Are you looking for ways to add a lot of flavour to your foods without a lot of fat or salt? Add tasty spices to your recipes instead! Spices can say a lot about a culture’s cuisine and are used in a wide variety of savoury and sweet foods. Using a little spice can make the most basic recipes taste new and interesting. Look out for recipes that use one or more of these spices or try a new spice in one of your family’s favourites.
What is a spice?
Spices come from the bark, buds fruit, roots, seeds or stems of various plants or trees. (An herb, on the other hand, is from the leafy parts of plants that do not have woody stems. They can be fresh or dried. Dried herbs have a stronger flavour than fresh but lose their strength quickly.)
Here are some common cooking spices you can find in many kitchens
Allspice tastes like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, which is why it is named “allspice”. This spice is used in both savoury and sweet cooking. It adds a distinct flavour to baked goods like spiced cakes or pumpkin desserts. It’s also used in pickling and is the main ingredient of jerk seasoning. While allspice is used in North American baking, it is more common to South American and Jamaican cooking.
Anise gives a sweet licorice flavour to foods. It is often used in Southeast Asian cooking to add flavour to breads, beverages like this Hot Mulled Tea, pork and poultry.
Cardamom has a strong aroma and warm, spicy-sweet flavour. It is commonly used in pastries, rice dishes and sweet puddings. Because it is so strong, use only a little bit at a time. It is widely used in East Indian and Scandinavian (Denmark, Norway and Sweden) cooking.
Cayenne (also called red pepper) is a strong, spicy powder made from tropical chilies. With more than 200 varieties, it is common to many cuisines like African, Cajun, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, South American and Southeast Asian cooking. It can be used in a variety of dishes to add a little heat. Try it in this Oriental-style Chicken, Cashew and Veggie Salad or Squash Dip.
Chinese five spice
Chinese five spice is a strong mixture of five ground spices combined in equal amounts – cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, star anise and Szechuan peppercorns. Often used in Chinese cooking, you can make your own or find pre-packaged mixes in Asian markets and most grocery stores. It is most often used in dishes that use soy sauce.
Cinnamon is a fragrant bark with a sweet, woody and fruity flavour. There are different varieties available, but the most common cinnamon sold in North America is cassia cinnamon. While you may be used to using it in sweet dishes, you can also add it to savoury stews, soups and curries. It also works well with beef. Try it in Rhubarb Apple Loaf or Chili Casserole.
Cloves provide a sweet and spicy taste to sweet and savoury recipes. Use it in baked goods, smoked meats, pickles, sauces, curries and mulled beverages. They can be used whole (and then removed from the final dish) or ground. A little goes a long way for cloves, so use them in moderation. Try cloves in Chicken in Mole Sauce.
Coriander seeds are dried seeds that come from the same plant as the popular herb, cilantro. Coriander seeds taste like a combination of lemon, sage and caraway. This spice can be used for curries, soups, pickling spices and special drinks like mulled wine. It’s most often used in Indian, Mexican, Asian and Caribbean cuisines.
Cumin provides a warm and nutty flavour to dishes. It is popular in curries, chili powders and barbeque spice blends. It is most often used in Middle Eastern, Asian and Mediterranean cooking. Try it in this Quinoa and Lentil Pilaf.
Curry powder is a mixture of powdered spices that will differ depending on the region and dish. It usually includes a combination of coriander, cumin, turmeric, ginger, mustard, fenugreek, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, chilies and black pepper. The combination of spices gives a hot and spicy flavour to gravy-based dishes like Indian curries. Use it in a marinade or as a dry rub for beef, fish, lamb, veal and potatoes. Try it in Cream of Parsnip Soup or Asparagus and Sweet Potato with Curry.
Fennel seed gives a sweeter and mild licorice flavour to dishes. Fennel seeds are used to flavour savoury dishes, including fish, sauces, meatballs and sausages. It is popular in Mediterranean cuisines.
Garam masala is a spice blend like curry powder, but without the cumin or caraway. The combination of spices will depend on the chef and the recipe, just like curry powder. It usually contains black pepper, fennel, cinnamon, clove and cardamom and sometimes mace and nutmeg. It is widely used in Indian cooking and adds deep, rich flavour. It is usually added towards the end of cooking. Try it in this Indian scrambled egg dish, Egg Bhurji.
Ginger gives a sweet and spicy flavour to a variety of sweet and savoury dishes. Dried ginger has a different flavour than fresh ginger. Ginger is known for its use in baked goods, gingerbread, spice cookies, ginger ale and ginger beer, but also delicious in savoury dishes like soups and stews like Spicy Chicken and Squash Stew, curries, Asian stir-fries, meats and fruit compotes. Ginger is common in Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines.
Mace is the red covering of the nutmeg seed. It tastes and smells like a stronger version of nutmeg, and is slightly more bitter. Mace is used to flavour all kinds of foods including baked products, potatoes, cream sauces and sausage. Mace is common in East Indian cooking.
Nutmeg has a warm, spicy and sweet flavour. It can be used in sweet dishes like spiced baked goods, custards, eggnog and on fruits. It can also be paired with vegetables for savoury dishes, like this Broccoli and Mushroom Quiche. Like mace, nutmeg is common in East Indian cooking.
Paprika is made from special kinds of sweet orange and red peppers, which are dried and ground. It can be mild to hot, depending on the variety. Paprika goes well with eggs, rice, sweet potatoes, root vegetables, sauces, roast meats and poultry. Paprika is common in Spanish, South American and Hungarian cooking. Try it in Rutabaga Fries.
Turmeric has a warm and earthy flavour. It is used to add both flavour and colour (a bright yellow) to foods and is common to Indian and Caribbean cuisines. You’ll most often find turmeric added to curries and pickled foods. Try it in Cauliflower Lentil Rice Bake.
Buy and store spices properly to maintain their freshness
To get the most aroma and flavour out of spices, buy them in small quantities and use them up quickly. If possible, try grinding whole spices instead of buying them prepackaged to get the most flavour. You can grind them with a mortar and pestle or electric coffee grinder. Store whole and ground spices in airtight containers in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months.
Spices can add new flavours and aromas to your cooking without added fat, sodium or calories. Experiment with the different spices to see what you like best. EatRight Ontario dietitians can send you a chart with different flavour combinations, call 1-877-510-510-2 or send an email.
You may also be interested in:
How to cook with herbs
Growing an indoor herb garden
Get the Scoop on Salt
Last Update – May 2, 2017