That’s a little like the old joke, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" - "Practice!"
The universe of herbs, spices, condiments, and other seasonings is huge. It is learned and mastered over years of cooking practice. But the good news is, you can start small and begin now.
We suggest you make a manageable project out of it. You could pick a flavor of the week and find a way to make a couple of dishes during that week that use your herb or spice. At the end of a year, you’ll have a better feel for most or all of the mainstream seasonings. We’re probably leaving some out, but the first year’s curriculum would certainly include onion, garlic, shallot, chives, celery, parsley, basil, cilantro, fennel, bay leaf, tarragon, thyme, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, coriander, dill, cumin, curry, pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, poultry seasoning, saffron, mint, cloves, allspice, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, lemon, mustard, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and hot pepper sauce.
Then you can move on to some of the more exotic seasonings or begin to learn how to blend spices, which will take some of the flavors you’ve learned about in entirely new directions. You can certainly spend more than a year on that!
The good news is, a lot of the work has been done for you. Cuisines have evolved around the world over hundreds of years and millions of recipes have been developed based on pairing certain herbs and spices with certain ingredients. Various online recipe databases will be of great help, as you can quickly scan many recipes that blend salmon & dill, beef & leeks & oregano, and cabbage & mustard seed & celery seed, etc.
If you’re serious about learning to use herbs and spices, you should think about investing in a good reference book or two. Among our favorites are:
- Herbs and Spices: The Cook's Reference
- A Busy Cook's Guide to Spices
- The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices
- Seasoning Savvy
- The Spice Lover's Guide to Herbs and Spices
- The Spice & Herb Bible
- Cooking with Herbs and Spices
- Herb Mixtures & Spicy Blends
- Cooking with Spices for Dummies
- Adriana’s Spice Caravan
Adriana’s Spice Caravan seems to do a particularly good job of introducing novices to the world of spices, with a global perspective, lots of interesting tidbits on the history and lore of the flavors, and a good running commentary on how the herbs and spices are traditionally used.