Spices are my favorite part of cooking. You can have all the ingredients in the world but it’s the spices that bring out their natural flavors and bring a dish to life. Spices add flavors, whether it’s salty, sweet, smoky or spicy. They add beautiful aromas that make us hunger for the food and also let us recognize the type of cuisine. In some cases, spices, such as turmeric, paprika and saffron, can change or enhance the color of food and make it look as delicious as it tastes.
Most home cooks know about the five basic tastes and flavor profiles of food – bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and umami or savory. Spices, however, do not fit into just one flavor profile. A spice can be nutty, spicy and earthy at the same time. In fact, there are 15 identifiable flavor characteristics for spices – bitter, cooling, earthy, floral, fruity, herbaceous, hot, nutty, piney, pungent, sour, spicy, sulfury, sweet and woody – and spices may fall into more than one category. Salty is not a flavor profile for spices since individual spices are not salty. By knowing a bit about the flavor profiles of spices, it’s easier to decide which to use in specific dishes as well as which other spices each pairs with. Here we make it simple in the ultimate guide to spices with flavor profiles, spice pairings, ideas for use and recipe links. For herbs, check out The Essential Guide to Herbs.
Allspice is earthy and sweet. It pairs well with cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, mace and cloves. It is often seen in Jamaican, Caribbean and German cuisine. Use it with apples, beets, cabbage, carrots, squash and sweet potatoes. Add it to stews, pickles, breads, soups, and desserts. Try allspice in this Jamaican Curried Tofu with Chickpeas and this Seasonal Strawberry Rhubarb Pie.
Caraway is tangy and sweet with a slight anise flavor. It is used in German, Russian, Moroccan, Dutch, Scandinavian and American cuisine. Caraway pairs well with coriander, dill, fennel, garlic, oregano, parsley and thyme. Use it with nuts, mushrooms, root vegetables, potatoes, cabbage, apples, beets and broccoli. Add it to breads, especially rye bread, soda bread, sauerkraut, potato salad, soups, and vegan sausages. Try caraway in this Reuben Burger and Raw Black Bread.
Cardamom is warm and sweet. It is often used in Indian cuisine. It pairs well with cinnamon, ginger, cumin and turmeric. Use it with lentils, rice, carrots, squash and sweet potatoes. Add it in rice dishes, curries, desserts, and Chai tea. Use cardamom in these Cardamom Rose Cupcakes, Raw Cacao and Cardamom Cream Tartlets, and Cardamom Apple Cookie Crumble.
4. Cayenne Pepper
Cayenne pepper is very spicy. It is often used in Italian, Spanish, Mexican and Southwestern cuisine. It pairs well with cumin, coriander, paprika, oregano and cinnamon. Use it with eggplant, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, beans and chocolate. Add it to rice, soups, dressings, marinades, sauces, chili and pizza. Use cayenne to make Lemon-Tahini Salad Dressing, Cajun Burgers and Creole Okra Corn Soup.
Cinnamon is both earthy and sweet. It is used in Indian, Caribbean, Spanish, Mexican and Greek cuisine. It pairs well with allspice, cloves, nutmeg, mace and ginger. Use it with carrots, apples, pears, sweet potato, squash and chocolate. Add it to breads, desserts, fruit, oatmeal and curries. Make Banana French Toast with Cinnamon Apples, Raw Cinnamon Chocolate Truffles, and Vegan Cinnamon Rolls.
Cloves are earthy and sweet. They are often seen in Indian and Caribbean food. Cloves pair well with cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, mace and basil. Use it with apples, beets, squash, and sweet potatoes. Add them to soups, desserts, breads, curries and chutneys. Try cloves in this Beef-Style Vegan Stew with Gremolata and Vegan Spiced Shortcrust/Speculaas Cookies.
Coriander is earthy and peppery. It is used in Spanish, Mexican and Indian cuisine. Coriander pairs well with chili powder, cumin and cinnamon. Use it with onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and potatoes. Add it to curries, soups, sauces, chilis, and marinades. Try Jicama Burgers with Coriander, Cumin, Dill and Lemon, Spicy Eggless Coriander Quiche, and Grapefruit Coriander Fennel Bites.
Cumin is earthy, smoky and nutty. It is used in Spanish, Mexican, Indian, Caribbean and Asian cuisine. Cumin pairs well with coriander, chili powder, cinnamon, oregano, ginger, turmeric, and garlic. Use it with eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, bell peppers, lentils and beans. Add it to curries, soups, sauces, chilis, rice, marinades, stews, and tacos. Use cumin in Tacos Sin Carne, Kale with Caramelized Onions and Cumin, and Eggplant Slices with Tahini-Cumin Sauce.
Fennel is sweet and tastes like licorice. It is often used in Italian cuisine. Fennel pairs well with garlic, oregano, and red pepper flakes. Use it with tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, oranges and beets. Add it to vegan sausages, tomato sauce, pasta and breads. Try this Beet, Fennel and Lime Pate, Sauteed Spinach in Tomato Fennel Sauce and Arugula Fennel Salad with Creamy Lemon Dressing.
Garlic is savory and often seen in Italian, Greek, Mediterranean, Asian and Mexican cuisine. Garlic pairs well with oregano, cumin, coriander and turmeric. Use it with tomatoes, eggplant, onions, mushrooms and beans. Add it to sauces, pasta, stews, soups, marinades and stir-fries. Enjoy garlic in Gluten-Free Tomato and Garlic Focaccia, Roasted Veggies with Buttery Garlic and Spinach Salad, and Roasted Garlic, Miso and Greens Soup.
Ginger is warm, sweet and spicy. It is used in Asian, Indian, Caribbean and Middle Eastern cuisines. Ginger pairs well with cinnamon, nutmeg and garlic. Use it with citrus, beets, carrots, sweet potatoes and squash. Add it to marinades, tea, desserts, stir-fries and curries. Savor ginger in this Warm Ginger Carrot Soup, Asian Ginger Tofu and Carrot Rice with Bok Choy, and Raw Gingersnap Cookies.
Mustard is spicy and often seen in German and Indian cuisine. It pairs well with bay, chili powder, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, pepper, tarragon and turmeric. Use it with potatoes, cabbage and beans. Add it to curries, dals, stir-fries, vegan sausages and dressings. Try mustard in these Green Beans with Toasted Mustard Seeds and Garlic, Spicy Mushroom Stir-Fry and Creamy Low-Fat Vegan Mayonnaise.
Nutmeg is warm, nutty and sweet. It is used in Indian, Caribbean and French cuisine. Nutmeg pairs well with cinnamon, cloves and allspice. Use it with fruits, vegetables and dark leafy greens. Add it to rice, sauces, greens, desserts, tea and nog. Use nutmeg in this Baked Spinach with Vegan Ricotta and Nutmeg Dip, Ultimate Vegan Stuffed Mushrooms, and Spiced Whipped Coconut Cream.
Paprika is warm and sweet. It is used in German, Hungarian, Spanish and Mexican cuisine. Paprika pairs well with garlic, chili powder, cumin, cardamom and cinnamon. Use it with potatoes, broccoli and greens. Add it to goulash, chili, stews and tacos. Use paprika in this Vegan Goulash, Spicy Italian Vegan Sausages, and Lentil Meatloaf with Smoked Paprika Glaze.
Peppercorns are hot and can be pungent. They come in black, white, green and pink. Pepper is seen in every cuisine. It pairs well with all other spices. Use it with greens, tomatoes, strawberries and potatoes. Add it to salads, stews, soups and all dishes. Use them in this Spicy Mushroom Stir-Fry with Black Pepper, Chives and Garlic, Quinoa Stuffed Bell Peppers, and Kraut Stuffed Pretzel Cannoli.
16. Red Pepper Flakes
Red pepper flakes, also called chili flakes, are hot and spicy. They are often seen in Italian and Spanish cuisines. Red pepper flakes pair well with garlic, oregano, basil, cumin and coriander. Use them with tomatoes, greens, and potatoes. Add them to oils, marinades, dressings, sauces, pizza and stir-fries. Use red pepper flakes in Pineapple Fried Quinoa, Jerk Tofu with Creamy Pasta, and Sauteed Broccoli Rabe with Chile Flakes.
Saffron is slightly bitter, warm and sweet. It is often used in Spanish, Indian and North African cuisine. It adds color as well as flavor to dishes. Saffron pairs well with cumin, vanilla and cinnamon. Use it with light vegetables such as cauliflower and onions, almonds, grains and rice. Add it to risottos, pilafs, paellas, stews, custards and cookies. Use saffron in this Saffron Risotto with Butternut Squash, Asparagus and Saffron Biryani, and Summer Fresh Mango-Saffron Popsicles.
18. Star Anise
Star anise is sweet and has a strong licorice flavor. It is usually seen in Chinese, Spanish, Mexican, Vietnamese and Indian cuisine. Star anise pairs well with ginger, garlic, cinnamon, coriander, fennel, nutmeg, and garam masala. Use it with apples, beets, carrots, chocolate, citrus, coconut, cranberry, peaches, oranges, pumpkin and root vegetables. Add it to stir-fries, cookies, cakes, soups, stews, syrups, jams and teas. Try star anise in this Cranberry and Clementine Chutney, Mini Nutella Donuts with Salted Coffee Caramel, and Creamy Chai Latte.
Turmeric is earthy and slightly bitter. It adds color to food and is often seen in Indian and Moroccan cuisines. Turmeric pairs well with ginger, garlic, nutmeg, paprika, allspice, anise, chiles, cloves, coriander, cilantro, cumin, curry, fennel and pepper. Use it with beans, carrots, potatoes, root vegetables, citrus, coconut, dates, figs, onions and rice. Add it to stews, soups, relishes, curries, and tofu scrambles. Try turmeric in these Chile-Garlic Potatoes and Cauliflower with Turmeric, Spicy Turmeric Twice-Baked Potatoes, Tandoori Tofu and Turmeric Tea.
Want to learn more about spices? Read How to Stock Your Spice Cabinet for Delicious Vegan Cooking, 10 Essential International Spices for Any Kitchen, How to Make Your Own Spice Blends and How to Add Ethnic Flavors to Dishes.
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