Adopting a plant-based diet can seem like an overwhelming endeavor at first. Whether you’re converting from a Standard American Diet (SAD) or just trying to move beyond basic salads and prepared meals, you’ll want to keep some essential spices in your pantry that will add flavor, variety, and surprising health benefits to your meals. Here are five essential spices and some of their uses:

Garlic

The flowering bulb of this plant in the Allium species can be used in several forms — fresh (raw or cooked), dried, and powdered — and adds a kick of flavor to a wide array of dishes, including sautés, sitr-fries, salads, and soups. It also punches up condiments such as spreads, sauces, and dressings. Raw garlic has a lot more heat than its cooked down form, as the spiciness subsides and a bold, semi-sweet flavor remains (hence the term “caramelize”). But be careful not to overdo garlic proportions; too much of this spice will release through your pores (not to mention your breath) the next day and possibly create an unintended force-field around you. Of course, if you want to scare someone off, then load up on it, because the health benefits of garlic are remarkable. It contains antimicrobial, cholesterol-lowering, and antioxidant properties. Studies have shown that it may help prevent illnesses ranging from the common cold to certain types of cancers.

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Ginger

This root from the Zingiber officinale plant is both spicy and sweet and, like garlic, is hotter raw than when cooked. And it too can be used fresh, dried, or ground — and even candied! This versatile spice has been used in Eastern medicine and cuisines for centuries. Ginger adds zing to stir-fries, glazes, dressings, and baked goods. Check out these 10 mouth-watering vegan recipes to try it out. However, if these dishes don’t offer enough reasons to pile on the ginger, its anti-inflammatory, digestive support, pain reduction, and anti-nausea properties should win you over. Ginger also makes an excellent natural tea. At the first sign of a cold, prepare a hot tea by steeping about a teaspoon of grated raw ginger and juice from half a lemon in hot water for about five minutes. Then add in two more healing foods, honey and cinnamon, for a tasty and therapeutic drink.

Turmeric

Another root in the same family as ginger, turmeric (often pronounced “toomeric,” though I tend toward the phonetic pronunciation) is similar in outward appearance to ginger root but has a distinctly different flavor. This spice, known for its characteristic bright yellow-orange color (which can stain, so use with caution), is most often used in ground form, although it can be used fresh, if you can find it. Turmeric is popular in Indian cuisine and also makes a hearty seasoning for root vegetables. On its own, it has a bitter, sort of mustardy flavor that may not be immediately palatable. For this reason, turmeric is best mixed with other spices. Try tossing sliced sweet potatoes in a mix of turmeric, cumin, cayenne, and sea salt with a little bit of olive oil, bake at 375°F for about 20 minutes, and devour! The best part about this spice that it’s quite the health warrior, as it helps fight inflammation, pain, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and liver damage.

Cumin

Speaking of cumin, this earthy, mildly hot spice is a seed derived from the fruit of the Cuminum plant. It is used both in crushed powder form and as dried seeds. Cumin is widely featured in Mexican and Mediterranean dishes but is also found in curries and in Middle Eastern cuisine. If you’re a fan of cooking beans from scratch (I like red or black beans best with this spice), next time add in cumin and some chopped celery and onion to your pot. This combination adds a wonderfully fragrant aroma to the home. Other great uses for cumin: add it to lentils, quinoa, rice, and potatoes to turn bland basics into new favorites. In return for spicing up your meals with cumin, yet another antibacterial spice, you just might experience better digestion, increased iron levels, lower blood sugar levels, and reduced risk of certain types of cancer.

Cayenne Pepper 

For those who like it hot, it won’t take much of this spice to appease the taste buds (or set your mouth aflame). This varietal of the chili pepper, or Capsicum, family, is actually a fruit, which can be used in its fresh, dried, flaked, or ground form. One common use is in a chili, but the fiery spice also works well in flavoring beans, stir-fries, sautéed dark leafy greens, and as a base for hot sauces. A rather extensive list of anti-“bad things” accompanies this particular spice. Cayenne has been shown to combat mucus, fungus, migraines, allergens, inflammation, pain, bacteria, toothaches, and more. It is also thought to support weight loss because its heat helps speed up the metabolic process. Try out this robust Vegan Sloppy Joe recipe for a delicious intro to using cayenne. (And don’t be afraid to shake in a little extra!)

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For an interesting look at why hot spices have been used throughout modern history in the cuisines of hot-climate cultures, such as in Asia and the Middle East, check out this article published by Cornell University. Scroll all the way down for a ranked listing of spices and foods that help prevent food spoilage by killing off bacteria (hence, all of those antibacterial properties mentioned above). Happy, healthy experimenting to you!

Image Source: Raw Rainbow Noodles with Spicy Jungle Peanut Sauce

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