Not sure what to do with most common spices? When combined correctly, spices make for some incredible flavors. But how do you mix and match spices in your own cooking? More importantly, how do you know which common spices goes with what foods?
We’ve all been there: you need to make dinner, preferably quickly, and another plain chicken breast sounds depressing. You really want to make that chicken breast the best thing you’ve ever eaten but you don’t know where to start.
If you’re looking to elevate your cooking, taking an inventory of your current spice cabinet is an excellent (and free!) place to start. Let’s walk through some basic steps on learning when and how to use common spices. But first, here’s a free guide on getting to know the most commons spices in your kitchen, complete with a downloadable chart that will tell you exactly what herbs and spices go with what foods!
Step 1: Think about what you’re cooking
Think about what you’re making for dinner, then think about how it might go with the spice you’re considering. How do you know what spices go with what foods? One way you can find out is experimenting — you can give it a try and see how it goes.
If you’re not into trial-and-error, here’s a tip: Google the food you’re about to make with the name of the spice you’re considering using. If you find lots of recipes that include those two items together, it’s probably a match! If you don’t find many recipes with those two items together, well, there may be a reason for that. Or you may be a groundbreaking food rebel… but proceed with caution. Examples of Google searches:
- Chicken + paprika (match – see chicken paprikash)
- Cheese + nutmeg (match – see croque madame)
- Broccoli + curry powder (match – see many common Asian dishes)
- Eggs + allspice (not an obvious match… not many recipes pop up)
Step 2: See what common spices you’ve already got.
You probably have a few well-loved spices at the front of your spice drawer or cabinet, but every rack or cabinet has a row of spices that are sadly ignored. Consider bringing those shy, forgotten spices out of retirement. But before you start experimenting, make sure that your spices still have some flavor left. Old spices won’t hurt you, but they do lose flavor and intensity. As a rule, whole spices can last up to three years, while ground spices and dried herbs are on their deathbed after a year or two.
Let’s start with a smell test: When you pop open a jar of spices, if you can’t smell anything or the aroma is very faint, consider tossing that jar and replacing it with a fresh one. If your jar of spice is still aromatic, what do you smell? Do you sense citrus? Or spiciness? Is it earthy? Floral? Pungent?
Consider the smell for a moment. Does it intrigue you, or do you feel repelled? If you don’t like the smell, you most likely won’t like the taste. (Though some herbs taste nothing like their smell, such as asafoetida and fenugreek!)
Step 2.5: Or try some new common spices!
If you’re bored with your current spices, here’s a short list that might break you out of your comfort zone. You can find these common spices in the spice aisle at most grocery stores:
- Coriander (ground): perfect for Moroccan and Asian dishes to add a sweet, lemony flavor. Whole coriander seeds are the size of peppercorns, so I find ground easier. It can be tart and citrusy.
- Brown mustard seeds: meat and poultry can always benefit from this versatile spice, but it can be used in Indian cuisine too. I love sautéing mustard seeds and adding spinach until it wilts for an unusual take on a sautéed vegetable.
- Chipotle chile powder: use in place of your regular chile powder but use a careful hand. It brings a great smoky spice.
- Fennel seeds: much like mustard seeds, these are a versatile whole spice, but the licorice-like flavor is a very specific, acquired taste.
- Yellow curry powder: goes great with almost everything, like veggies, all meats, and even many grains. Curry is basic spice blend, every company’s version is a little different. If you compare two different yellow curry powders, you may notice they’re different colors. It’s because the spice ratio in the mixes are different. Find one you like and stick with it.
Whole or ground spices?
There is a lot of debate about whole versus ground spices. As a busy person, I have plenty of pre-ground spices in my cabinet. I don’t have time to grind my spices, and honestly, if I’m in a hurry I don’t think it makes a difference. Let your palate and schedule be the judge.
Step 3: Decide how to use your spices
There are many ways you can use spices in your cooking. Here are three different ideas, starting with the easiest.
Just sprinkle them in raw
The easiest way to use most common spices is to just sprinkle them straight into your food while it’s cooking. Spices usually need to be cooked at least a little bit — uncooked spices can taste weird and can have a funky, gritty texture on the tongue. Imagine taking a bite of raw cinnamon or cumin. Not very tasty! So, make sure you add your spices to your dish early enough that they have time to cook through, which also allows the flavors to integrate into your other ingredients.
Raw spices are fine to use, but you can add a little complexity by toasting or sautéing your spices before adding them to your food. This will deepen their flavor and give them a hint of smokiness and intrigue. Woot!
Toasting whole spices
Toasting whole spices helps release the aromatic oils within, giving you a much deeper flavor. Here’s how to do it:
- Heat a dry sauté pan over medium heat. When it’s hot to the touch, add the whole spices.
- Use a wooden spoon to stir the spices once a minute so they don’t burn. PAY CLOSE ATTENTION! If you walk away for even a few seconds, they’ll burn. Spices are attention-hungry and love to burn out of spite if you walk away. Not even kidding.
- They should only take 2-3 minutes to toast. They’re done as soon as they’re intensely fragrant. Remove from the heat immediately before they burn.
- If your spices smell burnt, they ARE burnt. Toss them and start over.
- Once they’re cool, grind them up and use them for whatever you’d like.
Sautéing spices in oil
This method is great when you’re also sautéing vegetables like onion, garlic, or ginger at the same time. Just cook your veggies until they’re done, add the spices, and cook an extra minute or two. If you’re sautéing your spices on their own, try this:
- Add a little cooking oil to a frying pan. Heat over medium flame until it shimmers.
- Add your spices and stir constantly with a wooden spoon. Cook until very fragrant. Remove from the heat immediately before they burn.
- If they smell burnt at all, start over.
- Use them however you like!
Step 4: Time to experiment!
Once you’ve chosen the best method for using your spices, here are some next steps:
- Try out a new spice with a familiar dish. If you are making weeknight pork chops, try coating them with fennel or mustard seeds before you cook them. If you are making garlic bread, mix some fresh or dried thyme into the garlic butter.
- As a rule of thumb, start with about 1/2 teaspoon of your chosen spice per pound of protein, or per two cups of your starch/soup/stew/condiment creation.
- Taste everything! I keep a canister of clean spoons next to the stove. Dip, taste, put in the sink for washing.
- Think outside your normal pairings. Whole cumin seeds or whole cardamom pods mixed into raw rice before cooking can make for an inventive side dish — just make sure to fish them out before serving, because a mouthful of strongly-flavored seeds is seriously no bueno. Smoked paprika can make a garlicky aioli (mayo mixed with lemon and garlic) taste extra-special.
Baby step: make a tried-and-true spice recipe
If you’re looking for the simplest place to start working with spices, try making some common recipes that include spices. Here are a few dishes that you might try making, to see how the spices interact to create interesting flavors:
- pumpkin pie spices in pumpkin pie cheesecake with cinnamon, ginger, and more
- Chinese red-braised pork with star anise and scallions
- Indian brown beef stew with coriander and turmeric
- or even something as simple as an apple spice cake with cinnamon, nutmeg, and more.
The most important rule? Don’t be afraid. Your spice cabinet should be a place where you don’t have to follow any rules for once.