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Digital Thermometers:
Stop Guessing!

thermopop bbq thermometer

Gold BBQ AwardA good digital thermometer keeps me from serving dry overcooked food or dangerously undercooked food. You can get a professional grade, fast and precise splashproof thermometer like the Thermopop (above) for about $24. The Thermapen (below), the Ferrari of instant reads, is about $96. It's the one you see all the TV chefs and all the top competition pitmasters using. Click here to read more about types of thermometer and our ratings and reviews.

bbq thermapen

GrillGrates Take You To
The Infrared Zone


Gold BBQ AwardGrillGrates(TM) amplify heat, prevent flareups, make flipping foods easier, produce great grill marks, keep small foods from committing suicide, kill hotspots, are easier to clean, flip over to make a fine griddle, smolder wood right below the meat, and can be easily removed and moved from one grill to another. You can even throw wood chips or pellets or sawdust between the rails and deliver a quick burst of smoke to whatever is above. Every gas grill and pellet smoker needs them.

Click here to read more about what makes these grates so special and how they compare to other cooking surfaces.

The Smokenator:
A Necessity For All Weber Kettles

smokenator bbq system

Gold BBQ Award If you have a Weber Kettle, you need the amazing Smokenator and Hovergrill. The Smokenator turns your grill into a first class smoker, and the Hovergrill can add capacity or be used to create steakhouse steaks.

Click here to read more.

The Pit Barrel Cooker

pit barrel c ooker bbqAbsolutely positively without a doubt the best bargain on a smoker in the world.

This baby will cook circles around the cheap offset sideways barrel smokers in the hardware stores because temperature control is so much easier (and that's because smoke and heat go up, not sideways).

Gold BBQ AwardBest of all, it is only $299 delivered to your door!

Click here to read our detailed review and the raves from people who own them.

scissor tongs

Best. Tongs. Ever.

Gold BBQ AwardMade of rugged 1/8" thick aluminum, 20" long, with four serious rivets, mine show zero signs of weakness after years of abuse. I use them on meats, hot charcoal, burning logs, and with the mechanical advantage that the scissor design creates, I can easily pick up a whole packer brisket. Click here to read more.

Amp Up The Smoke

mo's smoking pouch

Gold BBQ AwardMo's Smoking Pouch is essential for gas grills. It is an envelope of mesh 304 stainless steel that holds wood chips or pellets. The airspaces in the mesh are small enough that they limit the amount of oxygen that gets in so the wood smokes and never bursts into flame. Put it on top of the cooking grate, on the burners, on the coals, or stand it on edge at the back of your grill. It holds enough wood for about 15 minutes for short cooks, so you need to refill it or buy a second pouch for long cooks like pork shoulder and brisket. Mine has survived more than 50 cooks. Click for more info.

steak knives for bbq

The Best Steakhouse Knives

Gold BBQ AwardThe same knives used at Peter Luger, Smith & Wollensky, and Morton's. Machine washable, high-carbon stainless steel, hardwood handle. And now they have the AmazingRibs.com imprimatur. Click for more info.

tailgater magazine

sage leaf

The Science of Herbs & Spices

"If variety is the spice of life, marriage is the big can of leftover Spam." Johnny Carson

By Meathead Goldwyn

Meats and veggies often taste great unadorned. A great ribeye steak or a filet of fresh Chilean Sea Bass need nothing more than a little salt and pepper. But chefs make their living by amping foods up with herbs, spices, and sauces with herbs and spices in them. Here are some things to know about these important flavor enhancers and a list of what well armed cooks will have in their tool kits.

What are spices? Spices are flavorings made from seeds, berries, fruits, bark, and roots.

What are herbs? Culinary herbs are flavorings for cooking usually made from green leaves (that's a sage leaf at the top of the page). Medicinal herbs include things cooks call spices.

Fresh vs. dried herbs. Herbs are wonderful and fresh herbs are more wonderful. The taste of fresh herbs is significantly different than their dried counterparts. Fresh herbs are about 80% water so dried herbs are almost an entirely different animal. Some herbs change more than others when dried. Dried rosemary is a lot like fresh rosemary, but dried dill bears no resemblance to fresh. That's because most of the flavor in rosemary comes from the oils in the leaves while dill has much less oil.

When herbs like oregano and basil are dried, they are usually crushed which also allows fragrance and flavor to flee. Other herbs, like rosemary and bay leaf, are not crushed when dried. Of course you can crush or powder them if you wish. I love powdered bay leaf in some of my rubs. You just can't find them in the store, so I take them for a spin in my spice grinder.

Fresh herbs can add an element of complex and bright flavor to whatever you are cooking. A pinch of rosemary in grits can make them really pop. Fresh basil and tomato are made for each other like peanut butter and jelly. Fresh herbs are really worth the effort to grow. They take up little space, and many can be grown in pots and on window sills. Windowbox.com is a good source for supplies for growing herbs indoors.

In cooking, fresh herbs are usually added just before serving, cooking for only 30 to 60 seconds, in order to preserve their freshness.

3 parts fresh herbs = 1 part dried. Approximately. Sometimes. It's a good rule of thumb, but not perfect. Some say 2 to 1. It depends heavily on how fine the herbs have been crushed and how fresh they are. Powdered bay leaf packs a bigger whallop than crushed bay leaf, which is more potent than whole bay leaf.

Drying herbs can concentrate some of their flavors, while other flavors evaporate. Swapping fresh for dried can have a major impact on the recipe. So you should always try to use what the recipe calls for. That said, here are some guidelines for substituting dried herbs if you can't get a fresh herb.

Since there are 3 teaspoons in a tablespoon, if a recipe calls for fresh herbs and all you have is dried, just change tablespoons to teaspoons. So if the recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of fresh thyme, use 1 teaspoon or dried thyme. Please note, this only works if the herb is a minor part of the dish. For something like pesto, which is a pasty sauce made with lots of basil, you cannot substitute dried for fresh.

Storing dried herbs and spices. Dried spices and herbs deteriorate with age, light, heat, moisture, and oxygen, and there can be a major difference in quality between a new bottle of basil and an old one. For that reason it makes sense to buy them in small bottles. My favorite spice merchant, Penzeys.com, sells many in half-bottle sizes holding about one ounce.

If you buy herbs and spices in plastic bags, put them in bottles. Air can penetrate bags. Twist the caps on tightly. Mark the date of purchase on the bottle. Store spices in cool, dark cabinets.

Storing fresh herbs. It is important to keep fresh herbs cool and moist. The best method is to put their stems in a vase of water in the fridge. Another technique is to wrap them in moist paper towels and put that in a plastic bag that has some holes to allow it to breathe so they don't get moldy.

Fresh green herbs can usually be frozen. Dried green herbs age more quickly than ground spices. Toss them after a year. Toss ground spices after two years. Whole spices keep longer still. They get the heave-ho after three years. But these are just guidelines. Notice the color when you buy herbs and spices. Most are bright and vibrant. When they get dull and flat, toss them. Notice the smell when you buy them. Rub some in the palm of your hand and smell. If it is not strong and distinctive, out the door it goes. If they clump and cake so much you need an ice pick, sayonara. Tossing old herbs and spices can get expensive. If you must use an old herb or spice, just increase the quantities by about 25 to 50%, and taste the dish frequently. I often toss them on the coals of my grill for a little extra exotic smoke flavor, especially for fish and chicken.

Caking. To keep them from caking, pour spices into a measuring spoon or your palm. Don't pour them directly into a hot pot because steam can get in when the spices get out.

Seasoned salts. Don't use seasoned salts such as garlic salt or celery salt in cooking. Use garlic powder or celery seed powder. This way you can better control the salt content. Seasoned salts are sometimes nice to use on the dinner table. Make your own blend by blending 1/2 cup of sea salt with a tablespoon of mixed herbs and spices. Here's my favorite seasoned salt recipe.

Using herbs and spices

paprikaThe flavors in herbs and spices are usually locked in and need to be dissolved to produce their a taste. Sometimes they are dissolved in our saliva, but more frequently they are dissolved in food by one of three common solvents: Water, alcohol, or fats. Usually heat accelerates dissolution.

The flavor of many herbs and spices is in their oils and can best be released by putting them in oil. Heating the oil really accelerates extraction. It is not uncommon to start cooking by warming oil in a pan, adding onions until they wilt and sweeten in a few minutes, adding pressed garlic until it gives up its pungence in less than a minute, and then adding spices and dried herbs to extract their oils for about a minute. The flavors spread throughout the oil and are then spread through the rest of the ingredients as they are added. The cooking process often ends by tossing in fresh herbs just before serving, just to warm them.

Oils can also be extracted and magnified by "blooming" ground spices in a dry warm, frying pan for a minute or two until they get aromatic. They can then be added to other ingredients.

Some herbs and spices can be packed in oil to extract their flavors, but this is too risky to do at home. The process easily produces Clostridium botulinum which can kill you of botulism.

It is always a good idea to cook spices and herbs before serving them, even ground pepper. They grow outdoors where they are exposed to birds, rodents, and other furry creatures that can contaminate them. FDA testing has found contamination in many spices and herbs, especially salmonella. Cooking, even for a minute or two, can be enough to kill pathogens.

Stay away from of "sprigs". Some recipes call for a sprig or rosemary or another herb. How much is a sprig? Rosemary, for example, can grow long sprigs, and the leaves can range from 1/4" to more than 1". Depending on the size of the sprig you choose, you could be adding perhaps three times as much flavoring as necessary.

Grind and sift your black pepper. If you use black pepper, it is always better to grind your own with a pepper mill. Freshly ground black pepper has more pepper flavor, more bite, and more heat than the pre-ground stuff. If you use ground pepper on steaks or other things you are grilling hot, grind your pepper and sift it through a mesh strainer. Save the powder for something else, like your homemade barbecue sauce, and use the big chunks on the steak. Sprinkle them on and press them in with your hands.


The outdoor cook's pantry

There are lots of other great ways to bring flavor and complexcity to your dishes. You need hot stuff, tart stuff, oils, and dairy. Below is a list of what you need for a well-stocked pantry.spice grinder

If you buy a good spice grinder you can get a lot of herbs and spices whole and grind them as needed. Whole seeds keep longer, taste better when ground fresh, and free up a lot of space in your kitchen. Get a coffee grinder for reducing peppecorns to crushed pepper, or for powdering celery seeds, anise, caraway, bay leaves, etc. Get one with a blade not burrs, and make sure it is easy to clean if you plan to use it for both coffee and spices ("Honey, why does the coffee make me cry today?"). I like the Krups GX4100 Electric Coffee and Spice Grinderbarbecue. And while you're at it, get a garlic press. Makes quick work of smashing up garlic.

The essentials


Essential spices

Celery seed
Cinnamon powder
Cinnamon sticks
Clove, whole
Coriander seed
Cumin seed
Garlic powder
Ginger powder
Nutmeg powder
Onion powder
Paprika, sweet

Essential dried herbs

Bay (laurel) leaf

Essential fresh herbs

Most of these will grow
well on a well-lit window sill

Thai Basil

Essential hot stuff

American chili powder
Chipotle powder
Curry powder
Ginger, fresh
Horseradish in vinegar
Hot pepper sauces
Jalapeño chiles, fresh
Mustard, Dijon style
Mustard, yellow
Mustard powder

Peppercorns in a grinder, black

Grain products

Bread, fresh
Bread crumbs, plain
Couscous, instant
Corn starch
Flour, all-purpose
Rice, arborio
Rice, brown
Rice, white
Rice, wild

Essential sweeteners

Hoisin sauce
Jams, especially seedless black raspberry
Maple syrup
Onions, caramelized
Orange juice concentrate
Sugar, white
Sugar, brown

Essential acids

Lemon juice, fresh
Lemon juice, bottled
Lime juice, fresh
Orange juice, bottled
Vinegar, distilled
Vinegar, cider
Vinegar, cheap balsamic
Vinegar, Balsamic condimento
Wine, white

Essential fats & oils

Bacon fat
Butter, unsalted
Olive oil, cheap
Olive oil, good extra virgin
Peanut oil
Sesame oil

Essential produce

Ancho chiles
Bell pepper, green
Bell pepper, red

Garlic, whole fresh
Onions, pearl
Onions, medium
Tomatoes, fresh plum

Essential dairy

Butter, unsalted
Cheddar, sharp yellow
Chocolate, milk
Chocolate, semisweet chips

Cream cheese
Sour cream
Swiss or Jarlsberg
Milk, at least 2% fat
Yogurt, plain

Other essentials

Barbecue sauces
Beans, kidney, dried
Beer, lager
Beer, stout or porter

Broth, chicken
Broth, beef

Cranberries, dried
Coffee, whole bean
Pesto, frozen
Pickles, dill
Pickles, sweet gherkins
Salt, kosher
Salt, sea

Soy sauce
Tomatoes, canned whole
Tomato paste
Tomato salsa
Vanilla extract
Wine, medium dry sherry
Wine, low tannin red

Worcestershire sauce

Optional spices

Anise seeds
Caraway seeds
Cardamom seeds
Dill seeds
Fennel seeds
Five spice powder
Paprika, hot smoked
Peppercorns, Sichuan
Star anise

Optional dried herbs

Lemon grass

Optional fresh herbs

Celery leaves

Other useful stuff

Apple butter
Baking soda
Baking powder
Bell pepper, orange
Amaretto Liqueur
Chipotles in adobo
Coffee, instant
Cured ham
Ghee (clarified butter)
Grand Marnier Liqueur
Lemon zest
Liquid smoke
Orange zest
Pancake mix
Peppercorns, white
Raspberry Liqueur
Tamarind paste
Terriyaki sauce
Wasabi powder
Yeast, dry

Substituting one herb or spice for another

Whenever possible, you should use the hers and spices in the recipe. But many are similar in taste so if you are out of one you can use another. By trading one herb for another you will be significantly changing the taste of the dish. Also, some herbs are stronger than others. For example, you can use basil in place of cilantro, but cilantro is stronger. You should also remember that powders are stronger than crumbled herbs and spices because they are more compact with less air, so ground cayenne will be stronger than crumbled cayenne.

It is always better to make a quick run to the grocer or knock on your neighbor's door if you lack an ingredient, but making one of these substitutions will usually work. The dish will be good, but different. The farther to the right you go the further you get from the taste of the one on the left.

dingbat 2 to 3 parts fresh herbs <---> 1 part dried herbs

dingbat Thyme <---> Oregano <---> Savory <---> Italian seasoning <---> Poultry seasoning <---> Herbs de Provence

dingbat Basil <---> Mint <---> Tarragon <---> Marjoram <---> Italian seasoning <---> Parsley

dingbat Rosemary <---> Sage

dingbat Cilantro <---> Parsley <---> Mint <---> Basil

dingbat Chervil <---> Fennel leaves <---> Tarragon <---> Fines herbes

dingbat Chives <---> Green onion tops <---> Onion <---> Leek <---> Shallots <---> Cippolini

dingbat Ginger powder <---> Mustard powder <---> Fennel seed powder <---> Anise powder

dingbat Allspice <---> Cinnamon <---> Cassia <---> Nutmeg <---> Mace <---> Cloves <---> Pumpkin pie spices <---> Cardamom

dingbat American chili powder <---> Ancho powder

dingbat Chipotle Powder <---> Ground cayenne <---> Hot or smoked paprika <---> Chile or curry pastes or oils <---> Mustard powder

My favorite cooking tools

Click here to see a buying guide to more of my favorite cooking tools and a discussion of why I like them.

Revised 4/29/2009

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About this website. AmazingRibs.com is all about the science of barbecue, grilling, and outdoor cooking, with great BBQ recipes, tips on technique, and unbiased equipment reviews. Learn how to set up your grills and smokers properly, the thermodynamics of what happens when heat hits meat, as well as hundreds of excellent tested recipes including all the classics: Baby back ribs, spareribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, burgers, chicken, smoked turkey, lamb, steaks, barbecue sauces, spice rubs, and side dishes, with the world's best buying guide to barbecue smokers, grills, accessories, and thermometers, edited by Meathead.

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