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Spice Up Your Life

Learning to cook with a new spice is an excellent way to foster appreciation for dishes and cultures other than your own.

Tiffany Duncan
Chelsi Fisher
September 28, 2018

Spices are a colorful, textural celebration of cultures from around the world, and skipping over something just because it’s unfamiliar or intimidating may rob you of the chance to fall in love with something new. We as humans should always be striving to grow beyond what is merely familiar in order to create a more harmonious, inclusive planet, and learning to cook with a new spice is an excellent way to foster appreciation for dishes and cultures other than your own.

Here is a short list of potentially unfamiliar spices to get you started, and help you take your cooking game from Uncle Ben to Gordon Ramsay.


The name may imply that you can potentially use it anywhere spice is needed, but that is not the case. It comes from the berries of aromatic evergreen pimento trees (unrelated to red pimento peppers) and is largely exported from Jamaica.

Taste: Slightly peppery, also with hints of clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a hint of juniper.

Use: A staple in Jamaican jerk spice blends and other Caribbean/Latin dishes. Also used in many spiced holiday treats, like eggnog.

Also called sweet cumin or aniseed, anise is closely associated with the taste of licorice.

Taste: Similar in taste to fennel and star anise (which is similar to anise but differs in shape and is less pungent).

Use: Most common in desserts with a savory spiced taste, and in sausage-making and charcuterie.

Also known as meridian fennel and Persian cumin, caraway is what gives rye bread its distinctive flavor.

Taste: Pungent, licorice-like.

Use: Rye bread, sprinkled over roasted vegetables, in cheese dips, and some desserts.

Used often in Middle Eastern and Indian dishes, it’s a key component of many spice blends. They are sold in whole pods or ground, though ground is the least potent.

Taste: Highly fragrant. Spicy, rich, with strong hints of ginger, lemon, mint, and pine.

Use: A key component in traditional chai recipes and basmati rice. Cardamom is also a very versatile spice, used in everything from savory meat dishes to curries to desserts.

From the Latin word “clavus,” meaning “nail,” these dried flower buds do indeed look like tiny nails before being ground. Cloves are partly responsible for imparting that distinct flavor to gingerbread.

Taste: Highly aromatic and flavorful, and can easily overwhelm a dish. Use sparingly.

Use: They are both sweet and savory, widely used all over the world to lend depth of flavor to all kinds of dishes. Cloves can also be used for both fragrance and medicinal purposes.

Many would be surprised to learn that coriander seeds are actually seeds of the cilantro plant. Can be cooked whole into dishes, or ground before use.

Taste: Somewhat similar to the lemony bite of cilantro, but also with hints of fennel, cumin, and clove.

Use: Often used as a component to many spice mixtures including chili powder, and used by themselves in many Asian and Latin American dishes.

A relative of parsley, cumin is likely found in most pantries, as it contributes largely to the deep, smoky, savory flavor of chili. Also used widely in curries, and Latin American or Middle Eastern Cooking.

Taste: Rich, aromatic, slightly bitter.

Use: Chili, spice mixtures of all kinds.

If you’ve had Italian-style sausage, chances are you are familiar with the taste of fennel. Its warm and bright flavor is very distinctive.

Taste: Slightly sweet and reminiscent of licorice, though not as strong.

Use: Found in pilafs, some curries, some adventurous desserts, Italian sausage, and one of the key spices in five-spice powder.

Garam Masala
Like curry, garam masala is also not a specific spice but a traditional blend of spices that often includes black peppercorns, cinnamon, mace, cloves, cardamom, and nutmeg. The name literally means “warming spice,” and is meant to “warm up” the body, though it is not actually spicy.

Taste: Pungent, strongly spiced. Composed of many spices associated with fall baking.

Use: Largely used in traditional Indian cooking, like curries, lentils, and soups. Can also be sprinkled on top of vegetables or scrambled eggs.

Not to be confused with the abrasive spray used for personal defense, mace is a subtle and warm spice that isn’t seen very much in modern cooking. Mace comes from the lacy coating that surrounds a nutmeg seed.

Taste: Though it is harvested from a nutmeg seed, mace actually varies quite a bit from the taste of nutmeg. Where nutmeg can be overwhelming in its deep, bitter spiciness, mace is delicate, and slightly citrusy with hints of cinnamon and raw sugar.

Use: Can be used in place of nutmeg in a recipe where you do not desire such a harsh nutmeg taste. Can also be dusted on fruits, cookies, fish, creamy soups, and more.

Things can get complicated with paprika, as there are different kinds. Paprika is made from pulverized dried peppers, and if a label simply says “paprika,” it’s likely going to be mild — even dull — in taste. But if it says “smoked” or “Spanish” (also often labeled as “pimenton”), the peppers are smoked before dried, and will obviously lend a deeper, smokier flavor to a dish. But the real prized paprika is Hungarian paprika, and it can range from orange and mild to bright red, pungent, and spicy.

Taste: Savory and varying in the “hot” factor it brings to a dish.

Use: Hungarian paprika is the prized spice in traditional Hungarian goulash. Paprika is also widely used on deviled eggs, or to lend depth to soups or stews.

Perhaps one of the most unique-looking spices available, saffron looks like thin, crimson-red threads. The next thing you’ll notice is that it is very expensive. Why such a high price tag? It comes from a flower called a crocus sativus, and each flower produces only three threads! They must also be harvested by hand at a specific time of day — all factors contributing to its steep price point. Saffron has been prized since ancient Greece for its delicate taste and food coloring capabilities.

Taste: Subtle, luxurious, floral, honey. The flavor is unique and hard to describe until you’ve tried it.

Use: Very popular in saffron rice, a traditional dish in many Eastern and Mediterranean countries. Also used to naturally color foods, and fabrics like cotton, linen, silk, and wool.


Coming from a plant in the ginger family, turmeric is recognizable by its boisterous, deep yellow color. Turmeric is prized for its health benefits, as it contains an active ingredient called curcumin, which is a powerful antioxidant and also has strong anti-inflammatory capabilities.

Taste: Pungently bitter but containing aromatics of orange and ginger.

Use: A cheaper substitute for saffron to impart color and fragrance. Can also be added to many different things for an additional nutritional benefit, like smoothies, rice dishes, and even coffee and hot chocolate.