What's the Difference Between Herbs and Spices?

These flavorful ingredients are the key to delicious cooking, but what exactly are they?

A small jar filled with red-orange powder with a hand-written label that reads cayenne pepper

Aleksandr Zubkov / Getty Images

From a sustainability standpoint, there's a lot to be said for cooking at home. Not only is it cheaper and oftentimes healthier, but you can control the ingredients and avoid all the access packaging that comes with to-go or convenience food.

When decking out a pantry, a home cook will need a number of staples, among them spices and herbs. But what's the difference between the two?

While both spices and herbs are used to boost the flavor of foods, the difference between the two is what part of the plant they come from.

Herbs are the leaves of the plant, such as rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, or cilantro. Spices, on the other hand, come from the non-leafy parts, including roots, bark, berries, flowers, seeds and so on. This would include cinnamon, star anise, ginger, turmeric, and pepper.

"Essentially, any part of the plant that is not a leaf and can be used for seasoning would fall into the spice category," clarifies The Kitchn.

10 Essentials for Your Spice Cabinet

Looking to stock your spice supply? Here are some of the most common herbs and spices:

  1. Black pepper
  2. Red pepper flakes and/or cayenne pepper
  3. Cumin
  4. Bay leaf
  5. Thyme
  6. Oregano
  7. Rosemary
  8. Ground ginger
  9. Ground cinnamon
  10. Nutmeg

Sometimes a plant can produce both an herb an a spice. Cilantro leaves are an herb while the seeds, coriander, are a spice. Dill weed also produces seeds that are used as a spice while the leaves are used as an herb.

Simple, right? Well, there may be a small hitch to this easy definition. Fooducate specifies, "According to the American Spice Trade Association, spices are defined as 'any dried plant product used primarily for seasoning purposes'. This really broadens the definition of spices, allowing it to include herbs, dehydrated veggies, spice blends and spice seeds."

Try Whole Spices

Jarred herbs and spices fade in flavor as they age, so it can be helpful to purchase them in smaller quantities. You can also buy spices in their whole form—like whole nutmeg or cinnamon sticks—and grind them as you need them.

Of course, a trade association wouldn't mind broadening a definition to include more products! Just know that if you're ever asked the difference between herbs and spices, you have a simple way to explain the distinction.