Now that I've been out on my own learning how to cook for a couple of years, I've learned that spices really are absolutely essential for creating flavorful dishes. Spices are especially prevalent in Italian cooking, which I learned early on when I shadowed my mom making everything from meatballs to pizza. Aside from fresh produce and luscious olive oil, I would argue that Italian spices are the most important element of Italian cooking. 

What's taken a while for me to sort out, however, is which Italian spices to use in which dishes, and what combinations work best together. Luckily, I've done the research so that you don't have to. Here are the top Italian spices and when to use them to make your food taste almost as good as Grandma's.


herb, basil, olive oil, vegetable, oil
Jocelyn Hsu

Basil is the number one herb in Italian cuisine. Its fresh, bright flavor goes well with Italian staples like cheese, tomatoes, and balsamic vinegar to make Caprese salad. My personal favorite, however, is basil pesto.

Basil is used both fresh and dried. Fresh is most common in cold dishes or added after cooking, while dry is used to flavor things that will cook for a while, such as soups and sauces. Basil also has the added health benefit of being antibacterial.


herb, relish, vegetable, oregano, care, Harvest, Gardening, Garden, farming, planting, Plant, Grow
Alex Frank

Oregano is much better to use dried than fresh, since the pungent, spicy flavor comes out more after the herb has been dried. It’s traditionally used in southern Italian and Sicilian dishes. In everyday cooking, it works best in tomato-based pasta sauces.


olive oil, herb, tea, oil, rosemary
Jessica Kelly

Rosemary is an extremely easy herb to grow for yourself so that you can have it fresh in your cooking. In traditional Italian cooking, it’s often used when roasting meats and for adding peppery but floral flavor to stocks.

All you need to do is drop a sprig of fresh rosemary in at the beginning of the cooking process and it will lend your dish a peppery, woody flavor. I love using fresh rosemary whenever I make homemade focaccia.


herb, vegetable, thyme
Jessica Suss

Thyme is actually a member of the mint family and is used throughout the Mediterranean in a variety of dishes. Try adding it to vegetables, potatoes (such as this maple sweet potato dish), or meats before roasting.

The herb works well either fresh or dried, depending on what's more convenient for you. The fresh version has a more pungent flavor. The lemony and minty natural flavor of thyme pairs exceptionally well with lemon, such as these lemon and thyme chicken thighs.


herb, vegetable, condiment, parsley
Becky Hughes

Prezzemolo, as parsley is called in Italian, is one of the most commonly used herbs in Italian cooking. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a pasta, sauce, or soup recipe without it.

Parsley comes in flat-leaf and curly-leaf varieties, but flat-leaf parsley is so much more common in Italian cooking that it is nicknamed Italian Parsley. Flat leaf has more robust taste for flavoring dishes as they cook, but curly leaf is better for fine chopping and garnishing.

Parsley is most often used to complement spicy elements because of its natural ability to brighten other flavors in any dish. As an added bonus, it has lots of vitamins and minerals.


ravioli, sage, pasta, fish, vegetable, butter
Alexis Clark

Around the world, sage is used for its health properties, which include anti-inflammatory and digestion aid. It’s often used in rich pasta dishes like gnocchi, risotto, and ravioli. That's because sage's natural warm fragrance brightens up heavy dishes.

Recently, I’ve seen it most often paired with brown butter and butternut squash. Sage is undeniably better when it's fresh than dried, especially when it's lightly cooked in a butter sauce.

Bay Leaves

sauce, beef, lamb
Kathleen Lee

Although you’ll rarely actually eat a bay leaf (they're pretty sharp and could hurt your throat), you’d be surprised to realize how many dishes feature bay. Dried bay leaves are often used to flavor soups, stocks, and stews along with braised meats and pickled vegetables. They add a complex spicy flavor to any dish.


herb, oregano, vegetable, thyme, basil, mint, marjoram
Erica Coulter

Marjoram, although close to oregano, is more mild, floral, and woodsy. It's used about equally in recipes fresh and dried, just make sure that you are adding what the recipe calls for. Dried herbs tend to be more potent than fresh in terms of flavor. It’s often found in salad dressing, marinade, and sauces. 

In the food world, cooking is known as an art and not a science. As you grow more comfortable with using these spices in exact recipes, don't hesitate to experiment on your own. You may just find a new, delicious combination that perfectly suits your taste buds.