If you enjoy cooking you probably have a handful of dependable, go-to spices that you reach for over and over again. You’re also likely to have a stash of forgotten spice packets lurking in the back of the cupboard.
Spices are the secret to kitchen alchemy – learn how to wield cardamon with the same confidence as cumin and magic happens. They’re the quickest (and often, healthiest) way to introduce and layer flavour into a dish.
First, the basics. Most spices need to be fresh – just as with coffee beans, sunlight and air will break down the chemical compounds and essential oils that hold flavour. Keep your spices in air-tight containers in a cool, dark place.
Some culinary experts will say ground spices are only good for three months, others suggest up to three years. The best approach is to buy whole spices and grind them yourself, in a mortar and pestle, with a cheap coffee grinder or just smashed with the base of a heavy saucepan. Purchase small amounts regularly and resist the urge to bulk buy.
Your nose is your friend – if the scent of your coriander seed is dull and dust-like, it’s due to be replaced. Vibrant and pungent is best.
If an emergency resuscitation is required, remember that fat carries flavour. A warm bath in oil (blooming) will help release the flavour compounds of your spices, while a dry toasting may be enough for whole seeds and spices. Cooking spices off before incorporating them into a dish also smoothes out their flavour and can remove any little jags. This is less important for gentler, sweet spices such as cinnamon and cardamon.
Finally, make the most of what you’ve got. Spices are the quickest and easiest way to transform tried-and-true recipes into new favourites. Here are a few ideas to start you off.
Cumin should be in every kitchen. It’s an MVP of the spice world, imparting a subtle, nutty savouriness to everything from Israeli felafel to Chinese stir-fries and Mexican slow-cooked meats. Mix it with salt and olive oil as a simple marinade for roasted carrots or plain chicken thighs, or pair it with ground coriander to create dhana-jeera, the spice backbone of many Indian dishes.
Try dressing chargrilled vegetables in a light dhana-jeera dressing – the combo of smoky cumin and char from the grill adds oomph to a simple vegan dish.
Not all spices are created equal. High-quality smoked Spanish paprika is in a league of its own compared with basic mild or sweet supermarket versions.
A beautiful little tin of smoked paprika is a great investment. The distinctive, earthy flavour is an excellent way to quickly inject depth into anything from corn on the cob to buttermilk-fried chicken.
It’s a staple ingredient for peri peri chicken, beef stroganoff and eggs shakshuka, or turn it on a versatile Catalan romesco sauce à la Anna Jones. Adding a teaspoon to simple oil dressings or marinades is also a stellar idea.
Cinnamon buns may be the latest iso-bake but Swedish cardamon buns aren’t far behind. This gentle, misunderstood spice requires a deft touch but the flavour is amazing. Cardamon pods are more fragrant and easier to work with than the ground version.
An easy introduction might to simmer a pod or two with milk or cream to add a flavour layer to your next panna cotta or vanilla cake. Or pop a few pods into your next French press brew for Turkish coffee vibes. Then work your way up to these fluffy pistachio, rose and cardamon buns, which sub a standard Chelsea bun base for Chinese tangzhong.
Pilaf is one of the more obvious savoury applications, and Yotam Ottolenghi folds it with yoghurt, goats cheese and lime to create a beautiful tomato salad dressing.
Bright and intense, sumac is a star of the spice world and is commonly found in Middle Eastern recipes. The spice is harvested from dried berry and turned into dark, ruby red powder that adds a lemony kick to all it touches. It plays well with most ingredients in that realm – chicken, lamb, yoghurt, roast vegetables and fish.
Sumac pairs particularly well with red onion – add a pinch to sliced red onions with vinegar and salt for a quick pickle, or try making Ottolenghi’s gnocchi with sumac onions and brown butter pine nuts for a real treat.
From there, you can try it on chicken and cous cous, in the perfect fattoush salad or even with fish tacos.
Turmeric has been the health food wunderkind of the last decade, gifting us golden lattes and the promise of “anti-inflammatory” properties. But what about its taste? The flavour of fresh turmeric root deepens from bright to earthy when dried and powdered, and it can turn bitter if you use too much. It’s an important staple in many curry powders and pastes, and adds a lovely golden hue to simple broths and teas.
For something completely different, pair it with caraway and nigella seeds in a bright batter for turmeric onion rings, or simmer into an orange syrup to pour over rich chocolate mousse.
Nutmeg is one spice that you should absolutely be buying whole. No toasting necessary here – just a little zip along the microplane and you’re good to go.
Aromatic and delicate, nutmeg is amazing when paired with dairy. It’s imperative for the perfect custard tart, can add subtle flavour to salty, buttery spanakopita and makes the most amazing rice pudding.
It’s a friend to all baked fruits (apples, apricots, pears), and even dessert-leaning vegetables – such as this roast pumpkin, olive and oil and nutmeg cake. As the nights grow colder, pair with cinnamon and clove in a warming mulled wine.