Let’s Get Spicy!
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Just to set the record straight. . .spices and herbs are two distinct categories of flavor enhancers. That is why I have separated the two. This post is strictly about my favorites list of spices and how I use them.
Are you are just starting out with your brand-new kitchen?
Wondering what you should keep on hand in the spice cabinet?
Using the same spices over and over and want a new twist to your meals?
People often ask me what spices to keep around or which ones to use in certain dishes . Sure, you can always follow a recipe. Generally, that’s the safe route. But if you’re like me, you may want to be a bit adventurous. So, what’s stopping you? Is it the fear of making something that no one will eat . . .even the dog? Well. . .I think we have all gone through that at one point or another.
Trust me! I used to feel that way too. However, now that I’ve learned a few things about how the spices I use affect my dishes, I’m always tweaking recipes trying to find better or unique flavors. I mostly trust my instincts, and with a little practice, you will be able to trust yours too. Honestly, sometimes it ends up a bitter flop but other times it is the sweetest victory. We can all agree that we would prefer the latter, right? Don’t be afraid to try mixing it up a bit. I’ll give you a few guidelines to follow for what has been tested and tried along with my favorites, and then you can venture out on your own.
I don’t keep every spice known to man on hand. If I did, my spice cabinet would be oozing with overpowering flavor and . . . some pretty bad smells. Put it this way, too many spices in the cabinet are like too many cooks in the kitchen, they don’t work well together. I do, however, keep just enough spices so I’m not running to the store every time I cook. Below are 12 spices I like to keep on hand. They are what I use in most of my recipes. Let’s take a look. . .
Allspice is a more pungent spice. It has an earthy flavor that is slightly sweet. It pairs well with root vegetables and other powerful spices, like clove. I like making a root vegetable mash with allspice, cinnamon, clove and ginger. One of my holiday favorites is a glazed ham with allspice, ginger, clove, cardamom, peaches and honey. It’s just a little something I literally “cooked” up one day with a pinch of this and a dash of that. You can find the recipe here.
Black Pepper should be a staple in every kitchen, and not just on the dinner table. I’m going to assume that you are familiar with how pepper tastes, but have you ever tried to describe it?? Here goes. . .It has a slightly spicy smell and accentuates an almost fruity, lemony undertone. It mixes well with most foods and spices. Even though it’s hard to go wrong with when to use this spice, it can be overdone and ruin the recipe. Most people like to use it in savory dishes. However, have you ever thought about using just a pinch of pepper in a slightly, spicy dessert? Try it! You would be amazed at how this can give your dessert that little push from good to great.
Cardamom has a strong, sweet, lemony flavor to it. Interestingly, the seeds give off more of a camphorous scent while the lemon aroma is much stronger when ground up. This is another spice that combines well with root vegetables, and pairs well with apples and oranges. Cardamom, used in a dish like orange chicken, will help brighten the heavy sweetness of the orange. You could also add it to a sweet potato dish to help bring out that savory, sweet potato flavor. If you’re cooking for southern folks like my in-laws, this one is a must!
(This is mostly a case of mistaken identity. Cassia is often used in place of cinnamon because it is a bit sweeter and more readily available. Try reading the small print on your cinnamon bottle. You may be surprised.) Cinnamon has a sweet, woody flavor that most people are already familiar with. It works great in sweet breakfast dishes giving them some balance to the sugary taste. Some studies even indicate it may help to regulate blood sugar and has tons of antioxidants. It pairs well with chicken, lamb, pears, apples, apricots, almonds, chocolate, and rice. Because of the sweet flavor, it’s one of my favorites to use in desserts. . .and of course, to top the holiday favorite. . .eggnog!
Okay, this is one spice that you can smell before it gets there! Clove has a strong, spicy flavor that is slightly sweet. This spice can easily ruin a dish if too much is added, because it can really overpower other flavors. Alone, it doesn’t have a great flavor; however, it pairs beautifully with pork, ham, carrots, apples, and pumpkin. I love making my own pumpkin spice blend, and the clove brings the spice to the right place. Did you know that clove is known for being a natural numbing agent for a toothache? Watch out, though! I don’t recommend using it without knowing what you are doing, because it just might feel like a volcano in your mouth!!
Before mustard is ground, it has little or no smell. Once ground, the aroma becomes pungent and earthy. Yellow mustard, which comes from the white seed, is most commonly used because of its mellowness. Brown mustard is spicier and slightly bitter and often found in Indian cooking (and limousines). Using both types of mustard in sauces, marinades, pickling, and preserving is quite common. They can also be used with beef, chicken, cabbage, sausages, and strong cheeses. Any wonder why we like it with hamburgers?
Ginger is refreshing and woody with a sweet, citrus undertone. The flavor is quite strong when used in cooking and has a bit of a bite. I find that ginger can be quite versatile in cooking. It can be used in savory dishes as well as desserts and teas. You will find a lot of ginger used in Thai food as it combines well with basil, cilantro, coconut, lime, lemon grass, mint, and turmeric. Give your salads a pick me up by using ginger in your dressings. It also goes well in marinades and sauces for meats. (Something that I have learned is that the ginger actually helps to tenderize the meat. Cool benefit, don’t you think?) Never underestimate all the great uses for ginger in your holiday spice blends when you’re making cookies, cakes, and pies.
Nutmeg has a sweet, woody smell and a “to die for” flavor! It’s amazingly versatile as it can stand alone or be combined with other spices like ginger, clove, cardamom and cinnamon to create a symphony of great tasting holiday and breakfast goodies. We love these particular spices in holiday cooking because they help warm our cold little bodies during those cooler months of the year. So what kinds of foods taste good with nutmeg? It’s a great complement for carrots, eggs, seafood chowders, potatoes, squash, lamb, milk dishes, and spinach. And . . . just for the record, you can’t beat it freshly grated!
Talk about a chameleon! Paprika can take on a wide range of flavors – from delicate fruity or smoky flavors to full-bodied and gently pungent. Paprika is made from a number of different red capsicums (peppers). Because it’s made from peppers, the flavor can range from mild to hot. These peppers have been cultivated in the Americas for thousands of years. This would explain the fact that you find paprika in many South American recipes as well as Native American cooking. Paprika can add a bit of zest to beef, veal, chicken, pork, rice, and most vegetables. Would you believe that you can even add it to butter?? Check out this amazing paprika butter (for vegetables) from Bon Appetit!
Fresh turmeric has a gingery, earthy flavor to it; while dried turmeric has a floral, ginger, and kind of woody aroma. Alone, turmeric tastes slightly bitter and sour. (My mom says it’s like eating tree roots pulled fresh from the ground.) Turmeric, much like ginger, is used in Thai cooking; although, turmeric is mainly produced in India. Turmeric is most often used to make curries, yellow mustards, soups and stew. Because of the intense yellow staining that can happen, it can also be used as a natural dye. Most meats, fish, vegetables, rice, poultry and lentils combine well with turmeric. Grandma always said it was good for her arthritis. I’ve heard it is a good anti-inflammatory. So, why not?
Until vanilla beans ferment and dry they only have a slight smell. But, after fermentation and drying, they have that intense, rich, creamy, sweet flavor that most people easily recognize. But don’t let this amazing scent fool you. This stuff is bitter to the taste! However, it gives the foods you combine it with that sweet aroma and flavor that often gets used in desserts and sweet sauces. Try using it with cinnamon, clove and cardamom and you have a winning combination! Using vanilla with creams, milk, eggs, many fruits, fish, and other seafood has an out-of-this-world effect – making these foods more delicious than just having them alone.
I separated white pepper from black pepper because even though they have similar tastes, I use them quite differently in cooking. Where black pepper has a spicier, sweet taste, white pepper has a much more pungent earthy taste to it. White pepper can have a bit of a bitter bite to it, yet it combines well in cream sauces and soups. Let’s face it, it’s also more attractive in dishes that are lighter in color. As a matter of fact, my mom used to use white pepper instead of black just so she could hide it better in her cooking. I have some picky siblings! But. . .one word of warning! White pepper cannot always be substituted for black pepper. I tried using white pepper, because I was out of black in a broth . . . and well . . . let’s just say it wasn’t my best creation.
There you have it! This is my favorites list of the spices I keep in MY pantry. These are the ones I use most often although, I do use many others on occasion. There are so many spices out there, and I love trying new things!
What are your favorites? Tell me what some of your favorite spices are in the comments below, and be sure to include how you use them in your cooking.
If you really want to get down and dirty with all the different spices, check out Jill Norman’s Herbs & Spices: The Cook’s Reference book. This book is great for everyone – from the beginner to the most skilled chef. The pictures alone give great descriptions, but she goes into a lot of detail about each of the herbs and spices and how to use them.
Jill includes herbs and spices from all over the world so if definitely covers anything that would end up in your kitchen. This book gave me the confidence to experiment with all kinds of food combinations and really enjoy cooking. Check out Jill’s book and see for yourself! It is definitely my “go to” for all things herbs and spices.
If you would like my Spices At a Glance cheat sheet, please just fill out the form below to have it delivered immediately to your email inbox!
Remember to put a little spice in your life!