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The Ultimate Guide to Spices

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We’ve already delved into the green world of fresh herbs, but now it’s time to dust off the old spice jars to find out why they’re good for us and how to use them. Pepper may be the only one you’re used to, but we’ve got the specifics on more spices, and spice blends, to flavor healthy meals from breakfast to dessert.


 

The How-tos


Buy whole.
Whole spices last longer than ground versions, but you’ll need a grinder. A mortar and pestle or a dedicated coffee grinder work like a charm!

Keep in a cool, dry place.
Keep spices away from heat, moisture, and direct sunlight. Avoid tacking a spice rack above the stovetop or oven — heat and moisture can negatively affect spices’ quality. And when sprinkling spices into a dish, pour into your hand before adding them to food: Shaking the jar directly over a steaming pot can cake up the rest of its contents. Another stay-dry tip is to replace the lid immediately after use.

Toss the old ones.
Spices don’t actually go bad per se, but they lose flavor as they age. Whole seeds last around three to four years, while ground has a shelf life of two to three years. If a spice looks dull and has lost some of its original color, then give it the boot. And make sure to date the back of the bottle to keep tabs on when it’s time to buy new ones.

Store creatively.
Instead of teetering spice jars on top of one another in a crammed pantry, check out some innovative ways to store them, like in-drawer racks, mini-mason jars for a pretty wall installment, or even corked test tubes!

The Spices
 

Allspice

This spice was first named Jamaican pepper and later changed to allspice which, just like its name implies, tastes like a mixture of nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and pepper. Research suggests that some compounds found in allspice — including eugenol and gallic acid — may have anti-tumor properties on human cancer cells [1] [2].
Taste: Like a strong blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, a hint peppery
Perfect For: German and Caribbean cuisine, cakes, cookies, stew, lamb, fruit pies, pickles
Greatist Recipe Pick: Add to this cold-weather quinoa breakfast bake or incorporate a pinch into these comforting baked apples.

Cardamom
Photo by Tammy McAllister

Cardamom may have the potential to prevent against some small, potentially-cancerous skin growths, called papillomas [3]. This spice is also one of the main components in chai tea.
Taste: Warm, spicy, sweet
Perfect For: Scandinavian and Indian cuisine, chai tea
Greatist Recipe Pick: Take boring smoothies to new (spicy) heights by adding cardamom to a coconut-lime, vanilla chai, or apple pie rendition. We also like cardamom in this pumpkin pie oatmeal.

Cayenne Pepper

Photo by Jess Ivy
Alias: Red pepper. Studies suggest this fiery spice, which gets its flavor from capsaicin, may increase fat oxidation, allowing the body to better use fat as fuel [4] [5].

Taste: Hot, smoky
Perfect For: Mexican and Southwestern cuisine, chili, eggs, fish, vegetables
Greatist Recipe Pick: Heat up this veggie chili with a small dose of cayenne.

Cinnamon

This spice, which compliments both sweet and savory dishes, has a range of health benefits from reducing arthritis pain to keeping the mouth clean [6] [7]. Add cinnamon to morning coffee instead of sugar for guilt-free flavor.
Taste: Sweet, hot

Perfect For: Mexican and Greek cuisine, grilled fruit, curries, cakes, oatmeal
Greatist Recipe Pick: Add to super simple crockpot recipes like apple-cinnamon breakfast risotto or homemade pumpkin butter for no-fuss flavor.

Clove

Cloves, which are dried flower buds, provide a burst of flavor even in small amounts. One study found cloves to be the best natural antioxidant because they contain high levels of phenolic compounds, as well as other beneficial properties [8]. Another study suggests that clove oil may decrease depression in a similar way to psychostimulant drugs (like aderall) [9].
Taste: Aromatic, sweet

Perfect For: Caribbean and Indian cuisine, pineapple, meats, soups, pork, mulled wine, chutneys
Greatist Recipe Pick: Make a batch of fool-proof spiced nuts or simmer up some mulled wine.

Cumin

Be careful not to douse a dish with this powerful spice — a little goes a long way. Aside from providing great flavor, this spice has traditionally been used for the treatment of sleep disorders, indigestion, and hypertension [10].
Taste: Earthy, warm, nutty
Perfect For: Mexican and Asian cuisine, beans, stews, soups, tacos, and sauces
Greatist Recipe Pick: Use cumin to warm up this chickpea, kale, and tomato soup or incorporate it into this chili spice rub.

Fennel

Traditional Iranian medicine calls on fennel for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and memory-enhancing properties (amongst many others) [11].
Taste: Licorice-like
Perfect For: Italian cuisine, sausage, bread, fish, pork, pasta
Greatist Recipe Pick: Use fennel seeds and bulbs to flavor this barley risotto.

Ginger

Photo by Marissa Angell

Slightly spicy, slightly sweet ginger root is used in cooking both in its fresh and dried and ground forms. It has been used to treat nausea, ease sore muscles, and help alleviate symptoms of arthritis [12] [13] [14] [15].
Taste: Spicy, sweet, slight citrus flavor
Perfect For: Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern cuisine, marinades, squash, desserts, oats, hot tea, gingerbread, pickled ginger
Greatist Recipe Pick: Use fresh or dried ginger in this quinoa and vegetable salad.

Mustard Powder

Mustard powder, made from ground mustard seeds, is often used to make homemade mayo, dressings, and marinades. Adding powdered mustard seeds to broccoli during cooking may increase its ability to prevent the development of cancer [16].
Taste: Often spicy and stronger in flavor than jarred mustard.

Perfect For: German cuisine, vegetables, seafood, salad dressings, stews
Greatist Recipe Pick: Made-from-scratch marinades like this sweet-and-spicy version.

Nutmeg

Photo: Tracy27

We like to use this spice to make healthier pie (adding more flavor means you can cut back on the fat and sugar). Some studies suggest nutmeg can help repel cavities (not that we fully endorse eating the whole pie in one sitting) [17].
Taste: Warm, sweet, nutty, spicy
Perfect For: Cakes, sauces, spinach, cookies, milk or cream-based dishes like custards or puddings, eggnog
Greatist Recipe Pick: Indian, French, Scandinavian, and Caribbean cuisine. Use it as an unexpected way to flavor up this crustless vegetable quiche or blend into this chocolate blueberry smoothie.

Paprika

Photo: shyb

This bright red spice is made from dried and ground mild chili peppers. For those who can’t handle the heat, there’s no need to get out of the kitchen — paprika provides a toned down, more smoky chili flavor. One health benefit of paprika is its ability to protect the body’s cells from oxidative stress (for example, smoking), which is believed to cause a number of diseases [18].
Taste: Mild, sweet, some may be hotter than others
Perfect For: German and Spanish cuisine, eggs, seafood, vegetables, goulash
Greatist Recipe Pick: Sprinkle some paprika to add color to these baked "potato" wedges (made from celery root).

Pepper
 

Peppercorns come in black, white, and green varieties. There are pink peppercorns, which have a deeper pepperiness and chile-like heat compared to black pepper. The best thing about pepper is that it’s great in nearly everything. Switch things up and crack some pepper over grilled fruit for a surprising kick. Research suggests black pepper consumption can reduce high-fat diet induced oxidative stress to our body’s cells [19].
Taste: Hot and zesty
Perfect For: Pretty much anything — dressings, soups, salads, and meat dishes, for starters!
Greatist Recipe Pick: Pepper is a must in this quick and easy veggie chili, and spices up these baked black bean and quinoa burgers.

Saffron

Time to get steamy! Research shows that saffron, the most expensive of all spices, can actually improve sexual function [20]. If that’s not what you’re going for, use saffron (which comes from the yellow-orange flower of a small purple crocus) to add color to a dish with its deep crimson hue. 
Taste: Slightly bitter but also slightly sweet, warm
Perfect For: Spanish, Indian, and North African cuisine, risotto, paella
Greatist Recipe Pick: Turn on the crockpot for this saffron-infused root vegetable stew.

Salt

Photo by Jordan Shakeshaft

Salt comes in many varieties — rock salt, Fleur de Sel, and Kosher salt to name a few. Though this naturally occurring chemical compound isn’t actually a spice, we’re including it on the list since it’s the centerpiece on many kitchen tables. The American Medical Association has suggested we reduce salt consumption because too much can contribute to health issues like high blood pressure and heart disease [21] [22] [23]. But before we go tossing salt completely, it’s important to note that some salt is essential and can help maintain fluid balance, blood pressure, body temperature, and nerve and muscle function [24] [25] [26]. Our bodies need 180-500 milligrams of sodium per day, but the recommended limit is 1,500 milligrams.
Taste: Salty! Earthy, savory
Perfect For: Boosting the flavor of savory and sweet dishes, anything from baked goods to salads.
Greatist Recipe Pick: Get your snack fix with these spicy roasted chickpeas or eggplant chips with basil yogurt dip. 

Star Anise

This spice gets its name from the way it’s shaped, like a tiny little star. Take a big whiff when you’re feeling stressed out — anise is known for its ability to reduce tension and help increase mental clarity.
Taste: Strong licorice flavor
Perfect For: Chinese and Indian cuisine, cakes, cookies, roasted fruit
Greatist Recipe Pick: Whip up this fancy star anise syrup or healthy orange-date-apricot muffins.

Turmeric

The root of a plant related to ginger, turmeric is known for its many superfood powers like the ability to help relieve the pain, swelling, and redness that may come from inflammation-inducing conditions [27]. It’s also known to help treat digestive problems [28]. Just like saffron, this spice is often used to color food as well as add a faint earthy flavor.
Taste: Earthy, slightly bitter
Perfect For: Indian and Moroccan cuisine, poultry, lamb, curries, stews, rice dishes
Greatist Recipe Pick: Amp up your smoothie flavor palette, and toss some of this yellow spice into a raspberry turmeric smoothie.

Blends

A quick perusal of the Internet reveals a slew of homemade versions of spice blends, but for a little convenience in a jar, check out the pre-mixed blends parked right next to the main spices at the grocery store.

Chinese Five Spice

Photo by Evonne Chia
The five spices — star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, and fennel seeds — are often used in Asian pork and duck dishes, as well as a seasoning for the breading on fried foods.
Perfect For: Chinese cuisine, pork, duck, beef stew, breading, seafood
 
Chili Powder

Photo: djwtwo

This mixture is commonly made from ground chili peppers, paprika, cumin, and black pepper. Some versions are milder than others.
Perfect For: Mexican dishes, Chili (duh), beans

Curry Powder

Curry powder is a Western term, but the mixture of spices is often called garam masala in India. Most curry powders are made up of coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, and red pepper, though the mix varies.
Perfect For: Indian cuisine, curries, tomato sauces, stews

Italian Seasoning

Made from garlic, onion, and herbs like rosemary, oregano, thyme, and marjoram, this blend is often considered a kitchen staple. This blend can vary a ton, with some including red pepper flakes for heat or a wider range of dried herbs.
Perfect For: Pizza, pasta dishes, hearty meat stews, broth-based soups

Lemon Pepper

Photo: Bigstock

The premise behind this mix is simple: Lemon and pepper. The lemon portion comes from zesting the peel. This mix often includes salt, too.
Perfect For: Use as a rub for fish, poultry, or burgers, sprinkled on salads, vegetables, potatoes

Pickling Spice

Photo: Andrea_Nguyen

This one, made from black peppercorns, mustard seeds, red pepper flakes, allspice, dill seed, bay leaves, cloves, and sometimes cinnamon and ginger, is the go-to blend (when added to a vinegar base) for pickling veggies and eggs.
Perfect For: Cucumbers, eggs, pepper, beets, sauerkraut, onions

Poultry Seasoning

Like many spice blends, poultry seasoning states it’s purpose in the name. The mix often includes sage, pepper, lemon peel, savory, rosemary, dill, allspice, thyme, marjoram, and ginger. Talk about convenience in a bottle!
Perfect For: Chicken, turkey, stuffing, broth-based soups

Pumpkin Pie Spice

Photo: Michelle@TNS

Though its name may insinuate that this spice mix actually tastes like pumpkin pie, its got no traces of the superfood. It does, however, comprise the main seasoning agents used in a traditional pumpkin pie — cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and allspice.
Perfect For: Pumpkin pie! oats, coffee drinks, cookies

What’s your most cherished jar in the spice cabinet? Let us know in the comment section below or tweet the author @nicmcdermott.

I try my best to eat foods that make me feel good, but I have a lot of sweet teeth. I completed a 1-month ShakeWeight "challenge" ... well... Read More »

Works Cited

  1. Medicinal properties of the Jamaican pepper plant Pimenta dioica and Allspice. Zhang, L., Lokeshwar, B.L. Sheila and David Fuente Graduate Program in Cancer Biology, Leonard Miller School of Medicine, University of Miami, Miami, FL. Current Drug Targets, 2012 Dec;13(14):1900-6.
  2. Anticancer and antioxidant tannins from Pimenta dioica leaves. Marzouk, M.S., Moharram, F.A., Mohamed, M.A. Natural Products Group, Nobel Project Laboratory, National Research Centre, El-Behoos St., Dokki, Cairo, Egypt. Zeitschrift fur Naturforschung C., 2007 Jul-Aug;62(7-8):526-36.
  3. Antioxidative effects of the spice cardamom against non-melanoma skin cancer by modulating nuclear factor erythroid-2-related factor 2 and NF-κB signalling pathways. Das, I., Acharya, A., Berrry, D.L., et al. Department of Cancer Chemoprevention, Chittaranhan National Cancer Institute, Kolakata, India. The British Journal of Nutrition, 2012 Sep 28; 108(6): 984-97.
  4. Effects of novel capsinoid treatment on fatness and energy metabolism in humans: possible pharmacogenetic implications.RSnitker, S., Fujishima, Y., Shen, H., et al. University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009 Jan; 89(1):45-50.
  5. Pharmacokinetic and the effect of capsaicin in Capsicum frutescens on decreasing plasma glucose level.Chaiyasit, K., Khovidhunkit, W., Wittayalertpanya, S. Inter-department of Pharmacology, Graduate School, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand. 2009 Jan; 92(1):108-13.
  6. Comparing analgesic effects of a topical herbal mixed medicine with salicylate in patients with knee osteoarthritis. Zahmatkash, M., Vafaeenasab, M.R. Farateb Research Institute, Yazd, Iran.Pakistan Journal of Biological Sciences, 2011 Jul 1;14(13):715-9.
  7. Susceptibilities of Candida albicans Mouth Isolates to Antifungal Agents, Essentials Oils and Mouth Rinses.Carvalhinho, S., Costa, A.M., Coelho, A.C., et al. Department of Biology and Environment, University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro (UTAD), PO Box 1013, 5001-911, Vila Real, Portugal.
  8. Antioxidant activity of essential oils of five spice plants widely used in a Mediterranean diet. Viuda-Martos, M., Navajas, Y., Zapata, E. et al. Flavour and Fragrance Journal 25, 2010 Feb.
  9. The effect of the essential oil of Eugenia caryophyllata in animal models of depression and locomotor activity. Mehta, A.K., Halder, S., Khanna, N., et al. Nutritional Neuroscience, 2013 Mar 4.
  10. Cuminum cyminum, a Dietary Spice, Attenuates Hypertension via Endothelial Nitric Oxide Synthase and NO Pathway in Renovascular Hypertensive Rats. Kalaivani, P., Saranya, R.B., Ramakrishnana, G., et al. Centre for Toxicology and Developmental Research Sri Ramachandra University, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. Clinical and Experimental Hypertension, 2013 Feb 12.
  11. Medicinal properties of Foeniculum vulgare Mill. in traditional Iranian medicine and modern phytotherapy. Rahimi, R., Ardekani, M.R., Department of Traditional Pharmacy, Faculty of Traditional Medicine, Tehran University of Medical Sciences, Tehran, Iran. Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine, 2013 Jan;19(1):73-9.
  12. Ginger for nausea and vomiting in pregnancy: randomized, double-masked, placebo-controlled trial. Vutyavanich, T., Kraisarin, T., Ruangsri, R. Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Obstetrics and Gynecology 2001 Apr;97(4):577-82.
  13. Ginger (Zingiber officinale) reduces acute chemotherapy-induced nausea: a URCC CCOP study of 576 patients. Ryan, J.L., Heckler, C.E., Roscoe, J.A., et al. Departments of Dermatology, University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, NY. Supportive Care in Cancer: Official Journal of the Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer 2011 Aug 5.
  14. Ginger— an herbal medicinal product with broad anti-inflammatory actions. Grzanna, R., Lindmark, L., Frondoza, C.G. RMG Biosciences, Inc. Journal of Medicinal Food 2005 Summer;8(2):125-32.
  15. Ginger (Zingiber officinale) and rheumatic disorders. Srivastava, K.C., Mustafa, T. Department of Environmental Medicine, Odense University, Denmark. Medical Hypotheses 1989 May;29(1):25-8.
  16. The potential to intensify sulforaphane formation in cooked broccoli (Brassica oleracea var. italica) using mustard seeds (Sinapis alba). Ghawi, S.K., Methven, L., Niranjan, K., Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences, University of Reading, Whitenights, Reading, UK. Food Chemistry, 2013 Jun 1;138(2-3):1734-41.
  17. Food components with anticaries activity. Gazzani, G., Daglia, M., Papetti, A. Department of Drug Sciences, Pavia University, Viale Taramelli, Pavia, Italy, Current Opinion in Biotechnology, 2012 Apr;23(2):153-9.
  18. Bioavailability of Herbs and Spices in Humans as Determined by ex vivo Inflammatory Suppression and DNA Strand Breaks. Percival, S.S., Vanden Heuvel, J.P., Nieves, C.J., et al. Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2012 Aug;31(4):288-94.
  19. Antioxidant efficacy of black pepper (Piper nigrum L.) and piperine in rats with high fat diet induced oxidative stress. Vijayakumar, R.S., Surya, D., Nalini, N. Department of Biochemistry, Annamalai University, Annamalai Nagar, Tamilnadu, India. Redox Report, 2004;9(2):105-10.
  20. Effect of saffron on fluoxetine-induced sexual impairment in men: randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Modabbernia, A., Sohrabi, H., Nasehi, A.A., et al. Psychiatric Research Center, Roozbeh Hospital, Tehran University of Medical Sciences, South Kargar Street, Tehran, Iran. Psychopharmacology, 2012 Oct;223(4):381-8.
  21. Determination of salt content in hot takeaway meals in the United Kingdom. Jaworowska, A., Blackham, T., Stevenson, L. et al. Faculty of Education, Community and Leisure, Centre for Tourism, Events & Food Studies, Liverpool John Moores University, I.M. Marsh Campus, Barkhill Road, L17 6BD Liverpool, United Kingdom. Appetite, 2012 Jul 4.
  22. Salt and high blood pressure. Mohan, S. and Campbell, N.R. Departments of Medicine and Community Health Sciences, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Clinical Science (London). 2009 Jun 2;117(1):1-11.
  23. Policy options to reduce population salt intake. Cappuccio, F.P., Capewell, S., Lincoln, P., et al. University of Warwick, Warwick Medical School, WHO Collaborating Centre for Nutrition, Coventry CV2 2DX, UK. British Medical Journal, 2011 Aug 11;343:d4995.
  24. A hot topic: Temperature sensitive sodium channelopathies. Egri, C. and Ruben, P.C. Department of Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology; Simon Fraser University; Burnaby, BC Canada. Channels (Austin).2012 Mar 1;6(2):75-85.
  25. Hydration, sweat and thermoregulatory responses to professional football training in the heat. Duffield, R., McCall, A., Coutts, A.J., et al. School of Human Movement Studies, Charles Sturt University, Bathurst, Australia. Journal of Sports Sciences, 2012;30(10):957-65.
  26. The role of sodium channels in chronic pain. Levinson, S.R., Luo, S. and Henry, M.A. Department of Physiology and Biophysics, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Aurora, Colorado 80045, USA. Muscle Nerve. 2012 Aug;46(2):155-65.
  27. Curcuma as a functional food in the control of cancer and inflammation. Schaffer, M., Schaffer, P.M., Zidan, J., et. al. Institute of Oncology, Ziv Medical Center, Faculty of Medicine, Zefat, Israel. Journal of Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 2011; 14(6): 588-97.
  28. Herbal medicines for the management of irritable bowel syndrome: a comprehensive review. Rahimi, R., Abdollahi, M. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 2012; 18(7): 589-600.