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
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.
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.