Years ago, I cut out a spice list and taped it into my favorite cookbook—it was extremely useful. Somewhere through the years, I lost the list and always missed my mini spice guide. Sometimes I can’t remember what a spice smells like or how it’s used in a recipe, and reading a short description tweaks some sort of scent memory, allowing me to visualize the dish better.
After digging through my cookbooks looking for a spice guide, I finally gave up and decided to put together my own list, starting with letters A through C, with a few added comments and substitutions here and there. Maybe this time I won’t lose it!
A fragrant spice often used in baking, allspice is an important ingredient in Caribbean food. This pea-sized berry from the pimiento tree is usually purchased ground and is not, as commonly thought, a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. This common misconception comes from the fact that all these spices contain the oil eugenol, which gives the spices their warmth and fragrance.
Anise is an annual herb, purchased in seed form, with a spicy-sweet licorice taste. Anise is used in pastries and cakes, as well as in marinades for fish and chicken.
Arrowroot is a powdered root that looks like cornstarch. Used as a thickening agent in sauces, pies, and glazes, Arrowroot will thicken sauces at a lower temperature than cornstarch or flour, and creates a clearer sauce.
Helpful hint: a little Arrowroot sprinkled into your homemade ice cream mix will help prevent ice crystals from forming.
Basil is a sweet herb that originated in India. Often used in Italian food, it is found in sauces, stews, and many other dishes. Basil is best used fresh in my opinion. If you have to use dried basil, use one teaspoon dried for one tablespoon fresh. If you don’t have basil, oregano or thyme can be substituted. Thai basil should not be substituted for sweet basil as the taste is quite different.
Bay leaves grow on the sweet bay, or laurel, tree. Used in stews, pot roasts, spaghetti sauce, and a slew of other dishes, bay leaves have a sharp, pungent flavor. They also improve the flavor of salt-free dishes. To get the best out of the flavor, snap the bay leaf in half, leaving the two sides attached. Make sure to remove bay leaves from food before serving as they are bitter to eat.
Helpful hint: Bay leaves will repel meal moths. Sprinkle whole bay leaves on your shelves or put a bay leaf on the inside of your grain/cereal containers and you won’t have moths nibbling on your rice anymore.
A traditional herb blend, used to flavor soups, stews, and stocks. The basic ingredients are parsley, thyme, and rosemary, with other herbs or spices added according to what you’re cooking. The herbs are put in little cheesecloth packages, tied, dropped into your dish, and retrieved when you’re done so there are no bay leaves or other herbs floating around. You can make the packages yourself to save money. If you want a bit of French luxury, you can buy pre-made packages at Quel Objet.
A member of the parsley family, these flavorful seeds should be used sparingly. Caraway seeds are used in rye bread, sausages, and stews, and in Indian food.
A member of the ginger family, cardamom has an intense, spicy-sweet flavor. Available ground or in pods, it is used in curry blends, bread, and pastries. Cardamom is also added as flavoring to coffee.
Cayenne Red Pepper
Made from dried ground chili peppers, cayenne packs a punch. It adds heat without much taste, but can improve salt-free dishes if used sparingly. A dash or two of red pepper can be substituted for cayenne. Use caution with that, too!
Another member of the parsley family, celery seed is used in pickling recipes, soups, or anytime you want the taste of celery.
Chervil is sweet herb with a hint of anise. It is best known for being part of the classic French herb blend, Fines Herbes. If you don’t have chervil, tarragon or parsley can be substituted, but go easy on the tarragon as it can be overpowering. Chervil should be crushed gently before use to bring out its flavor.
Chives have a mild onion-leek taste and are part of the Fines Herbes blend. When used as a garnish on potatoes or fish, fresh chives are much better than dried. You can use a sweet onion or green onion as a substitute in recipes.
Related to parsley, cilantro is the leaf of the coriander bush. Frequently used in Mexican and Asian food, it has a pungent, almost bitter taste. It is frequently called “Chinese Parsley” and is one of those herbs that you either love or hate. If you land in the “hate” faction, parsley can be used as a substitute in any recipe that calls for cilantro.
Available in either ground or stick form, cinnamon is made from the bark of the laurel tree. Aromatic and spicy, cinnamon is widely used in baked, pickling recipes, and Middle Eastern food.
Helpful hint: When using ground cinnamon, add the cinnamon first and then add the boiling liquid on top, carefully. If you add ground cinnamon to a boiling liquid, it will pull apart and lose flavor.
These pungent and spicy dried buds are used to flavor soups, stews, and baked goods, and who hasn’t seen hams studded with cloves during the holidays? Cloves are also available ground.
Helpful hint: If you grind your own cloves, use a grinder with metal parts. The oil in cloves will cloud plastic over time.
Ground coriander is used in curry powder, marinades, stews, and baked goods. Aromatic and tart, it smells like a mix of citrus and caraway and is found in Mediterranean, Indian, and African food.
Cream of Tartar
Cream of Tartar is an acidic white powder that is a byproduct of grape fermentation. It is used to help “peak” beaten egg whites.
Crushed Red Pepper
These bright little flakes add heat and color to any dish and are great on pizza, in spaghetti sauce, or anything that needs a little boost.
Cumin, another parsley relative, has an intense warm taste that is somewhat bitter. Ground, it is used in chili powders, marinades, and in a wide variety of foods to increase the flavor. Also available in seed form, it is used in bread, sauerkraut, and couscous.
A blend of various spices that often includes turmeric, fenugreek, coriander, cumin, ginger, and cayenne, the taste of curry powder varies widely. There is a big difference between Indian and Asian curry powders, which are generally sweeter, although no less hot.
Helpful hint: Add a small amount of curry powder to tuna fish, along with mayonnaise, apple slices, and walnuts or almonds. Your tuna salad will taste better than ever!
The Spice of Life is a series devoted to exploring and savoring the wide world of spices and seasonings. If you have a question or suggestion for this series, please email the Home and Food editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.