A well stocked spice rack is a very useful weapon in the arsenal of any home cook. Spices of different types impart such a range of flavors that they can totally invigorate the blandest of ingredients, providing far more intense seasoning qualities than simple salt and pepper. Using spices largely instead of salt can also prove to be a considerably healthier option. The spices featured below are a selection of some of the most widely used and versatile, all of which can help take anyone’s cooking to new levels of tastiness and even help internationalize the simplest menu.
Selection of popular spices used in home cooking
A very special spice in many ways, cinnamon is popular around the world. Unlike most other spices, it is very commonly used in both savory and sweet dishes. It is essential in many Indian curry style dishes but works equally well in stewed, sweetened apples or in a wide range of sweet pastries. It lends a wonderful additional flavor to rice, as in the Sweet and Sour Pork on Cinnamon and Ginger Rice pictured below. Cinnamon can be used in its ground, powdered form or by simply inserting parts of the sticks (rolled bark) in to stews or curries as they slowly simmer and cook. In the latter instance, the cinnamon sticks should be removed and discarded before the food is plated.
Sweet and sour pork served on a bed of cinnamon and ginger rice
Popular in North Africa and right across Asia as far as the Indian sub-continent, cumin can be purchased in whole seed or ground form. In Moroccan cuisine, it is often added to tagines with lamb and fruits such as apricot, while it is also an essential ingredient in many Indian curry type dishes. An excellent way of getting the full flavor from cumin is to toast and grind the whole seeds at home. Simply add them to a hot dry pan (no oil of any kind) and toast them for up to a couple of minutes, gently and frequently shaking the pan, until they just start to turn golden and the beautiful aroma fills the kitchen. Grind them immediately to a powder with a pestle and mortar or in a dedicated electric spice grinder and add them to your dish in the quantities the particular recipe demands. Cumin adds a special extra flavor to chili and was used in the preparation of these Lamb Chili Pasties.
Puff pastry pasties filled with lamb chili
Another spice that can be used both in savory and sweet preparations, ginger can be bought dried and ground, in fresh root form, or even pickled. In the West, it is commonly used in candy, for making gingerbread or cakes and for making soft drinks but it is used throughout south-east Asia, much of Africa and the Caribbean as a savory ingredient. It is a very popular spice in Indian vegetarian dishes but also for complimenting either meat or fish. Fresh ginger root can be peeled and stored frozen for months, with what is required on each occasion simply being grated from the whole with a small hand grater. Ginger makes an excellent addition to sweet fruit sauces for meats such as duck, as in this Roast Duck with Cherry Sauce recipe.
Duck breast with cherry sauce and roast potatoes
There are different varieties of paprika available to buy but it is made principally from dried and ground red bell peppers (capsicums), red chilies, or sometimes a combination of both. Although originating in Africa, it is widely used in Eastern European cuisine, particularly Hungarian dishes including goulash or Spanish dishes including the pork sausage that is chorizo. It affords a wonderful spiciness to a wide variety of different dishes, without imparting the intense heat usually associated with chili. It can also be purchased as smoked paprika but it is important to know in this instance that the flavor is particularly smoky and powerful so a significantly reduced quantity is likely to be needed in any dish. Paprika was widely used in the preparation of this Spanish Tapas Platter for Two.
Spanish tapas platter featuring paprika prominently in its ingredients list
A spice often recognized as much for its color and staining properties as for its flavor, turmeric in its dried and powdered form is bright yellow. It is used as an ingredient in many Indian curries and similar preparations but it is also an excellent way of coloring and flavoring meal accompaniments, particularly rice but also potatoes and even cauliflower, as evidence in the Curried Roast Chicken Thighs with Cauliflower pictured below. A teaspoon of turmeric in the water when boiling rice or other vegetables gives the served item a boost in presentation as well as in flavor. Turmeric is very commonly used in pickling a wide variety of different vegetables. It is also more and more being recognized as a "superfood" with many potential health giving qualities.
Turmeric is used very effectively to add color and flavor to cauliflower
A further spice that is extremely versatile in terms of being suited to both savory dishes and desserts is nutmeg. It can be bought either in ground form or in whole kernels which can be hand grated as required. It goes particularly well with chocolate and a number of different fruits including bananas but it is as an accompaniment to vegetables that it is perhaps most under-utilized. If like millions of other parents, you struggle to get your kids to eat Brussels sprouts, try serving them with a little bit of butter and a pinch of nutmeg. The spice enhances and complements the natural flavor and takes these delicious but hugely underrated vegetables to a whole new level. Similarly, nutmeg works well with most green varieties of cabbage and with cauliflower. It is also a popular inclusion in many potato dishes, such as these German reiberknodels (potato dumplings).
German reiberknodels (potato dumplings) with sauerkraut and bratwursts
Great care should always be employed when using any spice for the first time. The flavors vary hugely not only in nature but in intensity and where a teaspoon of one may be required in a particular recipe, a small pinch of another may impart the same degree of flavor. For this reason, it is best to become acquainted with each spice by using them in established recipes only until the nature of their flavor qualities is understood and easily recognized. The knowledge acquired through this experimentation will then open up a whole world of culinary opportunities and limitless new dishes - as well as variations on popular classics - will become possible for almost any home cook to prepare.