If you were to peek at random inside a few people's spice cabinets, you'd probably find the lineup of usual suspects: Salt, pepper, basil, paprika, garlic powder, ground mustard, cayenne pepper, oregano and dozens of other common flavors.
In addition to the usual suspects, did you know there's another whole subculture of taste enhancers just waiting to be discovered? Hundreds of spices are resting idly on your grocer's shelves waiting to add layers of complex flavor to your dishes. However, since we can’t cover them all in one blog, here are our top 15 picks for spices you should try ASAP.*
Check out our guide to cooking with herbs and spices, and discover the surprising benefits of heating up your meals with hot spices.
- Achiote: Also referred to as annatto, this spice comes from the seeds of a plant called the Bixa orellana. Natives of the Caribbean have long been using achiote to flavor their dishes. You'll need a large amount to get the peppery, slightly bitter taste. When blended with other herbs and spices, it can form a flavorful marinade for meats, fish and poultry. Achiote also functions as a natural dye, providing the color for cheese, butter, margarine and other foods. You can purchase achiote as whole seeds, ground powder, paste or cooking oil/lard. Try it with Achiote Grilled Shrimp.
- Anardana: Although it's extracted from dried pomegranate seeds, anardana has a rich molasses flavor. A staple of Persian and Indian cuisine, it's a great topper for veggies, fruits and nuts, and also works well in relishes, sauces and meat rubs. You can buy anardana in whole seed format, partially or finely ground.
- Avocado Leaves: Grown on the Mexican avocado plant, avocado leaves are often added to soups, stews, beans, sauces and other Latin dishes. Dried or fresh, the leaves are typically toasted to release their licorice-like flavor.
- Black Sesame Seeds: These heart-shaped sesame seeds add a nutty flavor while also enhancing the visual presentation of recipes. They are often used in Chinese and Japanese dishes, such as tofu, salads, dips, pastries and desserts. The Japanese combine dry-roasted seeds with salt to create a condiment called sesame salt. Try it with Roasted Salmon with Black Sesame Seeds.
- Epazote: This strong herb has its roots in Mexican cuisine. For thousands of years, epazote has been used to add zesty flavor to soups, salads, beans, quesadillas and other Latin dishes. The leaves acquire a stronger flavor as they age.
- Galangal: Most often found in Indonesia, Malaysian and Thai recipes, galangal is derived from a plant root that looks very similar to ginger. The spice has a sharp citrus scent, and adds a mixture of citrus and earthy flavors to foods. Try it with Galangal Fried Chicken.
- Grains of Paradise: This pepper lookalike offers the spiciness you'd expect, along with some surprising floral and fruity essences. Originally from West Africa, Grains of Paradise can be substituted for pepper in any recipe that calls for spice with a twist.
- Holy Basil: Although it's most commonly used to make herbal beverages, dried or fresh holy basil leaves can also add flavor to seafood, meats, salads, soups and desserts. Most popular in Thai cuisine, it often makes an appearance in stir-fry dishes and serves as a cooling complement to spicy foods. Try it with Pad Krapow Moo (Spicy Pork with Holy Basil).
- Juniper Berries: Grown on its namesake tree or shrub, the juniper berry has a sweet, zesty flavor that's released when ground. The berry has a long history, and was used by the Native Americans to season wild buffalo. Here in the United States, the spice is often used in sauces, marinades and brines, and pairs well with beef, pork and poultry.
- Lavender Sugar: A mix of pure sugar and dried culinary lavender, this beautiful floral spice can be mixed into cake batter, cookie or bread dough, or sprinkled on top of your favorite fruit. Need a creative chef's gift? Pour some lavender sugar into Mason jars and tie with ribbons. Try it with Grapefruit Lavender Sugar Cookies.
- Mastic: Produced by their namesake trees throughout the Mediterranean, mastic was originally used in chewing gum and toothpaste, but also has culinary applications. It's been an ingredient in Greek and Turkish liqueurs, as well as bread, pastries and desserts. The seasoning is prepared by pounding the mastic and mixing it with sugar and rose or orange blossom water.
- Saffron: It takes more than 75,000 purple crocus flowers to produce one pound of saffron, which explains why the spice is so expensive. Luckily, a little goes a long way. Saffron adds a distinctive sweetness to dishes, liqueurs and desserts, and is commonly used in Turkish, Arab, Persian, Indian and European cuisines. Beware of low-priced, diluted imitations that may look like golden saffron, but don't offer the same rich flavor. Try it with Fish Soup with Saffron and Cream.
- Smoked Salts: Looking for an edgier alternative to sea salt? The versatile smoked version is great for grilling meat, fish or poultry, and can also be added to vegetables, desserts, sauces and even as a drink garnish.
- Sumac: No, not the poisonous kind. The sumac bush produces bright red berries that are ground into a spice that has a zesty, lemony flavor and deep red coloring. Sumac is most often used to enhance both the taste and appearance of Middle Eastern dishes. Try it with Sumac and Lime Crushed Salmon.
- Za'atar: This term collectively refers to several Middle Eastern herbs, but is also the name for a condiment prepared from those herbs along with sumac, sesame seeds and other spices. The herb and the spice mixture are both commonly used in Arabic recipes. Try sprinkling za'atar in olive oil and serve with bread, or swirl it into your favorite yogurt for an added kick.
* Always check with your doctor if you are preganant, nursing or have small children before using these spices.
Have you tried any of these spices? Are there any unconventional flavorings you'd add to this list?
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