The right herbs, spices, and seasonings make all the difference between a decent dish and one that is forever cemented in your memory. While we love to experiment with various flavors, here are some of the tried-and-true spices that are always in our pantry.
Bay leaves come from the bay laurel tree, native to the Mediterranean regions, while California bay leaves come from a different type of tree and have a stronger, more astringent flavor. Bay leaves are best used dry, left whole, and should be removed from the dish before serving. They add a woodsy undertone and round out the dish they’re in without hogging the spotlight. Bay leaf is typically used to season long-cooking dishes like soups, stews, and braises. It can also enhance the flavor of quicker-cooking dishes like pasta sauce, risotto, or even a simple pot of rice, but it requires at least a little liquid to infuse the flavor in.
Made from dried and ground red chili peppers, cayenne has a mid-range Scoville Rating of 30,000 – 50,000 and adds a sweet heat to a variety of cuisines such as Mexican, Asian, Indian, and Southern cooking. Since it is said to aid in digestion and circulatory systems, cayenne is featured in a lemonade drink touted to cleanse your body. Add a kick to dry rubs for meat and seafood, sauces, and soups. Add a pinch to eggs to get a feel for the amount of heat. Try it in mac and cheese, beans, to make a sauce for fish tacos or burgers, and even to add some spice to chocolate desserts.
Cinnamon has a long history of being used as both a warming spice and a medicine. True cinnamon comes from the inner bark of evergreen trees of the genus cinnamomum. The bark dries into a tubular form called a quill, and these cinnamon sticks are great for infusing into drinks like milk, tea, cider, and mulled wine. In its ground form, cinnamon is used in sweet and savory dishes all over the world. Cinnamon is classified as either cassia or Ceylon. The cinnamon known as “true cinnamon,” which is more popular outside of North America, is Ceylon cinnamon. Ceylon is the sweetest and mildest tasting and the lightest in color. It’s also three to four times more expensive than the other varieties. There are three other commercial varieties of cinnamon, including Cassia (Chinese) cinnamon, Saigon cinnamon, and Korintje, which are all much stronger and more pungent than Ceylon cinnamon and lumped together as cassia cinnamon. If you are purchasing a bottle simply labeled cinnamon or enjoying a cinnamon-flavored dish in the U.S., this is typically the cassia variety. While there are definitely color and taste variations between the different types of cinnamon, they all provide health benefits. Cinnamon as a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to improve blood flow and circulation, stabilize blood sugar levels, lower LDL cholesterol, boost brain activity, and remove nervous tension. One teaspoon of cinnamon powder has up to 16% of the U.S. recommended daily allowance for manganese, 5% for fiber 3% for iron, and 3% for calcium.
Cloves are the unopened flower buds of the evergreen clove tree. This sweet, aromatic, warming spice is often used in Indian, Middle Eastern, and North African cuisine and is featured in several spice blends including Chinese five-spice powder, garam masala, pickling spice, and pumpkin pie spice. Found in whole and ground forms, cloves pair well with apples, oranges, ham, pork, and chocolate, and other aromatic spices like cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cardamom. The compounds in cloves may have several health benefits such as regulating blood sugar, promoting bone health, and reducing stomach ulcers.
Cumin comes from a small flowering herbaceous plant from the same family as parsley, fennel and hemlock. The spice comes from the “seeds,” which are actually the plant’s small dried fruits. These seeds look similar to caraway seeds and are ground to make cumin powder, though both whole and ground forms can be used in cooking. Dubbed as the second most popular spice in the world after black pepper, cumin imparts a nutty, peppery, and slightly smoky taste and is a staple spice in many cuisines, especially Mexican, Indian, African, and Asian. Cumin has been used medicinally for many years. It is used to improve digestion, coughs, pain, and liver health in some Southeast Asian countries, treat seizures in Iran, and help fight infections and lower blood pressure in Tunisia.
Garlic powder is made from dehydrated, ground garlic cloves. This is a bit of a controversial one because in culinary school we are taught that everything is better fresh, so many professional chefs treat garlic powder with disdain. Although garlic powder is not a direct substitute for fresh garlic, it does work wonderfully in dry rubs and spice blends where fresh garlic would make the mixture gummy or when you want a sweeter, less assertive taste of garlic. Garlic has been linked to many health benefits such as treating wounds, boosting immunity, and reducing risk of heart disease and cancer. While garlic powder contains many of the same components as raw garlic, allicin, one of the most well known components, is not present in garlic powder.
Ground or powdered ginger is fresh ginger that has been peeled, dried, and pulverized to a fine powder. Spicy, pungent, with a hint of sweetness, ginger powder used in sweet applications like gingerbread, cookies, candy, and pumpkin pie as well as teas and drinks. On the savory side, ginger is used in spice blends such as the Japanese blend shichimi togarashi, masalas, and marinades. Known for its anti-inflammatory properties, ginger is a common remedy for nausea, digestive issues, and headaches.
Kosher salt is a larger salt grain made without the addition of iodine. Kosher salt isn’t necessarily certified kosher but is so named because the size of its crystals is ideal for drawing out moisture from meat, making it perfect for use in the koshering process. While kosher salt grains are larger in size, the size and shape, either flat or pyramidal, vary from brand to brand. This difference can affect measuring, so make sure to always taste. You may want to find a brand you like and stick with it for consistency. Kosher salt and table salt are not interchangeable in recipes. Since table salt is more compact than kosher salt, there is actually more salt in the same measurement. The smaller crystals also dissolve faster, making it easier to over-salt things, while the bigger kosher salt crystals are easier to pinch with your fingers and control. While we prefer kosher salt in cooking, it is not recommended in baking unless specified as a finishing touch. The larger grains don’t always dissolve evenly and make it harder to achieve the preciseness required in baked goods.
Nutmeg is a delicate, sweet spice made from the seed of an evergreen tree. Frequently used in combination with cinnamon, cloves, and ginger in holiday baking, nutmeg especially shines in dairy-based dishes like custards and sauces, including bechamel sauce. It also rounds out the flavor in savory dishes such as sausage, lasagna, ragu, winter squash, and dark leafy greens.
Nutmeg has been used as a health remedy to relieve pain, soothe digestion, detoxify the body, reduce insomnia, improve skin, and alleviate oral conditions. However, nutmeg is meant to be consumed in small quantities. Nutmeg poisoning, resulting in seizures, irregular heart palpitations, and vomiting, has occurred in recent years as people have used nutmeg in an attempt to produce hallucinatory effects.
Oregano is generally classified in two categories: Mediterranean and Mexican. A member of the mint family, Mediterranean oregano is used in Italian cuisine like pizza, sauces, and grilled meats and is probably the variety you are most familiar with. Mexican oregano is a relative of lemon verbena and has notes of citrus and mild licorice. Mexican oregano pairs well with chile peppers, cumin, and paprika. Add it to Latin American dishes, Tex-Mex chili, and salsa. Oregano is rich in antioxidants, helps fight bacteria, and reduce inflammation.
Paprika is a powder made from grinding the pods of various kinds of Capsicum annuum peppers. The fourth most used spice in the world, there are several varieties including hot, sweet, smoked, plain, Hungarian, and Spanish. We are partial to the smoked variety for added complexity. You can use the red spice to season rubs, marinades, stews, chilis, meat, vegetables, and as a garnish on deviled eggs.
While peppercorns come in a variety of colors such as black, white, pink, and green, you can’t go wrong with the classic black peppercorn. Always choose whole peppercorns over pre-ground pepper. The whole peppercorns retain their flavor much longer than pre-ground does, and the extra effort of freshly ground or cracked pepper is worth it.
With an aroma of pine and lemon, rosemary has a woodsy, peppery quality that is a staple in Mediterranean and French cooking. Rosemary is extremely versatile and makes an excellent addition to everything from marinades and braises to meat like lamb and chicken, vegetables, soups, savory breads and baked goods, and even cocktails. Rosemary is unlike most other spices because it doesn’t lose flavor as it cooks but actually gains strength the longer a dish cooks, particularly those with a lot of liquid. It’s best to start with a minimum amount called for in a recipe, so that the strong rosemary flavor does not overwhelm the dish.
Thyme is member of the mint family that adds a delicate, woodsy flavor to dishes. There are over a hundred varieties of thyme, which can also have flavors of lemon, mint, caraway, or orange. It pairs well with oregano and marjoram, and is one of the herbs used in a classic bouquet garni. Used throughout Mediterranean, Italian, and French cuisine, thyme is popular in savory soups, sauces, and braises. It also works well with cheesy dishes, poultry, beef, potatoes, stuffing, rice dishes, vegetables and fresh bread. “Rubbed thyme,” which is more finely ground than regular dried thyme, isn’t worth buying because it will lose its flavor fast.
How long do spices last?
It’s important to make sure you’re using spices that are still potent. The best way to store spices is in their original container or a similarly sealed airtight container in a dark, dry place. While expiration dates are often printed on the packaging, the best way to determine freshness is with a sniff test. Fresh spices will be fragrant upon opening. If you can’t smell it, regardless of whether it’s still within the expiration date, it should be thrown out.