Also known as Jamaican pepper, allspice is ground from the hard brown berries of the allspice tree, which grows in Mexico and throughout the Caribbean. Allspice is so named because it imparts the flavor of nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon. An excellent addition to marinades, allspice is also used to flavor cured and jerked meat, desserts, and sauces. It is also an ingredient in gingerbread. The finest allspice trees are thought to be grown in Jamaica. Use the spice sparingly to avoid overpowering other ingredients.
The tiny gray-green anise seeds come from a plant belonging to the parsley family. They have a licorice flavor (anise is used to make licorice), but one that also imparts a feeling of warmth when the seeds are eaten. Used to flavor breads, candies, and alcoholic drinks, anise seeds also can be added to cabbage or braised beef. Anise seed is a common ingredient in Indian vegetable and fish curries. Anise complements the flavor of cinnamon and nutmeg in baked goods. Anise leaves can be used to make herbal tea or added to salads.
These small, crescent-shaped brown seeds have a nutty, peppery flavor. Caraway is often used whole in rye bread or sprinkled over the top of baked goods, particularly in Germany and many northern European countries. It can also be added to potato salad or meat loaf or sprinkled over pasta. Ground caraway seed can have a very strong flavor. Use sparingly. Caraway also is used to flavor aquavit, a Scandinavian liquor.
Cardamom is made from the seedpods of a perennial plant that is part of the ginger family. The seeds have a warm, sweet, slightly peppery flavor and an aroma that combines ginger, coriander, and nutmeg. A popular ingredient in Asian cuisine, cardamom also is used in Scandinavian cooking as a flavoring for fruit compotes, gingerbread, and meatballs. It goes well with sweet potatoes and squash. Green cardamom pods are the most flavorful and need to be ground before use. Pods may be bleached or lightened, however, and this processing may affect the flavor. The lightened pods are preferred over the ground seeds, which lose their flavor quickly. Ground cardamom can be mixed with other spices and therefore have a blunted flavor. Cardamom can be expensive. However, a little goes a long way. Less costly versions may have less flavor.
Cayenne (Crushed Red Pepper)
Made from ground dried hot chili peppers, cayenne adds warmth to whatever foods it is added. Capsaicin found in the chili's seeds and membranes gives this pepper its fire. It is popular in Mexican, Caribbean, Chinese, and Indian cuisines. It is also widely used in barbecue sauces. Cayenne is the main ingredient in chili powder. Go easy on the use of cayenne if you are not accustomed to hot foods.
Celery seeds are the small brown seeds of the celery plant. They give a strong celery flavoring to foods. The seeds may be somewhat bitter in taste. Added to casseroles, fish, poultry, and sauces, celery seed is also good in potato dishes and stuffing. Celery salt is called for in many recipes. Instead, you can use a small amount of plain celery seed along with some lemon zest.
A blend of dried chili peppers, chili powder varies in intensity, flavor, and color. It is typically rusty red. The powder also may contain cumin, garlic, oregano, or salt. This spice is used to flavor Southwestern cuisine. It is a common ingredient in chili with beans and in chili con carne. It adds heat to dishes with a dash of flavor. Because chili powder ranges in flavor, many people like to grind their own powder from the chili pepper they prefer. Add the powder sparingly while cooking until the flavor and heat you desire are achieved. The best chili powders are ground from only chili peppers.
Cinnamon is ground from the curled bark of the evergreen cinnamon and cassia trees throughout Asia, India, and Sri Lanka. Cinnamon is sold ground or in sticks. A popular flavoring for cookies, pies, desserts, candies, and coffees, cinnamon can be used to season meats, pasta, and marinades. It is excellent with sweet vegetables. Ground cinnamon has more flavor than cinnamon sticks. Its flavor deteriorates more quickly, however. Depending on the type, cinnamon may range from strong and spicy to sweet and mellow.
Cloves are the oily unopened buds of the clove tree. They have a pungent flavor and aroma. Cloves add flavoring to roasted meat and can be used in pies and baked
fruit dishes, cakes, cookies, and gingerbread. Cloves complement the flavor of nutmeg and cinnamon. Ground cloves lose their flavor quickly.
The dried seeds of a plant belonging to the parsley family, cumin has an earthy, nutty flavor and smell. Used in many cultures, cumin is a seasoning for chickpeas, the background flavor for chili, or added to couscous, vegetable dishes, or yogurt. Cumin is often mistaken for caraway. If you grind your own cumin, toast cumin seeds in a dry skillet first to intensify its flavor.
Curry powder is a mixture of spices that may contain coriander, cumin, pepper, chili peppers, ginger, fenugreek, onion, cinnamon, paprika, saffron, cilantro, or turmeric. Ingredients may depend on the area of the world in which the curry was mixed.
Curry is a staple of Indian and southeast Asian cuisine. It is used to flavor many meat-based dishes and soups. Curry powder adds a sweet, distinctive, and sometimes hot flavor to foods. A common use is in stews. Curry also complements the flavor of lamb. Because the flavor of curry may vary, many cooks prefer to grind their own. Beware of store-bought curry powders, which may contain mostly turmeric. This gives dishes a yellow color, and the flavor may be bitter.
Ground from the seeds of a plant belonging to the pea family, fenugreek has a bittersweet flavor but leaves a caramel or maplelike aftertaste. A component in many Indian dishes, fenugreek also can be added to curry powders. Or, it may be used to flavor artificial maple syrups. Use sparingly; the flavor of fenugreek can be overpowering.
In fresh form, the knobby gingerroot's peel is discarded and its flavorful flesh is sliced, chopped, or minced and added to dishes for its peppery, sweet, and pungent flavor. The dried form is ground from the ginger root. This brownish gold spice has a warm, slightly sweet, slightly citrus flavor. Fresh ginger is popular in Asian and Indian cuisine. Ground ginger also is used in many baked goods and desserts. Ginger is the basis for ginger beer and ginger ale. Pickled ginger root is an Asian delicacy and is often served with sushi.
Gingerroot is sold at many supermarkets, and it is easy to add fresh, grated ginger to dishes. Although fresh ginger can be substituted for the dried form, do not substitute dried in place of fresh because the flavors are quite different.
The hard purple berries of an evergreen bush, juniper berries have a turpentine-like flavor. Juniper berries add a spicy, pungent flavor to game, red cabbage, or meat stews.
Juniper berries give gin its flavor. Berries should be crushed before they are used.
From this woody plant licorice flavor is extracted and used in candy and medications. The extract also may be used to color and thicken stout or porter beers. The sweet taste of natural licorice extract comes from glycyrrhizia, a naturally occurring chemical that, if ingested in large quantities, has adverse effects on blood pressure. For this reason, in the United States, most licorice candy is flavored with anise or is artificially flavored (check labels).
Both come from the same tree. Nutmeg is ground from the seed. Mace is from the seed's covering. Both have a sweet, warm flavor. Mace is somewhat more pungent. Favorites in baked goods and fruit dishes, mace and nutmeg can also enhance the flavor of stewed beef or poultry or can be added to baked vegetables. Nutmeg is a key spice in a holiday classic, eggnog. Both are excellent toppings for the foamed milk on espresso coffee drinks.
Mustard seeds can be used in pickling foods. Ground seeds can be added to sauces or to add zip to salad dressings. The condiment can be eaten on meat and fish and added to salad dressings or mayonnaise. Keep prepared mustard in the refrigerator to preserve its flavor. For a different flavor, look for mustard varieties made with wine or vinegar.
Bright russet-orange in color, paprika is made from ground sweet red peppers. Depending on the variety, paprika may add either a mild, sweet flavor or hot
Vinegar is used in almost every culture as a condiment. It can be made from a wide range of foodstuffs — from grains, fruits, wine, or even ethyl alcohol. Essentially, the process to turn any of these into vinegar is the same. Bacteria is added to an alcohol solution to convert the alcohol in acetic acid. The liquid is then processed and pasteurized to kill any organisms in it that might be harmful to humans. It also may be distilled before it is bottled for consumer use.
Vinegar's tart, acidic flavor makes it a versatile ingredient. It is often used to make vinaigrette dressings, mustards, or marinades, as a condiment for seafood, or to flavor dishes in which beans are the primary ingredient. In addition, it can be used to pickle and preserve foods.
How vinegar is used depends on what type it is:
Balsamic vinegar — Considered the finest of all vinegars, balsamic vinegar is added to salads, pasta, and cooked vegetables. It has a dark color and rich flavor with herbal and wine undertones. Balsamic vinegar is traditionally made in northern Italy in the provinces of Modena and Reggio. Look for the word "tradizionale" on the label. This indicates that the vinegar has been aged at least 12 years. Balsamic vinegar from Modena that uses the term "vecchio" on the label means the vinegar has been aged 12 years or more. "Extra vecchio" is vinegar that is 25 years old or more. The vinegars from Reggio are color-coded according to quality: red label (highest), silver, and gold. These "real" balsamic vinegars are expensive. Commercial balsamic vinegars are not regulated and are quite different. Some chefs enhance the flavor of the vinegar by adding brown sugar or by boiling it to intensify its flavor.
Cider vinegar — As the name suggests, this vinegar is derived from fruit juices — usually apple. It retains an apple flavor and is often used for pickling.
Malt vinegar — This type of vinegar is made from malted barley. Malt vinegar is typically colorless. However, brown coloring is often added. It has a strong, sour flavor and is frequently used as a condiment for fish and chips.
Rice vinegar — Made from sake, a Japanese rice wine, rice vinegar is used in many sweet-and-sour recipes for Asian cuisine.
Wine vinegar — This type of vinegar can be made from various red or white wines. It is thought to have the most "bite" of any vinegar. Wine vinegar is most often used as an ingredient in cooking, particularly soups and stews.
Flavored vinegars are popular in gourmet shops. But it is easy to make your own. Choose your herbs, preferably fresh ones, blanch them, and pat dry. Transfer the herbs to a food processor and then add 1/2 to 2/3 cup of vinegar, one with a less intense flavor. Process until you have achieved the desired consistency. Transfer the mixture back into the bottle of vinegar. Let the mixture sit overnight, and then strain the vinegar before putting it back into the original container. A sprig of your chosen herb can be added to the bottle for decoration. Although vinegar is acidic and is pasteurized, introducing herbs does contaminate it. The risk for illness is not high. Make flavored vinegar in small amounts, refrigerate it, and use it within a week to maintain freshness. Or, better yet, purchase one of many commercial varieties, which have been heat-treated.
warmth to food. Widely used in Hungarian and Spanish dishes, paprika adds flavor and color to potatoes, soups, baked fish, and salad dressings. Hungarian paprika is considered the finest and can be purchased in specialty shops. A note of caution: it may be hotter in flavor than other types of paprika.
Pepper is one of the world's most common spices and one of its most versatile. Used in nearly every culture, pepper is a condiment found on tables worldwide. Ground or whole, it can add a kick to nearly any dish, adding warmth and texture with just the right amount of subtlety. It is a popular addition to soups, stews, cheeses, marinades, and luncheon meats.
Pepper is actually the fruit of the pepper plant, which is a vine indigenous to India. Small white flowers on the plant produce peppercorns. They turn various colors — green, red, then brown — as they mature and can be harvested and used at any time during their ripening stage.
Green pepper — Typically sold canned, green peppercorns are green pepper berries that are harvested before they mature. They are mild in flavor.
Black pepper — These peppercorns are pepper berries harvested just as they are about ready to turn red. Black pepper is the most flavorful of all pepper varieties. It is often sold ground, although many connoisseurs prefer to grind their own with a pepper mill.
White pepper—This milder pepper is made from peppercorns that have turned red and therefore are ripe. The dark outer shell of the berries is removed before the pepper is processed. White pepper is also typically sold ground.
Other types of pepper you may find are gray pepper and pink pepper. Gray pepper can be a mix of white and black pepper, although it can be a black pepper that has been minimally processed. It typically has a mild flavor. Pink pepper is not made from the berries of the pepper plant. Instead, it is derived from a South American shrub that is a member of the ragweed family. Its flavor is more subtle than that of pepper.
For maximal flavor, buy peppercorns whole and grind them yourself. Ground pepper may have undesirable additives. An advantage to buying whole peppercorns is that they can be kept for months at room temperature. In contrast, ground pepper keeps its kick for 3 months or less.
One of the most expensive spices, this golden red spice is made from the powdery stigma of a purple-flowered crocus. Saffron is used for soups, seafood, poultry, and rice dishes. It is a popular seasoning in Indian, Italian, and Spanish cuisine. It also can be added to baked goods. Saffron needs to be dissolved in a teaspoon or so of warm water before use. Powdered saffron may have other ingredients added to it, and these reduce its flavor.
Salt is made of crystallized sodium and chloride and has been used for centuries to add flavor to food and to preserve it. Today, this condiment can be found on virtually every table in Western nations.
Various salts are available today:
Table salt — Often supplemented with iodine, table salt consists of fine-grained salt crystals that may be treated to help it flow freely out of salt shakers.
Sea salt — Available in both fine and coarse grains, sea salt is made by evaporating sea water. It can be used at the table or for cooking. It has a bit more of a tang
Grinding your own spices is easy, and the taste makes the effort well worth it. After buying fresh whole seeds, simply put them into a coffee grinder or pepper mill. You can intensify the flavor by first lightly toasting the seeds in a skillet. Another advantage of grinding your own spices is that whole seeds keep longer than ground spices. In addition, you can be sure that no unwanted preservatives or other ingredients have been added. Be sure to clean the coffee grinder or pepper mill after use. Otherwise, residues may be left that will affect the taste of other spices ground in it.
than table salt and may contain other chemicals — such as magnesium and calcium — found naturally in sea water.
Kosher salt — This coarse-grained salt is often sprinkled over baked goods or salads. It contains no additives, and many say it tastes less salty than table salt (although it has the same amount of sodium as table salt). It is made and processed in compliance with guidelines set forth by the Jewish religion.
Rock salt — This salt is mined from natural deposits in the earth's surface. Table salt is typically refined from rock salt.
Seasoned salt — Spices, herbs, or other agents may be mixed with salt to make a seasoned, salty product. Most of these products are made up primarily of salt.
Salt plays a key role in many different functions of the human body. However, too much of it can be harmful to your health.
Eating salt in moderation can be difficult. Many foods contain some salt naturally. Prepared foods often contain high amounts of sodium, in some cases a thousand milligrams of sodium or more. Foods high in salt include condiments, pickled foods, canned vegetables, convenience foods, and cured meats. Always look at the label to ensure you know how much salt you are getting.
One simple but important step to cut back on salt is to taste your food first before adding salt to it. Too often, salting is a reflex, not a necessity. A better strategy for reducing salt in your diet is to cut back gradually and reduce or eliminate prepared foods altogether.
The tiny flat seeds of a plant native to India, sesame seeds have a nutty, slightly sweet taste. Sesame seeds are used as a topping for bread and crackers. A paste made from the seeds (tahini) is combined with chick peas to make hummus. Toast seeds before using them to enhance their flavor.
Despite the name, these dried berries are not related to traditional black peppercorns. They come from a type of ash tree and have a peppery, somewhat citrus taste. Popular in Chinese cuisine, Szechuan peppercorns often are mixed with salt or used as a flavoring for cooking oils. This flavored oil also can be used as a salad dressing. Although growing in popularity, Szechuan peppercorns may be available only at stores specializing in Asian foods.
Deep yellow in color, this spice is made from a root related to ginger. It has a sharp, woodsy taste. Widely used in Indian cuisine, turmeric is added to potatoes and light-colored vegetables for both taste and its yellowish orange color. Turmeric can be substituted for saffron.
A spice usually sold in liquid form, vanilla is extracted from the dried seed pods (beans) of a tropical plant belonging to the orchid family. It has a sweet, rich scent and flavor. Added to cookies, cakes, and other baked goods, vanilla is a widely used flavoring for ice cream, desserts, and coffees. Check the label to make sure you are getting real vanilla extract. Real vanilla extract, which has far more flavor than synthetic vanilla flavorings, is also much more expensive. "Vanilla" brought back from tropical areas may contain coumarin, a harmful substance that can cause kidney and liver damage.
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