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What Are Spices?
Spices are aromatic flavorings from seeds, fruits, bark, rhizomes, and other plant parts. Used in to season and preserve food, and as medicines, dyes, and perfumes, spices have been highly valued as trade goods for thousands of years—the word spice comes from the Latin species, which means merchandise, or wares.
They’re sold in dried form, but that doesn’t mean spices last indefinitely; their strong flavors will dissipate over time, especially if exposed to light and air.
What’s the Difference Between Cooking With Whole vs. Ground Spices?
Cooking professionals almost always recommend buying whole spices and grinding them yourself, since whole spices retain their aromatic compounds much better than the ground kind. But the reality is that most of us rely on ground spices for convenience. Having a mix of whole and ground spices in limited quantities that you’ll use up quickly will prevent a bunch of unused spices from languishing in your cabinet, losing flavor.
Use whole spices for maximum flavor any time you’re able to grind your own, or when adding them—either directly or in a sachet—to braises, stews, creams, teas, and other infusions. You can mellow the flavor of whole spices like mustard or cumin seed by toasting them in a pan until they pop. Use ground spices in applications where you want to disperse a lot of flavor: such as in baked goods and spice rubs. Try frying a mix of different ground spices in oil or ghee to blend the flavors.
How to Store Your Spices
Store spices you use often in opaque glass jars or tins in a dark cupboard. Spices you don’t use frequently can be stored in airtight containers in the freezer. (Remember to bring frozen spices to room temperature before opening to prevent condensation.) Label spices with their purchase dates, and give them a sniff every few months to make sure they’re still pungent.
Ground spices tend to oxidize more quickly than whole spices due to their large exposed surface area, and will lose their flavor within a few months, while whole spices can last up to a year. Since we use them in such small amounts, spices should be packed with flavor.
27 Common Spices
Allspice: Allspice is the brown dried berry of the tropical Pimenta dioica tree, a clove relative native to West Indies and Central America that lends its distinctive flavor to Jamaican jerk seasoning and Swedish meatballs. Allspice got its name in the seventeenth century, when Europeans decided it tastes like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, with which it shares its primary aromatic compound, eugenol.
Anise: Anise seeds are actually the small ovoid fruit of Pimpinella anisum, a flowering plant in the parsley family. Anise has a very high concentration of licorice-y anethole, which is 13 times sweeter than table sugar. It’s used to flavor drinks such as pastis and ouzo, as well as Greek meat dishes. Candy-coated anise is eaten in India and the Netherlands, where it’s also used to flavor milk.
Caraway: The dried fruit of Carum carvi, another member of the parsley family, caraway was one of the first spices cultivated in Europe, where its still used to flavor sauerkraut, pork, and potato dishes. Its warm, anise-y flavor comes from anethole, carvone (rye notes; also found in dill), and limonene (citrusy).
Cardamom: Cardamom comes from the dried fruit of Elettaria cardamomum, a member of the ginger family indigenous to southwest India. Its warm, sweet, floral, and fruity flavor is essential to Nordic baked goods and Arabic coffee. There are two main varieties of cardamom: mysore, which is larger and green in color with woody and eucalyptus notes, and malabar, which is smaller, with floral notes, and often bleached.
- Large cardamom, aka black cardamom, comes from a totally different plant, Amomum subulatum, which grows in the eastern Himalayas. It consists of a long reddish pod with strong flavors from cineole and camphor that are often further enhanced by smoking. It’s found in savory dishes, such as pho.
Try cardamom in Chef Gordon Ramsay’s roasted Turkish-spiced eggplant recipe.
Celery Seed: Celery seed is the teeny-tiny fruit of the same plant that gives us celery stalks. Unsurprisingly, it has a strong celery flavor. It's used as a flavoring in ancient Mediterranean cuisine, and as a medicine in ancient China. Try celery seed in pickles, sausages, and soups, or in a blend with salt to make celery finishing salt.
Chiles: Chiles are fruits whose seeds are protected by the pungent, burning chemical capsaicin. They’re the most popular spice worldwide, with a consumption rate 20 times greater than that of the second most popular spice, black pepper. There are 25 species of Capsicum, of which only five have been domesticated. Most of the chiles we eat come from Capsicum annuum, first cultivated in Mexico 5,000 years ago. Chiles are often eaten fresh, but drying them for the spice cabinet will concentrate their flavors.
- Dried whole chipotle and ancho chiles are used in Mexican cuisine to flavor soups and stews.
- Crushed into flakes, dried whole chiles become Korean gochugaru, essential to kimchi.
- Aleppo pepper adds heat to Middle Eastern cuisine.
- In Hungary and Spain, chiles are ground into fine paprika pepper, which can be sweet or hot, or smoked. Paprika makes an appearance in Chef Thomas Keller’s fried chicken recipe.
Cinnamon: Cinnamon is a spice that comes from the inner bark, or phloem layer, of the tropical Cinnamomum tree, sold as rolled quills (sticks) or ground into a fine powder. Cinnamon contains several aromatic compounds, the most recognizable of which is cinnamaldehyde, which gives cinnamon its spicy bite. Several different species of Cinnamomum are sold for culinary use.
- Cinnamomum cassia, the most popular variety in East Asia and the U.S., has dark, thick, coarse quills in a double-spiral shape, and a bittersweet, burning-spicy flavor due to high levels of cinnamaldehyde. This is the type of cinnamon used in Chinese five spice powder.
- Cinnamomum verum, aka Cinnamomum zeylanicum, Ceylon, or “true” cinnamon, has brittle, smooth quills with a single spiral that’s tan on the outside and dark red-brown on the inside. In terms of flavor, it’s more delicate than Cinnamomum cassia, with less cinnamaldehyde and more floral and clove-like notes (from linalool and eugenol, respectively). Try Cinnamomum verum in Mexican dishes such as arroz con leche and carnitas.
Cinnamon goes particularly well with sugar. It’s also used a lot in meaty savory dishes such as Moroccan tagines. Try it in Chef Gordon Ramsay’s perfect rack of lamb recipe.
Cloves: Cloves are the immature dried flower buds of the Syzygium aromaticum tree, native to Indonesia, and used in Chinese cuisine for thousands of years and in Europe since the Middle Ages. Their 14 to 20 percent essential oil content means that cloves have the highest concentration of aroma compounds of any spice. Their distinct flavor comes from antimicrobial eugenol, which has made cloves a popular medicine. These dried flower buds, with their medicinal flavor, are essential in dishes as diverse as roasted ham, Chinese five spice, apple crumble, and mulled wine. Go easy with them, as they can easily overpower. Try cloves in
Coriander: Coriander seeds come from the small fruits that appear after the cilantro herb flowers. They can be harvested when green, or they can be left to brown and dry out on the plant. Pounded fresh green coriander has a bright flavor that’s ideal for dressing a salad. The dried, tan pods most often found in spice cabinets have a citrusy, floral taste that is often paired with cumin in Indian cuisine, Moroccan tagines, homemade burgers, or poaching liquor for fish. Try it in Chef Gordon Ramsay’s crispy duck with endive salad.
Cumin: Cumin comes from the small, ridged dried fruits of Cuminum cyminum, native to Southwest Asia. Cumin seeds look similar to caraway seeds, and also taste somewhat alike. Cumin’s main flavor compound is cumaldehyde, also found in eucalyptus. Chef Alice Waters likes to toast cumin to make cumin finishing salt. Try cumin-spiced yogurt or use cumin as rub for skirt steak to make carne asada tacos.
Dill Seed: Dill seed is the dried oval fruit of the same plant that produces the fresh herb of the same name. It’s native to the Mediterranean and southeastern Europe, and used there to flavor gravlax, borscht, and pickles. Its main flavor compound is carvone, also found in caraway and spearmint.
Dried Herbs: Spices are generally thought of as bark, fruit, or seed parts, while herbs are usually considered fresh plant leaves. But there are a few dried leaves that deserve a place in the spice cupboard, including rosemary, curry leaves, thyme, kaffir lime leaves, and oregano. Keep in mind that dried herbs typically taste different from their fresh varieties and can’t be substituted one-to-one. One of the most common dried herbs is bay leaf, which comes from the laurel family and is most often used to flavor soups, stews, braises, and marinades. Sassafras leaves, also from the laurel family, are dried and then ground into a powder to make filé, used in gumbo and other Creole dishes.
Fennel: Fennel seeds are the small dried fruits of the fennel plant, which is also eaten as a vegetable (bulb) and herb (fronds). Fennel has a strong anise flavor (from anethole) as well as bitter (fenchone), floral, fresh, and pine notes. Native to southwest Asia and the Mediterranean, fennel grows like a weed in parts of the US. It pair well with pork and is an essential component of Italian sausage and Ethiopian berbere seasoning. Try it in Chef Thomas Keller’s braised artichokes here.
Fenugreek: Fenugreek is a flat, yellow-brown seed from a Mediterranean plant in the pea family. It has bittersweet/burnt-sugar and celery flavors and is used to make chutneys and in the Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout. The seeds can be toasted to reduce their bitterness.
Ginger: Ginger comes from the rhizome (underground stem) of Zingiber officinale, a tropical flowering plant from the same family as cardamom and turmeric. The sharp bite of fresh ginger comes from gingerol, an aromatic compound that partly transforms into the sweeter zingerone when heated or dried, which is why the ground ginger we use in pumpkin pie, gingerbread, and gingersnaps, is so much less pungent than the fresh stuff. Try it in Chef Gordon Ramsay’s crispy whole branzino.
Grains of Paradise: Grains of paradise are the glossy brown seeds of Aframomum melegueta, a reedy plant from the ginger family native to western Africa and the Gulf of Guinea. Woody, floral, and slightly spicy, grains of paradise are used as a substitute for black pepper and as a pickling spice.
Juniper Berries: Juniper berries are actually the small round seed cones of the juniper tree. The immature green “berries” are used to flavor gin, while the mature dark blue ones are crushed in pickling and to make marinades for meat, especially to reduce the gamey flavor of venison and wild boar. Juniper berries are bittersweet, with notes of pine (pinene), wood (sabinene), and pepper (myrcene). Juniper berries are always sold whole since their flavor compounds are very volatile.
Mace: When the plum-like fruits of Myristica fragrans, an evergreen tree native to Indonesia, ripen, they split to reveal a shell-covered seed surrounded by a fleshy red outer lattice called an aril. The aril is removed and dried to produce mace, while the seed inside the shell becomes nutmeg. Although they’re often used together in spice mixtures for baked goods and ground meats, mace has a sweeter, more refined flavor than nutmeg, which comes from sabinene (fresh), pinene (pine), myristicin (woody), and methyl eugenol (sweet).
Mustard Seed: There are three main types of culinary mustard seed, Mediterranean yellow/white mustard (Sinapis alba), which was the first and only pungent spice available to early Europeans, now popular in the US.; Himalayan brown mustard (Brassica juncea), which has become the dominant mustard in Europe due to its medium pungency and ease in harvesting; and black mustard (Brassica nigra), the most pungent variety.
The burning sensation found in all three types of mustard comes from reactive sulfur compounds called thiocyanates (also found in onions, horseradish, and wasabi) released when plant cell walls are damaged. Thiocyanates are so tiny that they can escape food and enter nasal passages, which is why very hot mustard can make your nose burn. Cooking mustard seeds significantly lessens this effect.
Nigella: Nigella, aka black cumin, is a small black seed found in southwest Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean. It has a fennel-like scent and mild, compex flavor reminiscent of caraway, oregano, and nutmeg. Nigella seeds are sprinkled on naan and kneaded into Armenian string cheese.
Nutmeg: When the plum-like fruits of Myristica fragrans, an evergreen tree native to Indonesia, ripen, they split to reveal a shell-covered seed surrounded by a fleshy red outer lattice called an aril. The aril is removed and dried to produce mace, while the seed inside the shell becomes nutmeg. Nutmeg contains the same aromatic compounds as mace—sabinene (fresh), pinene (pine), myristicin (woody), and methyl eugenol (sweet)—plus limonene (citrusy), geraniol (floral), cineole (penetrating), and safrole (sassafras). Nutmeg is used in bechamel sauce, and both nutmeg and mace feature in eggnog and other spicy sweets.
Peppercorns: Unlike with most other spices, there’s no real reason to buy pre-ground black pepper, since pepper mills are readily available and easy to use. Wolfgang Puck likes to lightly toast peppercorns in the oven before grinding, an easy way to up the flavor even more.
- Black, green, and white pepper all come from the fruits of the black pepper vine, Piper nigrum. The black kind has the strongest flavor. Immature green peppercorns, available dried or brined, are milder than black and used in Asian cuisine, and white peppercorns are just black peppercorns with their outer husks removed, mostly used for aesthetic purposes, such as in white sauces. You’ll find all three kinds of Piper nigrum in Wolfgang Puck’s Pepper Steak With Red Wine Sauce. Whole peppercorns are ideal in braises, like Thomas Keller’s Red Wine Braised Short Ribs.
- Szechuan peppercorns come from a different plant entirely, a type of prickly ash of the genus Zanthoxylum. They lend their lemony flavor and numbing sensation to Szechuan cuisine, and are typically toasted to gain woody notes.
- Japanese sansho comes from Zanthoxylum as well, but tastes more citrusy since it’s not usually toasted.
- Pink peppercorns come from the Brazilian pepper tree, first marketed as a type of pepper in the 1980s. They have a fresh-pine, citrusy-sweet flavor and are often used in desserts.
Saffron: Saffron is the golden stigma from the autumn crocus flower, likely domesticated in Greece during the Bronze Age. It’s the most expensive spice in the world, since the flower stigmas must be painstakingly hand-harvested in a process that takes about 200 hours of labor per pound of dried saffron. Saffron adds its bitter, penetrating, haylike aroma and golden color to bouillabaisse and paella.
Star Anise: Star anise is the reddish-brown star-shaped dried fruit of the Illicium verum tree, native to southeastern China and Vietnam. It’s not related to anise, but they share the aromatic compound antheole. Star anise adds its sweet flavor to Chinese five-spice powder and Vietnamese phở. Try it in Chef Thomas Keller’s pork shoulder à la matignon.
Sumac: Sumac is a dark red spice that comes from the fruit of shrubs from the Rhus genus, which is related to cashew and mango plants. It’s popular in Middle Eastern and North African cooking, where it’s sprinkled on top of hummus and used to flavor meat. Sumac has a tangy, citrusy flavor due to malic and other acids, as well as woody, pine notes.
Turmeric: Turmeric comes from the rhizome (underground stem) of Curcuma longa, a ginger relative first domesticated in prehistoric India. Its bright orange-yellow color made it an important dye, and its sharp, earthy flavor is reminiscent of pepper and mustard, lending it well to Moroccan tagines and Indian dal.
Vanilla: What we call vanilla bean is actually the pod-shape fruit that grows on a climbing orchid of the genus Vanilla, which includes around 100 species. The pods themselves are 6 to 12 inches long and contain thousands of tiny seeds that stick to the pod walls. Vanilla flavor comes from the vanillin (and around 200 other aromatic compounds) found in both the sticky resin surrounding the seeds and in the pod wall.
Freshly harvested vanilla beans have no scent; they must be damaged to release their aromas, a process which can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Once cured, vanilla beans can be processed into vanilla extract, which is made by running alcohol through chopped-up vanilla beans, and then aging the mixture. Vanilla extract should be added towards the end of cooking since prolonged heat will cause the flavor to disappear. Vanilla bean seeds are a popular addition to crème brûlée and cake frostings. Try it in Chef Thomas Keller’s crème anglaise.
6 Common Spice Blends
Using a trusted spice mix is an easy way to add recognizable flavor to a dish. The specific ingredients in spice blends differ from region to region and are often closely guarded family secrets, but some of the most popular are:
- Moroccan ras el hanout: fenugreek, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, mace, and chili powder
- Morroccan chermoula: onion, garlic, dried cilantro, chili pepper, cumin, and black pepper
- Ethiopian berbere: chile, garlic, ginger, salt, koreima, shallots, ajwain, nigella, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, besobela, fenugreek, thyme, and rosemary
- Egyptian dukkah: hazelnuts, sesame seeds, coriander, and cumin
- Jamaican jerk: allspice, nutmeg, black pepper, thyme, cayenne pepper, paprika, sugar, salt, garlic, and ginger
- Mexican recado rojo: annatto, dried oregano, cumin, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, allspice, and garlic
- Cajun blackened seasoning: paprika, mustard powder, garlic, black pepper, onion, dried oregano, cumin, caraway, crushed red pepper, cayenne, thyme, celery seed, and bay leaves
- Pumpkin pie spice: cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom
East Asian Spices
- Chinese five spice: star anise, cinnamon, fennel, cloves, and Szechuan or black pepper
- Japanese Shichimi togarashi: sansho, mustard, poppyseed, sesame seed, and dried mandarin peel
- Japanese curry powder: cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, coriander, fenugreek, black pepper, nigella, cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, ginger, dried oregano, dried sage, cayenne, Szechuan pepper, and mace
- Quatre épices: black pepper, nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon
- Fines herbes: dried chervil, tarragon, parsley, and chives
- Herbes de Provence: dried Marjoram, savory, thyme, tarragon, basil, chervil, rosemary, fennel, and lavender
- Garam masala: cumin, coriander, cardamom, black pepper, clove, mace, and cinnamon
- Panch phoran: cumin, fennel, nigella, fenugreek, and mustard
Middle Eastern Spices
- Za’atar: marjoram, oregano, thyme, sesame, and sumac
- Zhug: cumin, cardamom, garlic, and chile
- Baharat: black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, and clove