Spices and Herbs have been around for thousands of years. They give our food flavor, some of them have medicinal benefits and they are mostly very affordable. Nothing elevates humble ingredients more elegantly and in a more affordable way than spices.
A few tips: If you have the choice always buy whole seeds and grind on a per need basis – a dedicated coffee grinder does a good job. For herbs grow your own fresh plant if you can or buy fresh herbs if they are affordable – you usually do not need a whole of a fresh herb to make a big impact on flavor and you can keep the unused herb in the refrigerator or freeze it for later.
Try to buy your spices or herbs in the health food store in the bulk spice section. Make sure the store has a high turnover. Spices, especially ground ones, die very quickly. If the flavor does not hit you in the face as you open the jar – stay away – no matter how much dead spice you will add, it will never improve your dish.
Storage: glass jars are best – buy little spice at a time – store away from sunlight and heat. I will present all spices in one list whether they are seeds, barks, roots or fruits.
ALLSPICE: its aroma is a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves hence the name; it is an important ingredient in the Jamaican jerk seasoning but also works with sweet dishes.
ANISE SEED: smells and tastes like licorice; used very much like fennel, adds a fresh note
BASIL: there are many varieties, sweet basil most common; wonderful aroma notes of cinnamon,clove and anise with a citrus finish. Do not store fresh leaves in the fridge since they will turn black. Keep it in water on you kitchen counter like a bunch of flowers. add fresh basil at the end of cooking and keep the leaves almost intact.
BAY LAUREL: use fresh or dried, mild flavor, sweet, similar to nutmeg. Bay laurel is milder and more subtle than California bay – you can tell them apart by the scalloped edges that only true bay laurel leaves have.
CARAWAY SEED: warm flavor with notes of anise,fennel and mint – strongly aromatic sweet but tangy; not for everyone
CARDAMON: either ground or in seed – crush seeds prior to use to release flavor warm cinnamon like flavor – less woody – pungent and intense – both for sweet and savory dishes
CAYENNE PEPPER: a type of ground chilies – little aroma but provides heat – on a scale of hotness from 1 to 10 most cayenne ranks about 8 – so use with caution!
CELERY SEED: its flavor is somewhere between grass and bitter hay – tasting – you guessed it – like celery. It is quite potent so use with caution.
CHERVIL: member of the parsley family, used similarly – less flavorful part of the french fines herbes blend
CHILI: there are more than 300 types of chili – the most common varieties are ancho, chipotle, habanero Hotness levels vary so experiment carefully! Whole dried chilies other than spicing up your level are also great in your storage jars for whole grains – put in whole chili in the jar and grain moths will think twice about ruining your precious grains. Just make sure you take the chili out before you cook your grains!
CHIVES: part of the onion family; always add at the end of cooking try to use fresh; grows wild in many areas
CILANTRO: wonderfully pungent aroma with notes if citrus, use very much like parsley and keeps equally well in the refrigerator
CINNAMON: one the most beloved spices, used often in sweet foods but is also a prominent ingredient in the Indian spice mixture garam masala; aroma is sweet, earthy and peppery.
CLOVES: one of the most intense of all spices cloves should be removed before serving a dish – since biting into one can be unpleasant; used both in sweet as well as savory dishes; flavor is very aromatic warm think gingerbread
CORIANDER: the seed of the Cilantro plant – warm, aromatic flavor with undertones of sage and lemon. Use both with sweet and savory dishes.
CUMIN: related to parsley – not to be confused with caraway seed. Dry roast before using to bring out the lightly spicy, bitter and earthy aroma.
DILL: feathery leaves of the dill plant; add at the end of cooking or use raw
DILL SEED: seed of the dill plant, gives a flavor somewhere between anise and caraway, quite potent – use cautiously
FENNEL SEED: aroma somewhere between anise, licorice and mint; quite sweet good for both savory and sweet dishes; saute seeds before use to release flavor
FENUGREEK: very pungent, somewhat bitter – flavor of maple syrup; found in most curry blends and in the African berbere spice mix – dry roasting eliminates the bitter over tones
GINGER: fresh ginger should be stored in the refrigerator; it does not have to be peeled before cooking; it comes in many forms fresh, pickled, ground, crystalized; it has a spicy, warm and sweet taste that can be quite powerful
HORSERADISH: very powerful root from the mustard family; an ingredient in cocktail sauce it is prized paradoxically for its strong irritating, some say cleansing, quality along the nose and throat; usually consumed cold
JUNIPER BERRY: main flavor component in gin it has a pine like, citrus, bittersweet taste used in sauerkraut and many Scandinavian dishes
LAVENDER: part of the mint family; sweet and floral flavor with some mint overtones; use sparingly since it is quite intense if fresh
MARJORAM: flavor very woodsy and mild with a hint of sweetness; not to be confused with oregano; blends well with dill,basil,thyme and parsley
MUSTARD SEED: the familiar condiment starts out as this seed – the flavors cannot be released until cold water has been added, it takes about 10 minutes fro the flavor to release – it is simple to make your own mustard and should be tried; mustard adds a spicy zest
NIGELLA: often confused with black sesame – nigella seeds are peppery with a hint of oregano
NUTMEG: warm aroma, slightly spicy with a sweet overtone; used for both sweet and savory dishes; add little at a time since it can bitter up a dish
OREGANO: the herb note in pizza seasoning; very fragrant, flavor can be almost spicy; use fresh when available can be added at the beginning of cooking or the end
PAPRIKA: made from ground sweet red pepper, it colors foods orange; spiciness ranges from harmless to quite hot because chilies are sometimes added in the grinding process
PARSLEY: curly or flat, should be bought fresh; it has a light, fresh aroma and is often used in breath fresheners; keeps well for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator in a plastic bag, just don’t let it get wet.
PEPPER: the most famous spice after salt; famous for its sharp and spicy aroma; different colors including black, white, green and red are available with slight variations in flavor and taste; buy whole berries and grind on demand – the difference in flavor is worth it – adds sparkle and vibrancy of flavor without too much heat
PEPPERMINT: cool favor, tastes like you guessed it ‘mint’
POPPY SEED: while opium is derived from the unripe seeds, the mature seeds used for cooking have no narcotic qualities; slightly sweet and somewhat nutty – they can be used in desserts mixed with sugar or to thicken and flavor sauces
ROSEMARY:part of the mint family; looks and tastes like pine; needs to be cooked to release flavor – so do not add last minute to your dish and crush leaves so they release their flavor.
SAFFRON: the world’s most expensive spice – although only a tiny amount is really needed to give off its sweet, earthy and spicy flavor. Saffron’s odor is a bit unpleasant – although it dissipates in the cooking process. Most famously found in the Spanish paella.
SAGE: a warm, woody fragrance and taste that enhances the flavor of otherwise bland dishes; dried sage is quite intense so add sparingly, fresh sage leaves can be quite large so you will need very few to get the full flavor; add at the beginning of your cooking with oil
SESAME SEEDS: different colored hulls produce red, yellow, brown or black sesame seeds, they are the basis for tahini, the middle eastern paste; to fully release their very mild flavor they need to be lightly toasted; add for texture more than flavor
SPEARMINT: quite fruity and less minty than peppermint; goes well with sweet and savory dishes; easy to grow in your garden
STAR ANISE: beautiful spice, one of the spices in Chinese five spice mix; has a warm, woody flavor and is very sweet
TAMARIND: a unusual sour taste that combines well with either sugar or chili; it is an ingredient in the English Worcestershire sauce.
TARRAGON: strong herby flavor, bittersweet reminiscent of anise; sometimes available fresh; one of the herbs in the French mix called “fines herbes” – the others are chives, chervil and parsley. These are the only herbs it combines with well
THYME: note of citrus and mint, very mild; should be added early on in the cooking process to release flavor
TURMERIC: dyes everything bright yellow, including your hands; important part of curry blends; earthy, mustardy taste with a hint of ginger and orange, slightly bitter
VANILLA: second most expensive spice after saffron; sweet, fruity perfumed taste with smokey overtones; the most exquisite form of vanilla is the whole bean – a long sticky strap, that has to be slit open to scrape out the seeds; if you don’t want to bother with that you can also purchase vanilla flavor. However I discourage using imitation vanilla since it is made from industrial by products and has absolutely nothing to do with the real thing; do not refrigerate vanilla beans they will mold – one inch of vanilla bean equals about one teaspoon pure vanilla extract.
SPICE AND HERB BLENDS: These are basic recipes – have fun and make your own variations! Also don’t fret over the exact amounts of each ingredient – because in each and every recipe while they more or less agree on the ingredients the ratios of one spice to the other seems to be quite arbitrary. Therefore I have listed ratios but take them with a grain of salt! ;-). Pastes have to be refrigerated dry spice mixes do not.
2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
4 each whole cloves
3/4 teaspoon whole cardamon seeds
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon whole allspice berries
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
10 small red chilies, dried (or less if you don’t want that much heat)
1/2 teaspoon grated ginger
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1. Toast over mild heat: first seven ingredients, watch like a hawk, so nothing burns. The seeds will be ready when you can smell their aroma. About one to two minutes. Let the toasted seeds cool.
2. Grind the red chilies in coffee grinder. Mix the ground chilies with the cooled, toasted seeds and grind again. Mix in remaining ingredients – and fill into glass jar with tight fitting lid. Store in refrigerator. Time: about 10 minutes Yield: about 1 cup.
4 teaspoons salt
4 teaspoons paprika
3 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoons cayenne powder or adjust to your liking
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1. Mix all ingredients – store in glass jar away from heat or sunlight. If in season, add fresh thyme or oregano during cooking to add interesting notes.
CURRY: One of the most popular spice mixes on earth. Most people actually believe it to be a spice not a spice mix. As per usual – experiment – but here is the basic plot:
2 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin, ground
2 tablespoon pepper or to taste
1 tablespoon cloves, ground
1 tablespoons turmeric
1/2 tablespoon chilies, ground or to taste
1/2 tablespoon fenugreek seeds, ground
1/2 tablespoon mustard seeds, ground or to taste
1. Put all spices in dry pan and roast over low heat until the release scent. Let cool and transfer into dry glass jar. Keeps for weeks – but make little at a time for freshness.
FINES HERBES: Classic French combination of fresh parsley, chives, chevril and tarragon.
FIVE SPICE: Chinese spice mixture: of equal parts
ground fennel seed
ground chili pepper – adjust hotness to taste
1 star anise
Blend and store. Keeps really well – no need to refrigerate.
GARAM MASALA: A lovely spice mixture added towards the end of the cooking. Hotness as always depends on individual taste.
Use all the spices in whichever form you have them and blend to your hearts content. There are endless variations and you should really experiment with the ratios. Blend in a blender and keep in a glass jar – no need to refrigerate.
1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup mild chili powder
1 tablespoon mint dried or fresh, finely chopped
1 tablespoon dried garlic powder or 3 cloves finely minced
1/2 tablespoon ground caraway
1/2 tablespoon ground cumin
1/2 tablespoon ground coriander
1/2 tablespoon salt
1. Mix all dry ingredients in a bowl.
2. Pour half a cup of olive oil in blender and add wet ingredients (garlic and/or mint). Blend thoroughly.
3. Add dry ingredients and blend slowly. Scrap sides of blender so nothing gets stuck and slowly add rest of olive oil.
4. Transfer to a clean glass jar. Put a layer of olive oil on top. Keeps up to 2 months in fridge: Yield: 2 cups Time:10 minutes
HERBES DE PROVENCE: French Mediterranean spice mixture of equal parts dried: marjoram, rosemary, thyme with light touch of lavender and/or fennel seed.
2 tablespoons coconut oil
4 garlic cloves, crushed or more to taste
1 red chili or more to taste
1 teaspoon ground pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper or more to taste
4 tablespoons sugar, agave nectar, maple syrup or other sweetener
1 tablespoon allspice
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon thyme
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 cup lemon or lime juice
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1. Heat oil – saute first seven ingredients up to and including cinnamon. Add one ingredient at a time until you have a paste. Careful that it doesn’t stick! Let cool.
2. Transfer paste to blender and add other ingredients. Blend and transfer to clean glass jar. Keeps in refrigerator for up to a month. Time:10 minutes Yield: 1 cup