A Beginners Guide To Cooking With Spices

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With the right spices, you can easily make a good dish taste great! This guide will help beginners learn how to cook with spices.

Spices add excitement. Their scents evoke tropical climates and distant exotic lands. They transport us.

By definition, spices come from other parts of the plant than garden herbs do. Herbs are the leaves of soft, nonwoody plants. They tend to have milder flavors than spices, and are more likely to be used fresh. However, some plants bear both herbs and spices, like coriander and dill.


It is best to buy whole spices, because their essence stays vibrant much longer. Flavors dull relatively quickly when spices are ground. If you buy ground spices for the sake of convenience, get the smallest container possible, and mark the date on the jar. Throw out ground spices after a year, or sooner if they seem to have lost their zest.

Tools like a nutmeg grater, a ginger grater, and a small coffee grinder (that you never use for coffee), can help you make the most of your spice collection. A pepper grinder is handy too, and a mortar and pestle to pulverize a few spices without making a lot of noise.

Be willing to spend more for better quality. Top quality products do make a substantial difference in taste, and you are only using a small amount in each dish, so your cost per meal remains manageable.

Don’t buy every pretty jar in the store. Many people have a huge collection of dusty jars growing stale in their pantry. For example, you probably don’t need Greek oregano, wild oregano, and Mexican oregano as well. Choose the varieties that you are likely to use most often.

Buy some spice blends. Serious gourmets may be horrified, but spice blends will help casual cooks to flavor many dishes in a balanced and interesting way.


To keep them flavorful longer, store spices in a cool dark place that’s convenient for the cook. A pantry is ideal, or a cabinet with doors that shut out light and moisture. If both of these options are impossible, at least put your expensive collection in opaque or dark glass jars. Do not store your spices on top of the oven or right next to the cooktop.

Go through your collection frequently, and be sure to clean your jars thoroughly before refilling them with new spices.


To cook with spices, begin by adding less than you think you might need, and taste as you go. Too much spice will overwhelm the food instead of enhancing it. You are working to achieve a balance, in which you taste a combination of flavors, not a mouthful of overstated spice.

Flavors interact. A bit of salt, though it isn’t a spice, will tone down the bitterness of spices like cardamom. A tiny amount of vinegar will modify saltiness. A pinch of sugar intensifies the bouquet of many foods. Ginger lessens fishy flavors, and gaminess in wild fowl, but too much ginger will burn unpleasantly.

Spices often become more fragrant if they are toasted or sauteed, rather than simply being tossed in the pot with everything else. Curry blends and chili powder, in particular, will not taste good raw.

On the other hand, be very careful not to scorch your spices, or they may become bitter.

A Selection of Spices

Stick cinnamon, allspice, and cloves are basic sweet spices. Vanilla, made from an orchid, is essential.

Saffron, the stigma of the autumn crocus, is a delightful but costly spice. Turmeric or mace will also color foods pleasantly, and some believe turmeric to be a very healthy ingredient.

Chilies, mustard seeds, and wasabi all add heat, and must be used with discretion. Useful ginger must be refrigerated, and even then will mold.

Coriander, caraway, dill, and cumin are all fragrant seeds that retain their fragrance indefinitely. Crush lightly to release the aroma.

Spices add interest and intensity to everyday foods. They must be added with a light hand, but can raise home cooking to a delightful new level.