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Top 10 Must-Have Spices for Healthy Flavorful Cooking


Variety is the spice of life, and when it comes to vegan cooking, a little spice goes a long way in taking your food from mediocre to magnificent. Here are 10 staple spices to keep in your kitchen at all times, along with some tasty suggestions of how to use them. Not only are they jam-packed with nutrients, but they will also convince even your most skeptical carnivorous friends that vegan food is anything but bland!

1. Black Pepper


Black peppercorns come from the fruit of a vine that is part of the Piperaceae family. The seeds of this plant contain a chemical called piperine, which, while not inducing the same eye-watering “heat” found in peppers such as serranos and jalapeños, still gives black pepper a characteristic “bite.” Black pepper improves digestion by increasing the body’s secretion of hydrochloric acid, and also helps break down fat cells. Whether sprinkled on top of Rosemary Black Pepper Foccacia, used to season Spicy Black Pepper Tofu, or stirred into some protein-packed Black Pepper Burgers, black pepper is a key spice to have on hand when you’re looking to put a little kick into your dinner—or simply to sooth a sour stomach if you indulged in a few too many vegan sweets the night before!

2. Ginger


A versatile spice that comes in fresh, dried, candied, or powdered form, ginger is a rhizome (means “mass of roots” in Greek) that grows underground and has been used and treasured in many Asian cultures for centuries. Similar to black pepper, ginger improves digestion and even possibly reduces the risk of developing certain cancers. When fresh, ginger can be peeled, diced or grated, and mixed into stir-fries or soups. When dried and powdered, this snazzy spice rules the realm of sweet treats such as gingerbread and ginger snaps. Looking for some great ginger-related recipes? Check out this Yogi Bowl With Ginger Miso Tahini Dressing, or indulge your sweet tooth with some (raw and gluten-free) Gingerbread Tiramisu .

3. Cumin


Cumin is a plant belonging to the Apiaceae family, which includes fennel, celery, and parsley. It is commonly used in Mexican, Indian, and Middle Eastern cuisines and comes in both seed and ground form. It contains crucial nutrients such as calcium, zinc, and iron, and also has powerful antioxidant properties. Cumin adds a rich, earthy flavor to food, and is a wonderful addition to plant-based soups, curries, and stews of all kind. For a little inspiration, try out this Toor Dal with Cumin , packed with fiber, protein, and other delicious Indian spices. Or check out this Black Bean Chili Pot Pie with Cumin Sweet Potato Crust, perfect for a chilly winter night.

4. Cayenne Pepper


Cayenne peppers, increasingly popular for the health benefits of their active ingredient, capsaicin, belong to the nightshade family and add a blast of spiciness to anything from soups to stir-fries. They may help improve digestion, increase metabolism, and even clear your stuffy sinuses if you are dealing with a nasty cold! For recipe ideas, check out the cayenne-infused Warming Carrot Ginger Soup or Super Spicy Jambalaya. If you’re feeling bold and ready to take dessert to a new level, try out this Chocolate Silk Pie, which is infused with just a dash of cayenne to give it the ultimate spicy/sweet combination.

5. Turmeric


Turmeric is a root closely related to ginger, and grows in parts of Asia and Central America. It is most commonly used in its dried, powdered form, though the fresh root can also be purchased at many grocery stores. Its brilliant yellow-orange color comes from the active ingredients called curcuminoids, and this eye-catching hue will quickly stain white countertops and plastic containers–so watch out for spills! Turmeric has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine, and has been proven to reduce inflammation. It gives food a sharp and slightly bitter flavor, and just a small amount improves both the flavor and color of any chosen recipe. Need a little inspiration? Check out Cinnamon Turmeric Sweet Potatoes, Spicy Cabbage Turmeric Stew, or even, if you’re up for a truly unique twist on coffee, a Butternut Squash Turmeric Latte.

6. Cinnamon


Cinnamon comes from the bark of several different tree species that are part of the Cinnamomum family. It has been consumed for thousands of years, since 2000 BC in Ancient Egypt, and technically comes in two different varieties: Ceylon cinnamon (or “true” cinnamon), and Cassia cinnamon, which is typically cheaper with a stronger taste. It is packed with antioxidants and may even help stabilize blood sugar levels. For tea drinkers, cinnamon sticks are an excellent addition to any brew. Though commonly used in sweet recipes, cinnamon’s role in savory ones shouldn’t be overlooked. Adding a dash or two to curries and stews can enhance the flavor and add a subtle sweetness. However, for those who prefer to take a walk on the sweet side, feast your eyes upon Cinnamon Rolls with Coconut Glaze, or start your day with a refreshing Cinnamon Apple Smoothie.

7. Coriander/Cilantro


Coriander and cilantro are actually two different names for the exact same plant, though in the United States, people typically call it cilantro, which is the Spanish name (the term “coriander” is mostly used in England). However, when the seeds are dried and ground into a powder, it is usually labeled coriander. Talk about confusing! This spice offers either a fresh and citrusy flavor (when using the leaves), or a darker and spicier flavor (when using the seeds). It also aids digestion and is a good source of vitamins A and C. Fresh cilantro is frequently used in Mexican cuisine as a flavorful addition to both main courses and sauces such as salsa and guacamole. For other delicious dip ideas, try out this Carrot and Coriander Dip, which uses ground coriander, or sink your chips into some Cilantro and Turmeric Hummus, which includes a handful of fresh cilantro. If you’re in search of a slightly more gourmet recipe, check out this Spicy Eggless Coriander Quiche.

8. Basil


Basil, another spice equally delicious in fresh and dried form, is native to India, Africa, and Asia, but also frequently used in Italian cuisine—after all, what would pesto be without basil? Its leaves impart a fresh and sweet flavor to everything from pasta sauces to stir-fries to pizza, and it is an excellent source of vitamin K. The word “basil” actually comes from the Greek work basilikohn, which means “royal.” Though fresh basil has a quick expiration date, and should be used within a day or so of purchasing, it is well-worth the splurge. Now, back to pesto. Though pesto traditionally has cheese added to it, try out this Roasted Red Pepper Pesto, which has all of the flavor but none of the dairy! Or, as an elegant appetizer, whip up a batch of Sun-Dried Tomato and Basil Stuffed Mushrooms.

9. Oregano


Oregano is a member of the mint family, is native to the Mediterranean, and is often paired with basil in many Italian-American recipes. It can be used in both fresh and dried/powdered form, and its oil has numerous medicinal properties as well. It is extremely high in antioxidants, and can help boost both the immune and digestive systems. Oregano is the perfect addition to hearty meals such as this Vegetable Au Gratin Casserole with Oregano-Bean Puree, and is also delicious sprinkled on top of vegan pizza. For a unique twist on French fries, try these Paprika and Oregano Polenta Fries.

10. Nutmeg


Nutmeg is one spice that brings true meaning to the phrase “a little goes a long way.” It is derived from the seed of an evergreen tree (Myristica fragrans), and is native to certain islands located near Indonesia. It takes just a dash of nutmeg to add a pungent and sweet flavor to your cooking, and can also be used to alleviate insomnia due to its high levels of magnesium (which helps reduce nerve tension). So next time you’re tossing and turning in bed, try a warm glass of (non-dairy!) milk with a bit of nutmeg on top. This spice can be used in savory recipes such as this Baked Spinach with Tofu Ricotta and Nutmeg Dip, and also in sweeter ones such as Raw Apple Pie with Goji Berries and Nutmeg.

Looking for more spice-related articles? Check out 10 Essential International Spices For Any Kitchen, which gives you a great selection of spices from all around the world. Or read Anti-Inflammatory Herbs and Spices for Athletes, perfect for those looking to protect and preserve their muscles and joints.

We also recommend downloading the Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 10,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!

Lead image source: Shutterstock

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