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.
Crushed coriander seeds are used in various meat dishes, particularly lamb and pork.
This spice is rarely used in Italian cooking, except in the region of Apulia and
Basilicata in southern Italy, where it is very popular.
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.
Black peppercorns should always be used. Grind them fresh at the time of cooking or
serving; never use ready-ground pepper.
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.
Sea salt is used throughout Italy. Coarse sea salt rather than table or cooking salt is
the type to use.
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
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.
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.
Bay Leaves (lauro)
Bay leaves are used as a flavouring for casseroles, soups and sometimes roasts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Sage is commonly used in liver and veal dishes.