Herb vs. Spice: What’s the Difference?

A stand at the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey.
A stand at the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey. / Reza/Getty Images

Herbs and spices have a lot in common. They both, for example, can have your dinner guests begging for the recipes after reaching for second and third helpings of every dish on the table. They can also completely change your mind about Brussels sprouts, broccoli, or another unfairly disgraced vegetable you’ve hated since childhood.

And although herbs and spices all come from plants, they don’t all come from the same parts of plants. Herbs, as The Kitchn explains, are the leaves of a plant—things like parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, and other ones that Simon and Garfunkel never happened to sing about. A seasoning harvested from any other part of the plant—including the roots, bark, seeds, rhizomes, bulbs, buds, etc.—is considered a spice. Cinnamon sticks are really bits of bark from trees in the Cinnamomum genus, while cloves are dried flower buds from the clove tree.

Some plants even boast an herb and a spice, which can make things a little complicated when it comes to naming those products. The leaves of the Coriandrum sativum plant are widely known as cilantro, which is definitely an herb. The seeds, on the other hand, usually called coriander, are a spice. But cilantro and coriander are both common names for the whole plant, and cilantro is really just the Spanish word for coriander. Dill (Anethum graveolens) is another example. Dill weed refers to dill leaves (the herb), while dill seed—which is actually not a seed, but the tiny, brown fruit of the dill plant—is a spice.

If you’re talking about an herb with a botanist rather than a chef, however, they won’t just be referring to the leaves of the plant. According to Merriam-Webster, the botanical definition of herb is “a seed-producing annual, biennial, or perennial that does not develop persistent woody tissue but dies down at the end of the growing season.” Botanically speaking, herbs are whole plants that don’t have wooden parts like trees and bushes. The entire cumin plant, for instance, whose seeds are ground into a spice, is technically an herb.

As for how to use herbs in your recipes, here’s a handy pairing guide.

[h/t The Kitchn]