert, including my favorite, egg nog.
  • Horseradish – Horseradish is a spice root that is grated into sauces and meat dishes, especially steak.
  • Wasabi – Wasabi is a green color stem that is grated in Japanese cooking, especially used with sushi.
  • Mustard – Mustard seeds are used in pickling, and for making, well, mustard. It is used pretty much everywhere, especially Europe and Asia.
  • Coriander seed – Coriander is the seeds of the cilantro plant, though it has a completely different flavor. It’s found in both savory and baked dishes, especially in curry.
  • Saffron – Saffron is made of the stigma of a flower and is the world’s most expensive spice. It is used famously in Spanish paella, and throughout the Mediterranean.
  • Star Anise – Anise has a licorice flavor and is used worldwide in both savory and sweet dishes. We like it in our pho broth.

tutorial thursday tools & tips by paleo parents


If you’re going to be dipping into the spice realm, I recommend getting a dedicated spice grinder. Essentially, you’ll get a coffee grinder dedicated to grinding up whole seeds and other spices. Freshly ground spices are more potent and flavorful and you can keep whole seeds for years before you finally grind them.

You may also want to use a dehydrator to create your own dried herbs for storage or a small sautee pan if you have a need for toasted spices (whereby the heat activates their fragrant flavors).

There are so many pairing and spice blends out there that I couldn’t even hope to list them all. If this topic is fascinating for you reading more from two books that are pretty comprehensive lists of spices and their uses will be a great addition to your repertoire The Spice Lover’s Guide to Herbs and Spicesis an excellent resource that lists every single spice and spice blend, how to use it, and what foods it pairs best with. The reverse approach to this guide is The Flavor Bible, which lists foods and then tells you what spices and herbs go best with it.


Some of the questions we get most often are around substituting spices, particularly for those following the autoimmune protocol. If you’re confused about which of the above list are eliminated in the initial strict autoimmune protocol phase, remember that seeds are what is being eliminated (among the other items). So all seed based spices need to be eliminated, that includes not consuming:

  • Cumin
  • Coriander
  • Allspice
  • Nutmeg
  • Mustard
  • Anise

Initially, it’s probably best to just eliminate all the spices that look like seeds. Dr. Sarah Ballantyne also recommends in The Paleo Approach at least initially removing berries and seed pods like:

  • Pepper
  • Vanilla
  • Cardamom
  • Caraway

The other thing to eliminate are nightshade spices. That includes:

  • Paprika
  • Chili Powder
  • Cayenne
  • Red Pepper Flakes

If you’re looking for replacements, remember that leafy herbs are safe. We use cinnamon and cloves in place of allspice and nutmeg. Or try ginger and horseradish for your heat. Anise can be replaced with tarragon and mustard with oregano.

Itutorial thursday recommendation & recipes by paleo parents

How to use herbs and spices

If you’ve previously been buying pre-prepared spice blends and aren’t sure where to start within making your own flavor combinations – don’t worry! It’s a fun experiment and using your nose will help you find your way. And then there is also Real Life Paleo, our upcoming book.

How To Spice Blends by Paleo Parents

In Real Life Paleo, we wrote a section on spice blends and how to combine spices. We’ve decided that this information should not wait until November 4th to be heard, so we’re sharing it now! We included five spice blends for each of the most common meat types so that you can get started on making your food more flavorful in harmony with the proteins they are being cooked with.

Once you find a spice blend you like and find yourself using often, making a batch of a couple of servings and putting it in a small jar (or recycling one from other spices you’ve used up) can save you time the next time in the kitchen!

Chicken Spice Blend


  • ½ tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon dried tarragon
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black
  • pepper


  1. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Use on whole roasted chicken, chicken thighs or even in a chicken soup.

Pork Spice Blend


  • ½ tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black
  • pepper


  1. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Use in pork roasts, pork chops or pork shoulder.

Beef Spice Blend


  • ½ tablespoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon dried basil
  • ½ teaspoon dried parsley
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black
  • pepper


  1. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Use on beef roasts, short ribs or beef stew.

Lamb Spice Blend


  • ½ tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black
  • pepper


  1. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Use on leg of lamb or lamb stew.

Fish Spice Blend


  • ½ tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried dill
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black
  • pepper


  1. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Use on salmon or white fish.

Psst, like our recipes? Then you’ll love our upcoming cookbook Real Life Paleo! With less than 2 weeks before release NOW is the time to order and have delivered in time for November 4th release!

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  • English Rose

    I hope you realise all your English readers are going to have something to say about this! Ok, I will bring to the table scones, Cornish pasties, cottage pie and trifle, what do you think to that!?

    • I think you imported all your herbs and spices. The reason people make the joke about English cooking is because your island doesn’t have native herbs and spices, so there was never an incentive to devote time to it like there was in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia. You’ll note that none of your named dishes are known for their seasonings. You’ll also note that the English are most known for drinking tea, which is an imported product, and that the most popular take away food is heavily spiced curry.

      I say work with the hand you’re dealt. America was dealt massive amounts of pasture, so we eat steaks and hamburgers and elevated barbecue to an artform. England got nothing but turnips and never developed a deep culinary tradition.

  • Sandi

    In the recipe for Chicken Spice Blend, you don’t say whether the thyme is ground or dried like you do for all other herbs on this page. I’m assuming dried. Is that correct? It does make a difference because 1 tsp ground is far more potent than 1 tsp dried. Thanks!