wikiHow to Use Spices in Cookery

Spices are not only a great flavouring on their own, but can also act as a preservative and flavour enhancer for particular ingredients. Many meals as we know them would be totally different without the use of spices, such as nutmeg on custard, saffron in paella, and sumac in za'atar. To be a good cook, it's important to explore spices and know when to use them to your advantage.


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    Know the difference between an herb and a spice. A spice is usually defined as the seeds or pods (caraway, cardamom), flower or flower heads and stigmas (saffron), buds (cloves), aromatic berries (peppercorns), fruits (paprika), roots (ginger), stems or bark (cinnamon) and other parts of a plant. A herb is usually designated as the fragrant leaf and occasionally the green stems of a plant if it is young or has no woody stems (parsley, rosemary, basil, etc.).[1][2]
    • A number of plants are both herb and spice. For example, coriander (or cilantro) leaf is an herb, but the stems, flowers, seeds or roots of the same plant is typically referred to as a spice.
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    Explore the different flavour profiles of spices and consider how you can blend them or ally them with other ingredients to boost their flavour or make a meal more tasty. Different spices have different characteristics, with some having more than one virtue. Here are some of the qualities by way of example:
    • Some are earthy (such as cumin, turmeric etc).
    • Some are spicy such as ginger, turmeric, or chillies, wasabi, mustard, pepper and Szechwan peppers and give a warming sensation, and have powerful anti-inflammatory effects. [3]
    • Some are floral or sweet (such as vanilla, star anise, rose petals, etc).
    • Some add colour (such as saffron).
    • There are many more spice flavouring qualities such as sourness, bitterness, an ability to make other flavours more complex and fragrant etc.
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    Consider how spices will taste in conjunction to other ingredients. For example sweet spices typically go well with sweet things, such as nutmeg, cloves, vanilla, cinnamon, cardamon, allspice in cakes, cookies, stewed fruits etc so we normally classify them as a sweet spice. But tastes and fashions change and sweet can go with typically savoury things, such as in stews, braises & roast vegetables (especially sweet potato) and curries that use sweet spices in what is typically a savoury meal. There is no sugar added which makes the spice able to work for sweet dishes and savoury dishes.
    • The advantage with modern spice blends is they are made ahead for convenience, but the disadvantage is it can be hard to adjust them to your taste without some experience with spices. If you have not ever made a spice blend from scratch, or have experimented with spices before it can be very hard to correct or modify a dish should it not taste good, or not taste as good as it could do. The additional key benefit is sometimes a meal may be planned, but when a problem happens, such as an ingredient has passed its use-by date, or the dish does not turn out as planned, the use of spices can make the failed meal into an entirely different (and successful) meal.
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    Discover how the profile of spices can change when processed. Garlic for example if slowly roasted whole in the skin is quite mild and sweet, but raw finely minced garlic is quite spicy. If it's "steeped" such as in a stew or broth, it can be quite rich in flavour, but it is very acrid if burnt.
    • Some spices require grinding, some can be bashed roughly, some turn out more pungent when grated. It varies per type of spice, as some spices don't taste as good if they're not prepared quite right. Most dried spices tend to be ideal ground to a powder.
    • Some are better, or are different flavour when fresh, some are better dried (such as vanilla, cloves - which are a flower bud, paprika, etc).
    • By knowing which spices are similar as well as their individual uses, it can be quite easy to substitute with a similar spice, or to create new spice mixes to your taste.
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    Aim to purchase your spices whole if possible. This sometimes is a lot more expensive (such as vanilla beans, rather than vanilla paste or extracts) or fresh ginger etc, but sometimes it is marginal such as cinnamon sticks, whole seeds and spices such as cumin, fennel, cloves, star anise or coriander seeds. It does make a large difference to the quality of the meal and whole chunky spices (such as star anise or cinnamon sticks) can always be removed prior to serving.
    • This is because pre-ground spices tend to have a lot more surface area exposed to air so their essential oils or flavouring compounds are lost more easily. The also can be degraded due to exposure to bright light in supermarkets if they have been stored for some time. This means the spices are often stale, even when new. The rule of thumb is if any spice smells dull and not fresh, then it is stale and is not worth using. Grinding your own spices is a joyful experience in itself.
    • Whole spices work best in dishes that are slowly simmered (some spices turn bitter after prolonged cooking, so slow cooking is important). Ground spices are easy to add to a dish at any stage of the cooking process.
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    Learn how to "toast" spices. This is known as "dry-frying". Much like toasting nuts, this process activates the flavour and perfumes which make the spice release more of its aroma and flavour, making the dish far more flavoursome.
    • The method is simple but it is a skill you need to learn. Warm a pan on low heat and add your spices, warming gently until they become fragrant, stirring often. Many fresh spice pastes are better to be cooked wet (in oil, butter, ghee etc), where dry spices are more likely to burn this way. Avoid burning the spices at all costs as their flavours can be very undesirable. The moment they smell fragrant, remove them from the heat - its not always evident by looking at them, but the scent is the key.
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    If you enjoy grinding your spices, invest in a large mortar and pestle. These are actually cheaper at international grocery stores, rather than those found in the larger department stores. Choose a mortar (being the bowl part of the pair) that will hold enough dried or fresh spices that you need for your meal and can be crushed without overflowing. A 2-3 cup volume is desirable as a small 1 cup is fine for very small use strong spices such as cloves.
    • Another handy tool is an electric spice grinder, or a coffee or nut grinder used solely for spices. You could even try a chocolate mill and for nutmegs, look for a nutmeg grinder or mill.
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    Learn how compound spices work in recipes. Quite often spices are grouped together and usually a "mother spice" serves as the main flavour vehicle (such as fennel, paprika or coriander/cilantro, etc). The main spice is then tempered or modified with the addition of other spices to give it a more desirable tone of flavour and to build a specific spice mix. There are a lot of spice blend recipes online and in books so it is highly recommended to make them from scratch more often than from a powdered mix so you can create your own spice blends and become more familiar with them. There are many hundreds of spice blends worldwide, but some good common examples are:
    • A curry powder is a typical compound spice as it has several typical spices (such as cumin, coriander, turmeric, etc) but it varies a lot in type. Some curry blends are common and some are regional or specialised, such as including or omitting spices such as ginger, asafetida, nutmeg, mustard, kencur root, etc.
    • Ras el Hanout is another well known compound spice blend, used frequently for many north African & middle eastern dishes.
    • "Quatre Epices" (Four Spices) is a classical French compound spice. This is typically made up from cloves, ground pepper (white or black or a combination), ginger and nutmeg. This variation sometimes swaps one of the spices for cinnamon or allspice so it does vary from region to region.
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    Store spices in a dry, cool place. Spices can be stored direct in airtight jars, but preferably they should be used up within half a year from purchase as they can turn stale quickly. Smell them before use to gauge freshness, should the spices smell be muted, dusty or mouldy (providing they did not smell that way when fresh), they should be disposed of even if they look okay as they may not flavour the dish as you would intend.
    • Fresh spice pastes, or newly made dried spice mixes can be frozen for longer storage, but are best stored in air-tight containers (preferably a container within a container) as their scent could permeate the smaller freezer space and taint other foods.
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    Start cooking more with spices. Now that you've had a chance to explore spices and learn how to find, store, improve, and savor them, begin introducing more of them into your cooking. Here are a few suggestions that are a tip of the spice iceberg:
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    Continue to explore your own tastes for spice. While it's best to follow a recipe until you're more confident (especially as spices can easily be overpowering), as you become more adept at understanding how the spices fit well with other flavours, begin experimenting with your own dishes. The web has a great source of places to explore spices and there is a great array of different and international spice blends just waiting to be experimented with.


  • Spice fruits include: paprika, chili, cayenne pepper, star anise. Dried peels can sometimes be included as a spice if ground finely, such as lemon zest, tomato powder, beetroot powder etc.
  • If you taste a dry herb or spice by itself, you'll miss out on some of the flavor profile. Instead, break a marshmallow in half, put some of the herb or spice on the sticky part of one half, and eat it. It will give you a much better idea of how the herb or spice will affect a finished dish.
  • Spice roots and bark include galangal, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, and wasabi.
  • For the sake of ease of use and brevity, spices are often covered in thorough herbal cookbooks, although do look for the words "herbs and spices" when you want more information about spices.
  • Whole spices are easy to remove from a dish prior to serving and unless the recipe says otherwise, usually should be removed. This is important because they are often tough to chew and not a pleasant experience for the diner!
  • Spice seeds include: mustard seeds, cardamom, coriander, mace, fenugreek, cumin, caraway, and nutmeg.
  • Spice berries include: sumac, sichuan pepper, allspice, peppercorns, juniper berries.


  • Don't overload on spices.

Things You'll Need

  • Spices
  • Suitable items for grinding, milling, toasting, etc. spices
  • Storage space and containers for spices
  • Labels for dating spices
  • Spice recipes and ingredients

Sources and Citations

  1. Pamela Clark, Ask Pamela, p. 118, (2009), ISBN 978-186396871-3
  2. Murdoch Books, Spice It, p. 8, (2006), ISBN 1-74045-601-7
  3. Richard Béliveau and Denis Gingras, Cooking with foods that fight cancer, p. 88, (2008), ISBN 978-1-74175-434-6

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