Many cuisines emphasize specific techniques, but without spice, food can remain one dimensional. It’s worth adding that some feel as though spices are overwhelming en masse; there are so many to choose from, and it can be challenging to choose the right spice for the occasion.
This guide will attempt to walk you through some of the world’s best spices, share a bit about their origin and flavor profile, as well as how they can be used with the ingredients you are already cooking with! We’d encourage you to try new spices, and learn what pairs well together, elevating the flavors in your food and exploring new cultures while you do.
First, a practical note.
Spices are unique from herbs, in that they are dried and shelf stable. Herbs can be dried as well, and should absolutely be incorporated into food, however we’re focusing on the dried spice variety for now. Over time, spices can lose their potency and strength, and not be able to flavor food with the same punch.
Ground spices are typically good for two to three years, and are best kept in airtight containers to avoid dust and contamination.
When shopping for spices, it’s wise to check for “best by” dates if applicable, or alternately shop for spices in smaller quantities in the bulk aisle, according to recipes in which you plan to use them. This is a fantastic, low-risk way to try new spices without buying bottles which can be costly and clutter up kitchen cabinets.
If you like a particular flavor, it’s a great time to invest in a larger quantity at a later point. If your local grocery doesn’t carry bulk spices, it’s worth checking out a neighboring health food store, or specialty grocery for some of the harder to find varieties.
When using a spice you are not familiar with, it’s okay to add a little less of the spice than the recipe recommends, and add more to taste.
Culinary Spices & Herbs
Allspice is a singular spice, which tastes like a spice blend, thus earning the name Allspice. It is actually a berry, which evokes the flavors of nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon when dried.
This berry grows on the Pimenta dioica tree, native to the Caribbean islands, as well as the southern part of Mexico, and Central America.
Allspice has been used in a wide variety of dishes over the years, featured prominently in Jamaican cuisines, as well as in a number of Middle Eastern dishes, like curries, or when used to flavor meat, or as a spice in pickle brines.
The properties of this berry are frequently used to add depth of flavor, as well as a type of “warmth” attribute to a meal, which also leads to it’s wide usage in desserts, especially throughout North America.
Still, allspice can be found globally in countless recipes, from flavoring sausages, to adding a distinct aroma to Cincinnati- Style chili.
If you were to look for ways to cook with allspice today, consider dishes where you would otherwise use nutmeg, cinnamon or clove, which are also complimentary flavors, alongside vanilla and orange.
This could be baked into a dessert, added to a spice blend for cider, or a pinch could be used to spice up a sauce or marinade, adding a distinctive warmth and depth to whatever dish you choose.
Berbere is a spice blend, most consistently used in the cuisines of Ethiopia and Eritrea. This blend most commonly consists of a combination of chili pepper, garlic, ginger and basil, as well as some less common spices, like korarima which is also called Ethiopian cardamom, rue, radhuni, nigella, and fenugreek.
Given its expansive combination of spices, this blend can vary wildly in flavor, dependent upon the amounts of individual spices added. It is broadly considered to have spicy, sweet and fragrant notes, with occasional hints of citrus.
Ethiopian cuisine does feature this blend quite heavily, both with meats as well as vegetables. Many Ethiopians abstain from eating meat at different points, for different reasons, and so this versatile blend can be found in many stews and other dishes.
The nation of Eritrea shares many of Ethopia’s culinary traditions, though it is on the coast of Africa, and tends to include more seafood overall.
If one were to include Berbere in their current diet, It would be a great seasoning for lentils, as well as a dry rub, perfect for lamb, chicken, or meatballs. Incorporate it into stews or soups, or add some to water before cooking rice or other grains.
Ceylon Cinnamon is a spice made from the bark of the Cinnamomum tree. The inner bark is harvested, dried, and they eventually roll into the sticks which generally represent cinnamon. However there is actually some variety in the cinnamon world, and it’s worth highlighting here.
There are two types of cinnamon, growing from two very similar trees; Cinnamomum cassia, and Cinnamomum verum. The cassia variety is most common, and is known for being very spicy. This is what is used in many herbal medicines, and is the cinnamon found in most grocery stores around the world.
It is Chinese in origin, and considered to be of a lower quality. This is, of course, in contrast to Cinnamomum verum, which is where Ceylon Cinnamon is sourced.
Ceylon Cinnamon is considered the “true” cinnamon, and is native to Sri Lanka and some of India. It is much more mild, and often used in desserts due to it’s sweet notes, with less spice.
It pairs especially well with flavors of vanilla, chocolate, and nutmeg – often incorporated into autumnal or winter drinks and desserts. Ceylon Cinnamon has also been known to be served as a tea.
There are many ways to cook using cinnamon. It’s sweet depth and slight spice can be incorporated into sweet dishes, though it is not uncommon to be incorporated in small quantities to chilis, soups and stews. It adds a warming flavor that doesn’t quite have the bite of pepper.
A teaspoon of cinnamon would be an excellent addition to most baked goods, or a pinch added to coffee grounds before brewing.
Ceylon cinnamon can be found in stores, though one should be careful when looking at the varieties available, as both “cinnamons” are usually on the shelf next to each other.
This spice is often associated with a warmer flavor profile; clove oil has been compared to cinnamon, both possessing extreme spiciness when extracted. Clove is one of the most commonly used spices around the world.
It can be seen flavoring meats, ground and used as a part of a spice blend, and is frequently combined with nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger, as a part of a blend used for pumpkin pies, a frequent autumnal desert in North America.
Clove also factors into other North American autumn and winter foods, like being steeped in ciders, or added to gingerbread and baked goods. It particularly pairs well with vanilla, citrus peel, peppercorns, and star anise.
If one were to try and incorporate clove into existing dishes, a small amount can add depth in the same vein as cinnamon; a pinch in a stew, or a few cloves could be added as one is making stock or other soups. It’s important to be aware that this spice comes in both whole clove and ground form.
If one intends to eat an item containing clove, ground is best- as opposed to using clove as a seasoning, and then removing them before that item is served. It can be especially flavorful, but also unpleasant to chew.
Clove is best handled in the same way as a whole peppercorn- added for flavor, but not to be consumed on its own.
Coriander can fit the definition of both an herb and a spice! Coriander is a part of the parsley family, and when it grows, becomes cilantro. This spice in particular, however, is the seed- a dried fruit of the coriander plant and it is typically dried and sometime ground.
Whole seeds are frequently used in a few capacities, in particular pickling vegetables. Coriander is especially versatile.
Coriander has notes of citrus, nut, and some heat. It is frequently used in savory dishes, and features prominently in Garam Masala, a spice blend used to flavor curries and similar dishes in Indian cuisine.
This spice is use in a variety of capacities around the world, from pickle brines, to marinating meat, to adding the seeds to sausages and even using them alongside other aromatics to brew beer. Some have used coriander in baked goods – as a ground and whole spice.
Used alongside cumin and garlic, coriander is not especially spicy, though it can be fragrant, and add depth to many dishes.
It is described as being mild and sweet, and could be an excellent component to fish, vegetables, or breads and even baked goods, depending on the overall flavor profile.
Cumin is a spice originally native to the Levant area of the world, comprising of the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia. It has spread across the globe in popularity, and used widely in a number of cuisines.
Cumin is a seed, and frequently found in food both as a whole pod, or used when ground to a powder.
Cumin is not known to be a subtle spice, and features frequently with other spices, often to season meats. The flavor has been described as having an earthy or musky flavor, with occasional notes of bitterness and sweetness as well as a slight pungency.
It is a frequent addition to spice blends, such as those used when making chili, or for meat rubs. Cumin is frequently incorporated into soups. curries, rice, and bean dishes.
Cooking with cumin today is pretty common, regardless of the dish. Cumin has a strong flavor profile, but is easily added to almost any savory item, and can be a great addition when cooking vegetarian cuisine, as it adds depth to nearly any meal.
If you’re looking to try something new, a small pinch pairs well with other flavors in some desserts, like chocolate and orange pairings, such as a cake. Use sparingly, but don’t be afraid to experiment.
Pairs best with turmeric, coriander, garlic, cayenne and even cinnamon.
Fenugreek is an herb and also a spice, initially native to the Near East, though it is now largely produced in India, which is where fenugreek is a star ingredient. When the leaves are used, they add a strong and musky perfumed aroma, though the seeds are most frequently incorporated into cooking.
The small seeds are consistently used whole or ground, once they have been dried; they have been described to taste slightly nutty, with a hit of sweet and some notes of maple.
When looking to use Fenugreek, consider incorporating the seeds into curry powders, pickle brines, or stews. The sweet smell does combine with other flavors, and Fenugreek has been used to perfume artificial maple syrups.
The taste of these seeds can range in depth, from a toasted nut to a deep caramel. They are incorporated into many savory dishes in an attempt to provide a warm flavor, and they are recognized as a staple of Indian cooking, particularly in curries.
Fenugreek also features heavily in Ethiopian cuisine and is often included in regular meals.
Fenugreek pairs nicely with a few other flavors like paprika, coriander and parsley, though they can also balance out cumin, and can be highlighted with lemon.
Use fenugreek on a number of vegetable and meat dishes, though use with the awareness of Fenugreek’s sweet notes, which can prove overwhelming in large amounts.
Nutmeg is made of the seed of the Myristica evergreen tree. This tree is native to Indonesia, though it now grows in a number of countries. Nutmeg is frequently sold in ground, powder form, though is typically best used when ground fresh, when the seed is sold as a whole pod.
It’s flavor is described as warm, nutty and sweet, making it a frequent and popular addition to baked goods.
Nutmeg is consistently incorporated into holiday-themed items in North America, like pies, and drinks like eggnog and cider. It has been pulled into other dishes, especially in other cultural traditions, flavoring meats, vegetables, potatoes, and soups, especially throughout Indonesia.
Nutmeg is also frequently used as a part of greater spice blends, such as garam masala for Indian cuisines, or in pumpkin pie spice, used to bring a warmth and depth of flavor to sweet items, a frequent autumn flavor in North America. Nutmeg is excellent alongside cinnamon, allspice, clove, orange, vanilla, chocolate, and even black pepper notes.
To cook with nutmeg today, look for meals which could use more depth, or warmth. Nutmeg can enhance countless sweet dishes like desserts or baked items but is also used as a seasoning for roasted vegetables and is incorporated in some unexpected places.
Nutmeg is an ingredient in Scottish haggis, and it features in pasta and meatloaf throughout Italian cuisine. Buy it whole, grind the spice fresh, and try it in a number of dishes!
Sumac is a berry of middle eastern origin, dried and ground down to smaller pieces. Not to be confused with the plant found in backyards which can cause an adverse, itchy reaction, Sumac the spice is a tangy and bright spice, which can add a zing in place of citrus, on occasion.
It is known for fruity notes, and most sumac powders contain some amount of salt.
Sumac was discovered in the Middle East, and was used to bring an acidic touch to cooking before Romans introduced lemons into the cuisine of the time.
Today, Sumac is growing in popularity once again, providing a pop of tart, often in the place of vinegars or lemon, as mentioned earlier.
The flavor notes in Sumac pair nicely countless other spices, due to its versatility. Some have folded it into salads or salad dressings, it has been used to flavor rice and some meat dishes which look for a tart element; it is suitable for fish, all kinds of vegetables, meats, breads and desserts, such as puddings.
Many love sumac’s ability to brighten flavors without the addition of liquids.
Turmeric is a bright golden yellow spice indigenous to Southeast Asia and India, which is also rapidly growing in popularity in the western health food scene. It has been incorporated in lattes, juices as well as baked goods, and is continuously touted for its supposed healing and anti-inflammatory properties.
Turmeric itself is a root, which is a part of the ginger family. It’s typically boiled, dried, and ground into a fine powder, which is then used for a number of purposes, including as a spice, but also as a colorant or even a dye for fabric.
Turmeric powder is known for a warm, earthy, peppery taste, as well as a slight aroma similar to mustard seed. Generously incorporated into curries and stews, turmeric is a spice which has been a part of Indian, South East Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisine for centuries.
Turmeric is frequently a part of spice blends, often with the dual purpose of flavor and bright color.
Popular in nations with warmer climates, turmeric pairs especially well with high fat substances, blending well with coconut milk, traditional milk, or butter. When cooking with turmeric, consider the warm and earthy flavor notes, and build accordingly.
It is incredibly versatile, pairing well with any number of other spices, such as cardamom, coriander, chili, cumin, and saffron.
Za’atar is an herb as well as a spice mixture, used most frequently as a condiment, as opposed to a spice traditionally incorporated during cooking or food preparation. The spice blend is comprised of a few different herbs and spices, and there are a few variants to za’atar as well, depending on the region.
The core flavors generally remain the same: thyme, oregano and marjoram. These three are generally mixed with salt and toasted sesame seed, with the occasional addition of sumac.
Other varieties have been known to include cumin, coriander and fennel, while others might include caraway seeds, such as the Palestinian variety.
Za’atar is popular around the globe, though initially grew in use and popularity in the Middle East and North Africa.
As a condiment, Za’atar is typically served table side, and sprinkled over hummus, meat or vegetables, while also being added to yogurt, bread, or other dishes.
Za’atar as an herb is also used in cooking around the world. Native to the Mediterranean Middle East, the herb is considered a species of wild thyme, and yet another variety called “wild Za’atar” is similar to oregano and is frequently incorporated as a part of the spice blend za’atar.
This herb is often dried and mixed with salt and sesame seed, still used generally as a condiment.
Using Za’atar today is simple enough; incorporate it as a condiment to dip bread and olive oil into or sprinkle it over savory items (like falafel) or even over eggs.
Both the spice and the spice blend have strong notes of thyme and oregano, which pair well with lemon, parsley, sage, rosemary, and sesame.