Guide To Herbs and Spices: Spices

Last week we delved into the world of herbs. This week we will turn our attention to spices, the dried roots, stems, buds, fruits, or seeds of plans from around the world. There are a few things to keep in mind as we discuss spices.

First, while pre-ground spices are perfectly fine, you can get an extra layer of flavor using whole spices. You can easily grind whole spices using a coffee grinder. I got mine for $3 at the thrift store. Just be sure to use a different coffee grinder than the one you use for coffee, or you will start your day with an unpleasant surprise.

Most spices benefit from toasting. Just heat up a stainless-steel pan and add your spices. This should be done in a dry pan with no oil. Constantly move the pan around for about one minute, until the spices are fragrant. Immediately remove from the heat as spices burn easily and grind.

Keep your spices in airtight containers and store in a dark, cool cabinet. Ground spices can stay fresh for up to two years while whole spices can remain at their peak for up to four years.

Finally, while they will not be discussed in detail today, all your food can be enhanced with kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper. Look out for a guide to salt coming soon.

Commonly Used Spices

Allspice – No, it does not contain all spices! Allspice is a berry from the myrtle tree, also known as Jamaican pepper. It is commonly used in Caribbean, Mexican, and Mediterranean food. Its warm flavor is perfect for the fall and pairs well with cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg.

Anise and Caraway – Both of these seeds have a licorice flavor that bring an extra savory bite. Anise is commonly used from Asia to the Middle East whereas caraway seeds are more common in Russia, Germany, and Eastern Europe.

Cardamom – Seeds from this pod are essential in Indian cooking and bring an incredible floral flavor to the party. Try adding a few pods to rice or mixing some with fruit for a dessert. A little goes a long way.

Coriander – Another staple of Indian cooking, coriander are the seeds of the cilantro plant (sometimes referred to in recipes as such). Like cilantro, they bring nutty and citrusy notes to your meal. Ensure that the seeds are ground fine as their husks can be hard to eat.

Cinnamon – There are several varieties of this commonly used bark you should lookout for when you shop. Ceylon cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka and now grown from Mexico to Africa. It is common in Mexican cooking and is often called “Mexican Cinnamon.” I like this variety for savory dishes, like chili (yes, I add cinnamon to my chili). Saigon Cinnamon, from Southeast Asia, is sweeter and is thus my preference for baking.

Cloves – The flower buds of a tree native to Indonesia, they are the quintessential flavor of the fall. Cloves are another spice where a little goes a very long way.

Cumin – A true world traveler, cumin is used everywhere from Mexico to the Middle East. Its rich, earthy flavor is great for seasoning any grilled meat.

Fenugreek – Why does your home cooking not taste like what you get at an Indian restaurant? The answer is most likely Fenugreek. This seed is widely used across India and brings a sweet and nutty flavor to your next meal.

Ginger – You would be hard pressed to find any dish from Pakistan to the South China Sea that does not use the ginger root. Fresh or ground, it brings a zing that distinguishes some of the world’s finest cuisines. Ginger is heavily featured in our Thai Seafood Curry.

Mustard Seeds/Powder – The seeds of the mustard plant are commonly used in Indian cooking while the powder form is a staple in BBQ dry rubs.

Nutmeg – Not actually a nut, nutmeg is a seed native to Indonesia. Often used in savory Indian applications, in the West, it is a common fall spice, added to everything from pumpkin pie to eggnog. You can purchase it pre-ground, but I prefer to grate it whole (use a grater, do not put it in your spice grinder). It is a wonderful addition to our Pumpkin Pie Oatmeal.

Paprika – Deep, dark, and red, paprika can come in sweet (Hungarian) or smokey varieties. The sweeter paprika is often featured in Eastern European cooking while it’s smoked relative is heavily used in Spanish fare. Paprika also bring a flare to our Shrimp and Grits.

Peppers (various) – There are many forms of dried pepper that provide a great kick. Aleppo pepper is common in Middle Eastern cooking and has a sweetness to go along with the spice. Cayenne pepper is pure heat used across America. Chile de arbol is a favorite in Mexican cuisine. Red pepper flakes come from a variety of peppers and bring the fire to Italian cooking. Add some to spice up our Eggplant Parm.

Saffron – The world’s most expensive spice, not only does it bring a great flavor but dyes the food a beautiful red hue. From rice in Iran to Spanish paella, it is a luxury well worth the cost.

Turmeric – Used more for its yellow color than its flavor, especially across India, turmeric has recently been touted as having a wide range of health benefits.

Photo credit: Photo 169744244 © Natallia Khlapushyna |