Spices of life: Seasonings every home cook should have in their pantry

Tired of the same flavors at the dinner table? One the easiest ways to mix it up at mealtime is by exploring different spices and seasonings.

Every cuisine claims a specific pantry of seasoning staples, with some overlap, from oregano to za’atar around the Mediterranean and Middle East to chiles and fish sauces found throughout Asia. Incorporating seasonings from around the globe will only elevate your meals.

Spicy and seasoned foods are two very different things, and the hallmark of a well-seasoned dish is balance. Heat from chiles should be used, like salt, to highlight other flavors, just as the licorice from star anise should bring out flavors in a chocolate tart.

“Home cooks tend to worry about adding too much spice to a dish or find themselves a little bewildered at the fairly lengthy list of ingredients that many spicy recipes contain,” says Michelin-starred chef Paul Merrett, author of the recently published Spice Odyssey cookbook.

“I love cooking and would always encourage home cooks to develop their repertoire,” Merrett says. “There are so many flavors just waiting to be added to your shopping list [like] wasabi, smoked paprika, tamarind.”

The 26 spices and seasonings below are just the beginning to your own odyssey. Chances are once you get started, you’ll find yourself delving deeper into the alphabet.

Adobo: Chipotles, or smoked and dried jalapeño peppers, can be canned and packed in adobo sauce. Add adobo for a smoky-rich heat in soups and sauces. For extra kick, add minced chipotle. Store opened cans of chipotle in adobo covered in the refrigerator for up to a month.

Berbere: Berbere is a mixture of various spices like chile pepper, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, nigella seeds, paprika, onion and cardamom commonly used in Ethiopian cooking. (It’s also the cover image on chef Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir.) Heat levels vary. Use in vegetarian dishes for depth and complexity.

Cumin: Common in many cuisines, dried cumin seed comes in three colors: amber, white, and black. Amber and white seeds are often ground into powders. Cumin has a peppery, savory flavor and is a traditional ingredient in Cuban congri and Indian curries.

Dukkah: An Egyptian spice blend of various toasted nuts and seeds, often hazelnuts or chickpeas, as well as coriander, cumin and sesame. Dukkah works well with meats and hearty vegetables, and as a seasoning for flatbreads, pita chips and dips.

Espresso Powder: A phenomenal way to add depth to desserts. A little espresso powder in a chocolate cookie or cake perfectly highlights the bittersweet chocolate.

Fish Sauce: Common in Southeast Asian cooking, fish sauce is a pungent seasoning liquid made from fermented fish. Its stinky aroma takes some getting used to, but the flavor of fish sauce adds umami to a variety of fish, salad and curry dishes. Try a splash or two to finish off a stir-fry or cold noodle salad.

Ginger: The tan, gnarly ginger root grows in tropical and subtropical regions, and it is used — fresh, pickled or dried — in a variety of dishes, from Indian dal shorba to Hungarian matzo balls. Fresh ginger can be stored in the refrigerator, wrapped in plastic, for about six weeks.

Horseradish: A bitter plant from the same family as mustard and wasabi, both the leaves and root of horseradish can be eaten, although the white, spicy root is more common. Fresh or bottled horseradish, which is often grated and mixed with vinegar, adds a peppery heat to fish and meat dishes.

Ichimi togarashi: Japanese for one-flavor chile, ichimi togarashi is often found in dried flakes and used to spice up sauces to accompany sushi and other fish dishes. Different than shichimi togarashi, which contains seven ingredients. Look for it at Asian grocery stores.

Juniper: The dominant flavoring in gin, which comes from the French word for juniper berry, genièvre. Dried juniper berries are a great, earthy complement to stews and poultry dishes.

Kaffir Lime: Both the fruit and dark green kaffir lime leaves imbue food with floral, citrus notes. Kaffir lime trees are grown in Southeast Asia and Hawaii, and their fruits are used primarily in Thai cooking. Dried leaves are available at most supermarkets.

Lemongrass: Sold as fresh or dried stalks or as a paste, lemongrass is used in mostly in Asian cooking to add citrusy, sour notes to food. Add thin slices of the stalk to soups, curries and stir-fries; store in the refrigerator.

Miso: Fermented soybean paste, or miso, is a staple in Japanese cooking that is rich in umami. There are three main kinds: light shinsu, reddish-brown sendai and dark hatcho. Start with the lightest, adding it to soups, fish glazes and roasted vegetables, and experiment with the different flavor complexities of each variety. Miso keeps in the refrigerator for months.

Nutmeg: Fresh nutmeg is a key ingredient in many spiced desserts, from apple pie to gingerbread, but it is also traditionally used in bechamel. Nutmeg is the heart of the nutmeg fruit. Look for whole nutmeg and grind or grate yourself as needed.

Oregano: This herb, related to both marjoram and thyme, rose in popularity in the United States after our World War II soldiers got a taste for it in Europe. Fresh (it grows easily in South Florida) or dried, oregano is found throughout Mediterranean cuisine and goes extremely well with lemon, poultry dishes, tomato sauces, seafood and, of course, pizza.

Pimentón: Smoked paprika, or pimentón, is often dried over oak fire, which lends a roasted, grilled depth to meat and fish dishes. It can be found in most grocery stores and is common in Spanish cuisine.

Quinine: The base flavor in most bitters as well as tonic water, quinine comes from the bark of the cinchona tree in Central and South America. Artisan producers of real-quinine bitters and tonics include San Francisco Bitters Co., Fever-Tree and Fentimans.

Red Pepper Flakes: One of the most well-known spices, red pepper flakes can be made from any sort of dried red chiles and are used in cuisines from Korea to Italy. Korean red pepper flakes are smoky and used to make kimchi, while Italian cooks use them to heat up tomato sauces.

Star Anise: Native to China, star anise has a similar flavor to licorice. It is a ground ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder typically used in pho, and it can work well in savory dishes as well as desserts.

Tamarind: Tamarind grows in Asia, Africa and India as well as South Florida and is a traditional ingredient in pad Thai. Store fresh tamarind in the refrigerator for a couple months. In its natural state, tamarind is very sour, though it is often sold sweetened as a paste or syrup.

Umeboshi: Pink in color, umeboshi are small Japanese plums pickled in brine and red leaves. Eaten at any meal, it can be pureed and used as a salty and tart seasoning.

Vanilla Bean: Fresh vanilla bean is considered an aphrodisiac, and because of its labor-intensive harvesting process, it is relatively expensive, but worth it for true vanilla flavor and aroma. Most recipes that call for vanilla beans require you to cut open the pod and scrape out the tiny beans with a paring knife. Experiment with the three major kinds of vanilla beans: Madagascar, Tahitian and Mexican. Freeze vanilla beans, wrapped, for longer storage.

Wasabi: The green paste found at most U.S. sushi restaurants is a mixture of powdered horseradish and food coloring. The real thing, wasabi, is a grated root that contributes an astringent heat to salad dressings, crudos and pickles.

Yellow Mustard Seed: Use whole mustard seeds to add a spicy bite to brines, or to make your own mustard. It’s easy, economical and the possible flavor combinations (beer, wine, herbs, spices) are limitless. Try mixing yellow and brown mustard seeds, which pack more heat.

Xylopia aethiopica: Its name means Ethiopian bitter wood, but the plant grows throughout Africa. Its seed pods, known as grains of Selim, are dried and often smoked. They give an earthy, musky, resiny and peppery aroma and flavor.

Za’atar: A popular Middle Eastern spice blend commonly used in Israeli cooking. It can be composed of toasted sesame seeds, dried thyme, marjoram, anise hyssop and pepper. Yemenites add crushed red peppers and garlic; Lebanese cooks add sumac; Palestinians throw in caraway seeds. Use it to top everything from roasted chicken and fish to hummus and yogurt.

Nina Lincoff is a Miami-based writer. Contact her at or on Twitter at @nincoff.

Where to find them

Lucky Oriental Market, 8356 SW 40th St., Miami

Asia Grocery, 6785 SW 56th St., Miami

Chung Hing Oriental Market, 1855 NE 163rd St., North Miami Beach

Spice N Curry, 123 SW 107th Ave., Miami


How to keep them

Spices and seasonings, like any ingredient, should be stored properly to ensure freshness. Dried herbs, ground or whole spices, fresh spices and condiments are all treated slightly different, but the good news is, seasonings tend to have a longer shelf life than most food products.

Salt: Can be stored for months in a cool, dry, dark place.

Dried herbs: Store covered or in containers in a cool, dark place for no more than six months, after which flavor begins to degrade.

Ground spices: Store in containers in a cool, dark place for up to six months.

Whole spices: Store in containers in a cool, dark place for up to a year. Check online to see what whole spices, like peppercorns, can be frozen for longer storage.

Fresh herbs: Store loosely wrapped in paper towels in the refrigerator for up to a week. Roots like ginger, horseradish and wasabi will last for a month in the refrigerator.

Vinegars and condiments: Storage depends on the seasoning, but typically vinegars and fish sauce can be stored for months in a cool, dry, dark place. Mustards and sweet seasonings like hoisin, oyster sauce and tamarind paste should be refrigerated after opening.


Chipotle Carrot Soup

Carrots have a lot of natural sugar and thus can take a good deal of spice. This soup uses ten different seasonings, including cilantro, black pepper, and salt, which blend together for a smoky, slightly spicy carrot soup. Chickpeas roasted with similar spices mirror the flavors in the soup and add a nice crunchy texture. Serves 5.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large yellow onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 1/2 pounds carrots, peeled and diced

1 tablespoon adobo

2 teaspoons pimenton (smoked paprika)

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

4 cups chicken (or vegetable) broth

2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated

1/2 chipotle, seeded and minced

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

Heat olive oil in a large soup pan over medium-high heat. Add diced onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and carrots and saute until slightly tender, about 10 minutes. Add adobo, pimenton, cumin, red pepper flakes, salt and a couple grinds of black pepper and cook for 2 minutes.

Add broth and increase heat to high. Bring to a boil, scraping the bottom of the pot. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Add ginger and chipotle and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool slightly before puréeing in a blender or with an immersion blender.

After puréeing, return to pot over medium-high heat and add balsamic vinegar. Add a splash of water or milk to thin the soup if desired. Cook for 2 minutes and then serve with cilantro and roasted chickpeas (see recipe).

Side dish

Cumin Roasted Chickpeas

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon pimenton

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 1/2 cups chickpeas, cooked and drained

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Mix olive oil, pimenton, cumin, red pepper flakes, garlic, salt and black pepper in a small bowl. Toss chickpeas with spice blend and spread on a foil-lined pan. Bake for 25 minutes, tossing occasionally.


Mexican Chocolate Tart

Mexican chocolate is often flavored with seasonings like vanilla, cinnamon and almond. Espresso, ground ginger, star anise and nutmeg play off these flavors, and using small amounts of each ensures that the spices highlight without overpowering the chocolate. Serves 12.

Pinch salt

1 1/2 cups flour

4 tablespoons almond meal, divided

1 cup white sugar, divided

1 cup unsalted butter, divided

4 large eggs, divided

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

1/2 vanilla bean, seeded

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon espresso powder

1/8 teaspoon ground ginger

1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground star anise

Toss salt, flour, 2 tablespoons almond meal and 1/2 cup sugar together in a large mixing bowl. Cut 1/2 cup butter butter into the dry ingredients with two forks or a pastry cutter until the mixture resembles coarse sand. Add 1 egg and mix together until combined and the dough comes together. Form into a disk and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out dough on a flour-dusted surface until 1/4-inch thick. Transfer dough to an 11-by-8-inch rectangular tart pan or a 9-inch diameter round tart pan. Cut off any overhang and prick dough many times with a fork. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until lightly golden. Let cool while preparing the filling.

Leave oven at 350. Melt chocolates and remaining butter in the top of a double boiler. Remove from heat and stir in 1/4 cup sugar. Whisk remaining 1/4 cup sugar and eggs until thick and pale in color. The eggs should hold a ribbon, about 3 minutes in the bowl of a standup mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Add a pinch of salt, remaining almond meal, vanilla bean seeds and spices to the chocolate and stir until combined. Fold a third of the egg mixture into the chocolate mixture, and then fold the remaining egg mixture in. Pour into the prepared tart shell and bake for 15-18 minutes, or until the chocolate is set in the center (jiggle the tart to make sure) and dry on top. Let cool completely before serving.