When I first started cooking and didn’t know much about spices, I bought a lot of jarred spice blends. It was easy, convenient and all the work of mixing spices was done for me. However, there are problems with store-bought blends: you may not always like all the spices they put in the blend, many blends say “spices” on the label and don’t say what it actually contains, and many blends contain a lot of salt, additives and MSG. The more I learned about spices and all the different ethnic flavor profiles, the more I wanted to make my own spice blends. By making my own blends, I get to decide what goes in them and what doesn’t. I can adjust the spices if I want a blend to be more or less spicy and I decide how much salt goes into it, if at all. I also get to decide if I want to make just enough spice blend for one meal or make a lot so the next time I need that blend, it’s already made for me. If you love spices and you keep a lot of them on hand, it’s fun and easy to make your own blends. Make a bunch of international blends and feel like you are eating in another country each time you use them. Labeled jars of spice blends also make beautiful and thoughtful handmade gifts. Here are some of my favorite spice blends, how to make them and recipes you can use them in.
1. Supplies and Instructions
It doesn’t take a lot of supplies to make your own spice blends. Basically, you need individual bottles of herbs and spices and measuring spoons. If you are planning to put your blends into jars, you will need glass jars and labels. A jar with a 4 oz. capacity will hold about ½ cup of spice blend.
To make a spice blend, simply combine all the individual spices together and mix them well. If you are making just enough for one recipe, do it in a little bowl. If you are making jars, mix the spices in a bowl and transfer them to the jars to ensure an even distribution of spices.
2. Spice Blends
When you begin making spice blends, your first question might be, “What do I put in it?” For international spice blends, it’s a good idea to learn what the flavor profiles are for different ethnic cuisines. Then you can experiment with those herbs and spices to make a blend you enjoy. If there is a dish you make often, like a tofu scramble, and you tend to use the same spices in it most of the time, you can simply put those spices in a blend. The next time you make a scramble, a big chunk of the work will have been done already.
Here are some of my favorite spice blends. For ease of preparation, all the herbs and spices are in dried or powdered form but you can certainly use other forms if you prefer. Play with them, changing the amounts of different spices to find the way you like it best and make it your own.
Berbere is a popular spice used in Ethiopia and other eastern African countries. It is an all-purpose spice mix that is used in soups, stews, vegetables and all types of dishes. Berbere is a warm spice blend with a chile base. It combines sweet, bitter and spicy tastes.
To make ½ cup of Berbere, combine 2 tbs. chile powder, 4 tsp. paprika, 4 tsp. ground coriander, 4 tsp. ground cumin, 1 tsp. ground cardamom, 1 tsp. kosher salt, 1 tsp. ground fenugreek, ½ tsp. red pepper flakes, ½ tsp. black pepper, ½ tsp. ground nutmeg, ¼ tsp. ground cloves, ¼ tsp. ground cinnamon and ¼ tsp. ground allspice.
For an Ethiopian dish, saute minced garlic and thinly sliced ginger in oil until softened and browned. Add one small diced onion and saute until golden. Mix in a tablespoon or two of Berbere and toss to coat the onions. Add 1 ½ cups of beans (your choice) and 2 diced plum tomatoes and cook until the tomatoes soften and break down, about 5 minutes. Wilt in a bunch of chopped greens or spinach, by the handful, stirring often. Serve the dish as is or over quinoa with a dollop of non-dairy yogurt, if desired.
Chinese 5-Spice is a staple in Chinese cooking and there are different varieties, but the most common blend includes star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fennel and Szechuan peppers. The aroma is heavenly with the star anise dominating the scent as well as the taste.
To make ½ cup of Chinese 5-Spice, combine 4 tsps. each of ground cinnamon, ground star anise, Szechuan peppercorns, fennel seed and ground cloves.
I love this spice so much that I use it in most of my Chinese dishes. Even if I don’t use it in the main dish, I add 5-Spice Powder to my brown rice or chickpea scallion pancakes that get served on the side of my General Tso’s Tofu or Moo Shu Vegetables. Chinese 5-Spice Powder is also used in my Hoisin Black Bean Burgers with Spicy Sesame Sauce as well as in my Chinese 5-Spice Potato Latkes with Plum Hoisin Dipping Sauce. Add 5-Spice Powder to condiments such as ketchup to give them an Asian twist.
Jerk seasoning is a Jamaican blend that is usually used in dry rubs and wet marinades to cook spicy dishes. The key ingredients in jerk spice blends is allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers, though red chile flakes can be used instead of fresh peppers. The recipes can vary, but the blend always has a mix of warm, spicy and sweet flavors.
To make approximately ½ cup Jerk seasoning, combine 2 tbs. brown sugar, 2 tsp. garlic powder, 2 tsp. ground ginger, 2 tsp. ground allspice, 2 tsp. dried thyme, 2 tsp. paprika, 2 tsp. kosher salt, 2 tsp. onion powder, 1 tsp. ground cinnamon, ½ tsp. red chile flakes, ½ tsp. ground nutmeg, ½ tsp. cayenne pepper, and ¼ tsp. ground cloves.
When I make Jerk Tofu, I turn this spice blend into a marinade by mixing a couple of tablespoons of it with soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, vegan Worcestershire sauce, fresh lime juice and hot sauce. Tofu that has been well-pressed gets cut into cubes or slices and marinated for at least 30 minutes. Then I cook the tofu in coconut oil until it is browned and crisp. When the tofu is done, turn the heat to low and add some of the marinade to the pan to coat the tofu in a sauce, if desired.
Garam Masala is also a blend of spices from India. Garam means “hot” and masala means “spice blend.” Garam Masala is beautifully aromatic with the scent of toasted warm spices. It is said that garam masala increases body temperature and that people feel a warm glow after eating a dish that contains it. That may happen because of the warming spices such as pepper or cinnamon that is in it. Different regions use different blends and in Indian households, garam masala is considered a very personal recipe. Common spices used to make garam masala include coriander, cumin, cardamom, mustard seeds, bay leaves, fennel, fenugreek, black peppercorns, cloves, mace and cinnamon.
To make ½ cup of a simple garam masala, combine 2 tbs. ground cumin, 1 tbs. ground coriander, 1 tbs. ground cardamom, 1 tbs. black pepper, 2 tsp. ground cinnamon, 1 tsp. ground cloves and 1 tsp. ground nutmeg.
You can make your own Garam Masala or buy a bottle and try using it in these Tofu Pakoras and these Sweet Potatoes and Kale Patties. Use it to spice up your ordinary slaw turning it into an Indian Coleslaw or spice up your eggplant to make grilled eggplant steaks. I like to add garam masala to the brown rice I serve on the side of Indian curry dishes. Since garam masala had warming spices similar to baking spices, it is perfect for adding to pumpkin or butternut squash soup and desserts.
Pumpkin Pie Spice
It doesn’t have to be wintertime to need pumpkin pie spice nor do you need to only use it for making pumpkin pies. The spices that go into this blend – cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves – are regular ingredients in many dessert recipes. Why measure out those tiny pinches and dashes of these warm, autumn spices when you can just add a spoon of the blend to your recipes?
To make ½ cup of pumpkin pie spice blend, combine ¼ cup ground cinnamon, 2 tbs. ground ginger, 1 tbs. + 1 tsp. ground nutmeg, 1 tsp. ground allspice and 1 tsp. ground cloves.
Use your pumpkin pie spice blend to make Pumpkin Spice Doughnut Holes, Vegan Pumpkin Pie Pancakes, Chai-Spiced Chocolate Chip Cookies and my Pumpkin Cream Cheese Pie with Gingersnap Cookie Crust.
Once you begin making your own spice blends, you will see how good it feels to know you don’t have to buy store-bought blends because you can do it yourself. For more about spices, check out my articles, How to Stock Your Spice Cabinet for Delicious Vegan Cooking, How to Add Ethnic Flavors to Dishes,and 10 Essential International Spices for Any Kitchen.
Lead image source: Punjabi Garam Masala