Spices & Herbs
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Italian Spices and Herbs
From The Encyclopedia of Italian Cooking by Jeni Wright



Spices have been used in Italy since Roman times, when if anything they were used to excess, drowning the flavor of other ingredients.   Nowadays spices are used in smaller quantities but they are present in many dishes. The following list describes those spices most frequently used in Italian recipes.

 ball6.gif (1712 bytes)   CORIANDER  [coriandolo]
Crushed coriander seeds are used in various meat dishes, particularly lamb and pork.

ball6.gif (1712 bytes)    GINGER [zenzero]
This spice is rarely used in Italian cooking, except in the region of Apulia and Basilicata in southern Italy, where it is very popular.

ball6.gif (1712 bytes)    NUTMEG [Noce moscata]
The Italians are fond of this spice, both in sweet and savoury dishes. Ground nutmeg has none of the fresh flavour and aroma of the freshly grated kind, therefore whole nutmegs should be bought and grated directly into the dish at the time of cooking. Nutmeg is a common ingredient in ravioli and dishes which contain spinach or cheese.

ball6.gif (1712 bytes)    PEPPER [pepe]
Black peppercorns should always be used. Grind them fresh at the time of cooking or serving; never use ready-ground pepper.

ball6.gif (1712 bytes)    SAFFRON [zafferano]
This is used mostly in risotto and in fish soups and stews. Saffron is very expensive and therefore used sparingly. Saffron threads are probably the easiest and most economical way of using saffron: they should be steeped in a little warm water until the color and aroma are extracted; the water should then be strained and added to the dish.

ball6.gif (1712 bytes)    SALT [sale]
Sea salt is used throughout Italy. Coarse sea salt rather than table or cooking salt is the type to use.

ball6.gif (1712 bytes)    VANILLA [vaniglia]
Vanilla is a popular flavoring in sweet dishes, and vanilla sugar sold in sachets is frequently used with ordinary sugar to give flavor to cakes and pastries. The Italians use vanilla pods (beans) rather then essence (extract).


Herbs are an important flavouring in Italian cooking and fresh ones are normally used, because most Italians either grow their own or have easy access to fresh herbs. In the winter months home-dried herbs are used. Herbs can be grown easily in pots on the windowsill or in the garden - they should be picked in the summer at the height of the growing season, then stored in the freezer or hung up to dry in a cool, airy place away from damp. Once dry, they should be stored in airtight containers.

ball6.gif (1712 bytes)    Basil (basilico)
There are numerous varieties of this spicy, aromatic herb, but sweet basil and bush basil are the most common. It is used mostly in dishes that contain tomatoes, and in salads, soups and on pizzas. Freshly chopped basil should be used whenever possible, as dried basil makes a poor substitute. If buying dried basil, however, always choose the sweet kind; its flavour is much less pungent than other varieties.

ball6.gif (1712 bytes)    Bay Leaves (lauro)
Bay leaves are used as a flavouring for casseroles, soups and sometimes roasts.

ball6.gif (1712 bytes)    Borage (borragine)
Borage has a flavour not unlike cucumber. It grows all over Italy, and is used both as a flavouring and as a vegetable. Ravioli is stuffed with borage in Genoa. Borage leaves are also served like spinach or dipped in batter and deep-fried as fritters.

ball6.gif (1712 bytes)    Fennel (finocchio)
Fennel is used in three ways in Italian cooking. The bulb, known as Florence fennel or finocchio, is used whole, sliced or quartered as a vegetable, and either braised or baked au gratin. It is also chopped raw in salads. Wild fennel stems (finocchiella) and the frondy leaves, which have the slightly bitter tang of aniseed, are used in cooking to flavour sauces, particularly in fish and sometimes pork dishes. They are also chopped and added to mayonnaise, eggs and cold fish dishes. Fennel seeds are a common flavouring in spiced sausages and other cooked meats, Finocchiona salame being the best known of these.

ball6.gif (1712 bytes)    Juniper (ginepro)
The berries of the juniper bush are used in pork and game dishes and in marinades. If they are to be included in a dish such as a stuffing they should always be crushed first. Use juniper berries sparingly as their flavour can be bitter if used in too large a quantity.

ball6.gif (1712 bytes)    Marjoram, Sweet (maggiorana)
This herb is sometimes used in soups, stews, vegetable and fish dishes. If necessary it can act as a substitute for oregano.

ball6.gif (1712 bytes)    Myrtle (mirto)
The Sardinians make full use of myrtle to flavour meats, particularly when spit-roasting young animals. This herb is used elsewhere in Italy, but not to the same extent.

ball6.gif (1712 bytes)    Oregano (origano)
This is also known as wild marjoram. It is an essential ingredient in many Italian dishes, including pizzas, sauces and casseroles, but its flavour differs slightly from one region to another.

 ball6.gif (1712 bytes)  Parsley (prezzemolo)
Italian parsley is the flat-leaved variety as opposed to the curly "moss" variety common in Britain and the United States. Flat-leaved parsley can usually be found at continental stores, where it is often called "continental parsley". Its flavour is far more pungent than curly parsley, and for this reason it is generally used as a flavouring in Italian dishes rather than as a simple garnish. For Italian recipes where parsley is specified, try to obtain the flat-leaved variety; other parsley can be used as a substitute, but the flavour of the finished dish will not be quite the same.

ball6.gif (1712 bytes)    Rosemary (rosemarino)
The Italians are very fond of flavouring lamb and suckling pig with rosemary. It is also used liberally in soups and stews. However it is wise to treat this herb with a little caution, since its distinctive flavour can easily overpower ingredients with more subtle flavours.

ball6.gif (1712 bytes)   
Sage (salvia)
Sage is commonly used in liver and veal dishes.