You know your way around both hot and sweet paprika and perhaps even grind your own cumin and coriander seeds. Now it’s time to take your spice shelf to the next level.
Adding or changing the spices in a recipe can transform everyday dishes. No need for complex cooking methods or creating labor-intensive stocks and sauces. Spices make cooking faster and easier yet deliver more taste complexity. Don’t limit yourself to a spice’s traditional uses—I’ve put curry spices in a dessert and cinnamon on meat, for instance.
Here are six uncommon and amazingly tasty spices to try and three of my master blends using spices you likely know well—and have on hand—to create new layers of taste. If there’s no quality spice shop near you, there are wonderful resources online, including my website.
After shopping for meat and fish, rub them with the spices called for in your recipes before wrapping and refrigerating—this “marinating” enhances flavors and you’ll have saved yourself
a prep step when it’s time to cook.
Native to Central and South America, Mexico and the Caribbean…also cultivated in Africa and Asia.
Annatto has a tomato-like taste and aroma with a slight acidity yet sweet peppery flavor. It also gives a rich reddish color to recipes. Buy the seeds already ground into powder as they’re extremely hard to process at home. Annatto is traditionally used in Mexican dishes such as tamales and achiote paste and Spanish and Portuguese adobo.
Quick recipe: Blend annatto powder, yellow mustard seeds, white wine vinegar, salt and some mild oil for homemade mustard.
Native to the Eastern Himalayas…cultivated in Eastern Nepal, India and Bhutan.
Unlike green cardamom, this has a smoky, campfire flavor, perfect for savory dishes, but I also like to pair it with dark chocolate and fruit. It’s traditionally used in the Indian spice blend garam masala (see page 14), pan masala (an herb, nut and seed mixture)…basmati rice pilaf…Vietnamese pho…and Sichuan braised meats.
Quick recipe: Season ground lamb with ground black cardamom, salt and chopped garlic. Stuff the mixture into whole portobello mushrooms, and bake like a meat loaf.
Native to southern Europe and western Asia…cultivated mainly in India, North Africa and the Mediterranean.
You’ve probably had fenugreek in curry and other Indian spice blends without realizing it. It’s used in Turkish basturma (dried cured beef) and the meat rub cemen…Indian chapati flatbreads, madras curry and the five-spice blend panch phoron…and the condiment Yemeni hilbeh.
At first, the taste is reminiscent of maple syrup, then you get a pleasant bitterness. It also has a sweet yet oniony scent. But its flavor can be overwhelming, so start with a small amount and increase as you get more familiar with it. Fenugreek seeds are much more subtle than leaves and taste nutty when toasted. Ground fenugreek is very starchy and a great thickener for curries, stews and sauces—better than roux or cornstarch.
Quick recipe: Use ground fenugreek to season duck breast, then sauté with pitted fresh cherries.
Native to Indonesia…cultivated in Malaysia, Laos, Thailand and China.
Apart from Southeast Asian cooks, most people, including professional chefs, aren’t familiar with galangal, which is used in Indonesian nasi goreng (fried rice, often with egg, chicken, shrimp or other meat or seafood added) and sambal sauce…Thai red curry paste, chicken satay and tapioca and coconut puddings.
A relative of ginger, galangal is more floral and sweeter with a slight note of raisin. It brings a sweet scent and taste to seafood, fruits and cocktails without adding sugar. Buy it dried and ground. “Greater galangal” from the Indonesian island of Java is milder than the “lesser galangal” from China.
Quick recipes: Marinate pork loin with a drizzle of pineapple juice and two pinches of ground galangal powder, and grill at medium-heat, rotating every five minutes, until done (typically about 25 to 30 minutes). For a light dessert: Sprinkle it on pear wedges, drizzle with lemon juice and serve with cheese.
Native to the Mediterranean region…cultivated and found wild mostly in Egypt and India.
Nigella seeds, used in Indian naan bread and korma (braised meat or vegetable dish) and Moroccan preserved lemons, have just a hint of a savory scent but a big taste—an oniony-garlicky, oregano type flavor with great texture and crunch. Use them any way you would sesame seeds—in cold salads or cooked dishes, as a final seasoning in soups, and in doughs and flatbreads.
Quick recipe ideas: Make a crudité dip by mixing whole nigella seeds with whipped feta cheese, yogurt, chopped capers and lemon juice. Or sprinkle the seeds on cooked fava beans, and season with olive oil and lemon juice for a side dish.
Native to the Mediterranean, Middle East and parts of Asia…cultivated and grows wild in the mountains of Sicily and Italy and parts of Western Asia.
This tart berry, used in Lebanese fattoush (fried-bread salad), Middle Eastern spice blend za’atar and Persian pilaf, is almost like a dry vinegar, adding acidity to poultry and fish, salad dressings and sauces. Think of it as the powder equivalent of citrus.
Quick recipe: Top mascarpone cheese with ground sumac, honey and olive oil, and serve with waffles and fresh figs for breakfast.
Master Spice Blends
When making spice blends, it is more precise to measure spices with a food scale—whole spices in particular may not fit exactly into a measuring spoon—but spoon measurements are also provided below.
To grind whole spices, use an electric spice/coffee grinder. To toast spices, use a small, dry skillet, and swirl over medium heat until fragrant, three to four minutes. Keep careful watch—they can quickly burn.
My version of this Egyptian blend uses dry mint instead of paprika. A base for dips and spreads, it works equally well with roasted fish, pasta and salads. Use quickly because the ground nuts are perishable.
2 Tablespoons/15 grams whole hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely ground
3 Tablespoons/15 grams dried coriander seeds, toasted and coarsely ground
1½ Tablespoons/15 grams white sesame seeds, toasted and coarsely ground
1½ Tablespoons/10 grams cumin, toasted and ground
1½ Tablespoons/5 grams dried mint, crushed
½ Tablespoon/3 grams dried thyme leaves, ground
This is a great blend for oven-roasted vegetables, fish, chicken wings, beets or carrots, and for grilled tuna, halibut and corn on the cob. Finely grind the cumin and garlic together, and then mix with the other ingredients.
1½ teaspoons/5 grams cumin seeds, toasted
2 teaspoons/3 grams dried garlic slices or garlic powder
2 teaspoons/1 gram dried oregano
1½ Tablespoons/15 grams Aleppo pepper
¼ teaspoon/1 gram sumac
This Indian cuisine essential is a floral and savory blend that pairs well with vegetables, soups, stews and grilled meats. For a twist, I’ve replaced sweet cinnamon with fragrant ginger.
1 Tablespoon/10 grams black peppercorns, ground
1 Tablespoon/5 grams ground ginger
½ Tablespoon/3 grams ground mace
2½ teaspoons/5 grams cloves, ground
½ Tablespoon/3 grams cumin seeds, toasted and ground
3 pods/3 grams black cardamom pods and seeds, ground
10 leaves/2 grams dried bay leaves, ground