Herbs and spices give our cooking character and lend dishes the characteristic flavors of various cuisines. If your home cooking doesn’t have the vibrancy of similar dishes you’ve had out, the herbs and spices you use, and how you use them, may be a key difference.

A good first step is to make sure the dried herbs and spices you use are fresh and of good quality. Try to buy from sources with high turnover. “Inspect the spices before buying; ground peppers should be bright red, herbs vibrant green. If the color is faded, leave it on the shelf,” recommends JK Grence the Cosmic Jester. “Once you’ve bought them, give them a sniff every now and again; they should smell like what they are. If it smells like old hay, junk it.”

“Some people recommend changing out spices every six months; I think this is kind of silly,” adds JK Grence the Cosmic Jester. “Most plants have one growing season per year; if you change out the spices every six months, one of the replacements each year will be from the exact same crop you’re throwing out. Don’t worry about going by any set calendar. Use your eyes and nose and you’ll be fine.”

Some hounds buy spices by mail order to ensure what they get is fresh and good. “Supermarket spices are often on the shelves for considerable time, really past their prime and not well rotated; not the best place to purchase them, unless you’re desperate,” says bushwickgirl, who buys from the Spice House. HillJ recommends World Spice Merchant.

“When you can, buy spices whole and grind yourself,” advises HillJ. “Also, toasting or warming a spice in a dry pan and then grinding it will help bring out a fresh, full spice flavor.” Don’t be afraid to adjust the amounts of spices to your liking when following a recipe, says amokscience: “Your tongue is not the same as mine or [that of] the recipe’s author. If you think it needs more cumin, coriander, basil, cinnamon, thyme, or whatever and it tastes good because you did then you did right.”

Finally, if you still find dishes you cook bland, “it may be as simple as just adding more salt,” says soypower. “Salt is a flavor enhancer and restaurants tend to use more than you would at home. Just try adding a little more and see if it helps.”

Discuss: Spicing it up—am I doing it wrong?

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