Spice Essentials Guide: Chef’s Tips for How to Use Spices for Delicious, Healthy Cooking

Pumpkin Pie Spices - Ginger, Cinnamon, Clove, Allspice
Pumpkin Pie Spices – Ginger, Cinnamon, Clove, Allspice

Spices are key to creating delicious flavor in any kitchen. If you’re concerned about eating healthy, though, spices are even more important. Rather than relying on fat, salt, or refined oils, quality spices can transform any dish from “home cook” to “restaurant worthy”.

However, many times we are lost on how to use spices. Sometimes it’s hard to even figure out if our old spices are still good.  Well, before you toss that bottle of rubbed sage, use this guide to get the basics on spices. I’ll walk you through:

  1. Basic Spice Flavor Guide
  2. Spice Sniff Test: Is It Any Good?
  3. Tips for Beginners
  4. Get Exotic – My favorite spice mixes for amping up your cooking

Spice Flavor Guide

Which spices work best for Italian flavor? What about Indian cooking? You need my Quick-Reference Guide for Spices:

American Savory aka “Poultry” Seasoning: Sage, Thyme, Marjoram, Rosemary…and sometimes Black Pepper, Bay
Mexican: Paprika, Cumin, Coriander…and sometimes Chipotle, Cayenne, Garlic

Italian: Basil, Oregano, Thyme…and sometimes Red Chili Flake, Rosemary

Indian: Turmeric, Paprika, Ginger, Cumin, Coriander, Black Pepper…and sometimes Cardamom, Fenugreek, Cinnamon

Pumpkin Spice Blend: Cinnamon, Ginger, Clove, Allspice

Chef’s Trick for Meal Prep: Make 2 Dinners at Once

  1. Make one BIG batch of sauteed veggies, like onions, peppers, and mushrooms
  2. Separate them into two separate containers
  3. Flavor them with two separate spice mixes.

In one round of cooking, you can have a Mexican-spiced filling for tacos…and an Italian blend for cooked pasta.

The Spice Sniff Test: Is it Any Good?

Many times we purchase a spice for one recipe…and then it gets shoved in the back corner of the spice cabinet, long forgotten. Just like that wilting head of lettuce in your refrigerator, spices also have a limited shelf life.  Similar to that wilting lettuce, a spice gradually loses its bright, fresh flavor. A dried spice is always most potent when it is first purchased. Over the weeks, it will slowly start to lose flavor and color. You can follow some basic guidelines on when to toss spices (yes, that jar of Poultry seasoning from Thanksgiving 3 years ago should jump into the garbage can). However, I’ve found creating an exact “6 months and toss” rule doesn’t always work.

Chef’s Tip!

Rather than a specific time, give your spice the Sniff Test. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Get your spice container open
  2. Close your eyes
  3. Take a sniff
  4. Can you smell the spice?  Can you identify what you’re smelling without looking at the bottle?
  5. If you can – keep it!  It’s still good.
  6. If you need a second (or third or fourth) sniff to try to figure out the spice — toss it!

* This is also a fun way to test your partner or a friend on their spice knowledge. Makes a fun party game to “Name that Spice” with a blindfold and a row of spice jars.

Beginner’s Tips for Spices

If you ever tour a culinary school, you’ll see the huge learning curve in learning flavor. Visit the new students, dicing onions and carrots, and they’re still trying to memorize that fresh thyme and bay leaf go into a French bouquet garni. Take a trip over to the advanced students, and you’ll spot them working with complicated Curry blends and exotic saffron.

As with anything that is new, it takes a while for your palette to learn new flavors. When you’re new to cooking or just starting to explore the world of spices, keep a few tips in mind to help the tasting process:

1) Repeat Something New 3-4 times

When experimenting with a new spice, you need to use it repeatedly a few times in cooking. I recommend setting aside one day a week (say Monday night) to make your “new flavor” night. Use your new spices in cooking that night for about a month. Let’s say you’re using Herbs de Provence. Use it on roasted veggies the first week, boiled potatoes another week, and simmered lentils a third week. After a few weeks of using this new spice blend, you’ll be much more familiar with it. You’ll have a sense of which vegetables and grains work well with it. You’ll be able to imagine its flavor in future recipes and your cooking will improve.

2) Taste and Take Notes

When trying a new spice, make notes. Think of it the same way you would with a wine tasting or beer tasting — make notes on sweetness, bitterness, heat…and whether you like it or not.

3) Buy from Bulk

Most groceries these days have spices available in the bulk section.  Not only is this a great way to only try a little bit of a spice, the spices are also fresher than the bottles that have been sitting on the shelf.

4) Start with Pre-Made Blends

If you’re ready to invest in a whole bottle of cumin simply for one taco night, a pre-made Mexican blend is your answer.  There is such a wide variety of pre-made flavor blends on the market these days…from Italian to Mexican to North Indian Curry powder.

Chef’s Tip!

When trying these spice blends, read the back label. The ingredients list will tell you what spices are in the blend, which will help you get a better sense of where the flavor is coming from.

Get Exotic

If you want to take your pre-made blend to the next level, try out some of these more exotic blends. These are my Top 5 Exotic Spices to try:

1) Ras el Hanouj

Roughly translates to “Top Shelf”, the North African blend will give you the flavors of Morocco.

I love using it a hearty Middle Eastern Lentil Stew. Just throw big chunks of carrot, parsnips, and celery into a crock pot.  Add a 1 cup of dry brown lentils, 1 tbsp. of Ras el Hanout, and 8 cups of water.  Set and forget on low for 8 hours.  Delicious

2) Berbere Spice

This blend is named after the Berber people, indigenous to Northern Africa. It’s most associated with Ethiopian cuisine.  It packs a spicy bunch, but also brings in smoky Middle Eastern flavor. I love using in my Ethiopian Black-Eyed Pea Stew

3) Chinese Five Spice

The five spices in this blend include cinnamon, anise seed, fennel, clove, and spicy Szechuan pepper. This is a unique blend of licorice flavor with a spicy-sweet note. Get a sense for this unique spice in my Five Spice Poached Pears recipe.

4) Za’atar

This blend of dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, and sesame seeds makes a delicious finishing touch for roasted or grilled vegetables. You’ll see it in Middle Eastern cooking. You can even sprinkle it over plain hummus and pita for an interesting appetizer.

5) Cajun/Creole

When the cold weather hits, I love the spicy heat of a Cajun blend. Cayenne, garlic, onion, bay leaf — these flavors all remind me of the “Old Bay Seasoning” that flavored so many roasted chickens during my childhood. Nowadays, I love using it as a base for some Creole Okra Tomato Soup


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