Spices, the dried buds, barks, roots, seeds, and berries of plants, are among the oldest useful substances known to humans. So useful that the search for the fastest trade routes to spice sources put the world as we know it on the map: Marco Polo went east for spices, Columbus went west. The places they discovered had been using the spices they found for thousands of years.
It was the Romans who established the use of spices in the West. Not until the 11th and 12th centuries, though, did spices gain a wide hold on the tastes of Western Europe. Returning Crusaders brought back Eastern spices, mostly in Venetian ships. Spices revived the bland medieval diet and helped to preserve food. They also made maritime Venice rich: Rarities like pepper were literally worth their weight in gold.
This starter's list of aromatic and savory spices and herbs has been selected by Martha Stewart and the food editors of Martha Stewart Living as the most frequently used in their recipes. We've suggested uses for cooking, but experiment -- the real beauty of spices is the brilliant way in which they blend.
This ground dried berry of a Caribbean evergreen tree has a scent and taste similar to clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg. It was first brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus, who mistakenly thought it was a pepper; this is why allspice is known as "pimento" outside the United States. Allspice is the main ingredient in Jamaican jerk seasoning; it is best used in marinades, meat stews, fruit compotes and pies, barbecue sauces, and baked goods. Allspice is one of the flavorings found in ketchup.
This seed of the parsley family has a sweet licorice flavor. It is one of the oldest cultivated spices, and was used by Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Anise seed has worldwide appeal: It is used in European baking and in Middle Eastern and Indian soups and stews. It lends a Mediterranean flavor to seafood and is delicious in applesauce and tomato sauce. Anise seed is a common ingredient in cakes, cookies, and sweets.
This eight-pointed fruit pod has a seed in each point. It tastes like licorice and is a member of the magnolia family. To grind it, you can use a clean coffee grinder. Or break off points from the pod, bundle them in cheesecloth, and simmer in food as it cooks. Star anise is good in stir-fried foods, custards, dessert sauces, and sorbets.
Basil is a member of the mint family; there are more than 150 varieties grown. Its name may have been derived from the Greek basileus, meaning "king." Basil is versatile and very good in combination with thyme, garlic, oregano, and lemon. It is a natural in Italian food, and is also good in egg, potato, or rice dishes, and tomato sauces.
The bay leaf is the leaf of the laurel tree. It has great significance in Greek mythology, and has long been associated with honor and celebration. It is an essential flavor in French, Mediterranean, and Indian cuisines. Bay leaves add complexity to the flavor of marinades, sauces, soups, and stews; boil a few of the leaves in milk to infuse white sauces with flavor. Always remove bay leaves before serving food. For use as a weevil deterrent, place a few of the leaves in flour and grain containers.
This array of dried herb sprigs features onions, celery, thyme, and other spices; it is a classic in French cooking. To use, tie the herbs in cheesecloth, and add to simmering soup, stew, or sauce. Remove the bouquet before food is served.
This Dutch seed is related to dill and cumin, and has been cultivated for thousands of years. It is often used in Northern European baking, and cabbage and noodle dishes. Caraway seed is delicious with pork; it is great for rye bread and homemade crackers. Add caraway seed to cooking water for cabbage to reduce odor.
This sweetly pungent, hand-picked seedpod comes from Central America and India. Cardamom pods have been traditionally used as a breath freshener. Uncracked whole pods ensure the freshness of the aromatic black seeds inside. Use sparingly; only a small amount is needed to add flavor. Use cardamom in stews, curries, sweet sauces, and Scandinavian pastries and breads.
Use whole cardamom in punches and for pickling.
The intense flavor of ground cardamom is good in fruit salads.
Like hot paprika, cayenne pepper is a finely ground blend of pungent red peppers and chiles. The blend is named after a pepper native to Cayenne Island, the capital of French Guiana. Cayenne pepper is used more for flavoring than heat in Mexican and Italian cooking. It is tasty with poultry, meat, stews, eggs, hors d'oeuvres, and barbecue. Its bright color makes it a flavorful garnish for foods.
This very small seed is from a wild variety of the celery plant. The seed is so tiny, it takes 750,000 to make a pound. Celery seed is used whole or ground in Indian cooking. It can be used for pickling, and adds flavor when sprinkled on cold-cut sandwiches. Add celery seed to clam chowder, creamy soups, potato salad, and coleslaw.
Whole chile peppers
These peppers are of the Capsicum family. Chiles were enjoyed throughout South America as early as 6500 B.C. There are many types, and each varies in intensity of flavor. Use the peppers sparingly to begin with; you can always add more. Try them in Mexican sauces and dishes, paella, and spicy Indian dishes.
A 100-year-old Southwestern seasoning, this blend includes 80 percent dried chile powder, plus cayenne, oregano, and other spices. Use the chile seasoning in traditional chili, or try it as a flavoring in rice or as a dry rub for grilling meats. Sprinkle chile seasoning on breakfast eggs for a dash of flavor.
Chipotle chile powder
A chipotle is a dried, smoked jalapeno with a smoky, sweet, almost chocolaty flavor and medium heat. Use this powder to enhance poultry, meat, stews, sauces, and Mexican dishes.
One of the world's oldest seasonings, cinnamon has a sweet musty flavor. It is actually stripped evergreen bark rolled into "quills" or sticks. Cinnamon flavors savory and meat dishes in the East, and cakes and desserts in the West. It deliciously complements fruits such as apples.
Use these sticks to garnish hot beverages.
Ground cinnamon is perfect for baked goods.
Cloves are the dried, unopened myrtle-flower buds of an evergreen tree native to the Molucca islands of Indonesia. Cloves have long been valued for their aromatic fragrance and flavor; up to 7,000 cloves make a pound of the ground spice. The word comes from the French "clou," meaning nail. Use sparingly; cloves are very strong. The flavor is wonderful with sweet potatoes and winter squash.
For the best flavor, use the bud crowns of whole cloves; break off the nail stems before adding to ham, dessert sauces, and poached liquids. Push whole cloves into oranges to make pomander balls.
Ground cloves are perfect for flavoring pork, baked goods, chutney, and pumpkin pie.
Coriander is the seed of the cilantro (Chinese parsley) plant; it has a sweet lemon-sage flavor. Coriander was one of the first spices to arrive in America and has probably been used since about 5000 B.C. It is often added to curries and Indian food.
Toast whole coriander seeds lightly before grinding. The spice adds flavor to fish, shellfish, sauces, pickles, curries, lamb, potato salad, and soups.
Ground coriander is perfect for poultry, pork, and baked goods.
Cream of tartar
This powder is tartaric acid derived from fermented grapes. Cream of tartar increases the stability and volume of whipped egg whites; it is also used in candy-making and frostings for a creamier consistency. Use cream of tartar in angel food cake and meringues. Add it to potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes in the last few minutes of boiling to keep them from oxidizing. To remove stubborn burns from pots and pans, try blending cream of tartar with water to make a cleaning paste.
The pale-brown cumin seed is harvested from a member of the parsley family; its flavor is earthy and musty. Cumin was used as a food preservative by early Greeks and Romans. It is the dominant taste in Latin American cooking and is also used in Indian cooking.
Before using, toast whole seeds in a dry saute pan until fragrant, then add them to sauces and savory baked goods. Try it in citrus marinades.
Ready to add to corn-muffin batter, sausages, soups, and stews.
This powdered Indian blend combines coriander, turmeric, ginger, garlic, and other spices. Curry powder should be cooked briefly in a little butter or oil to enhance its flavor before it is added to foods. Depending on how much heat you like, both mild and hot curries are delicious with poultry, meat, and stews. Try adding it to yogurt sauces or deviled eggs; mix curry powder with mayonnaise for a tasty chicken salad with apples.
Also includes cardamom, pepper, cumin, and other spices.
Also includes cayenne and other spices. Delicious with lamb.
The flavor of dill weed contains hints of celery and anise. It is common in German, Russian, and Scandinavian dishes. Dill weed goes particularly well with veal, cucumbers, and carrots; also use it to flavor chicken soup and homemade bread. It is good in grains, winter vegetables, soups, fish, shellfish, and poultry; try mixing it into sour cream and yogurt. Dill weed should be added at the end of cooking.
This sweet seed of Mediterranean origin comes from a plant related to the fennel bulb; it has a distinctive licorice flavor. Fennel seed has been revered for its medicinal qualities since ancient times. It appears in the cuisines of many cultures: Italian, German, Polish, English, Spanish, Chinese. Fennel seed gives Italian sausage its unique taste; it is delicious in fish, poultry, meatballs, and soups. Use it in savory breads and crackers, or in pickling.
This savory blend of parsley, chervil, tarragon, and chives is classic in French cooking. The blend brings a delicate flavor to eggs and omelets; try adding it to fish, poultry, and vegetables during the last minute of cooking.
Chinese five-spice powder
Cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, star anise, and Szechuan pepper make up this spice blend. It is the most popular of the Chinese blends, and is particularly good on meats; try it with poultry, barbecued spareribs, or roast pork. Rub the powder on duck or chicken, or mix it in sauces.
Whole galangal root
This Indian root has a strong flavor similar to ginger. Grate or grind it to a powder, and combine it with ginger and lemongrass for use in Thai and Southeast Asian cooking; it is very good in stir-fried dishes and Asian slaws. The root may be steeped whole in hot liquids, soups, and sauces.
This blend of cumin, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, and other spices has a bit of a bite. It is a staple in northern Indian cooking; it adds depth of flavor and enhances other seasonings. Garam masala is usually added near the end of cooking time.
This spice is from a strong-flavored knobby root; its flavor is pungent and sweet. Ginger is thought to be native to Southeast Asia; it was one of the first Asian spices in Europe.
This style of ginger is popular in Chinese desserts and confections; try it in baking and with poultry and ham.
Use ground ginger in gingerbread, pumpkin pie, and cookies.
This combination of garlic, tarragon, parsley, chervil, lemon, and pepper adds flavor to grilled meats. Rub the herbs on meats brushed with olive oil, then grill. Try adding the herbs to barbecue sauces and marinades.
Made from powdered sassafras leaves, this spice is native to America and was introduced by the Choctaw people of Louisiana and Mississippi. Use it for thickening Creole gumbos, but be sure to add it after cooking to avoid a gluey consistency. Use it instead of, but not with, okra, which will also thicken gumbo. This spice is blended with a bit of thyme for extra flavor.
Herbes de provence
This classic French mix blends thyme, basil, savory, rosemary, and other spices. Delicious with roast chicken, rack of lamb, and vegetables.
The flavor of these berries of an Adriatic evergreen is bittersweet with a hint of pine. They give gin its unique taste. Crush berries to release the flavor before using in sauces, stuffing, borscht, and marinades for game, pork, or rabbit.
This herb tastes like it smells -- floral with a slightly bitter undertone; it can flavor jams and vinegars. Use lavender to make tea, and add sparingly to fish and poultry marinades. In small amounts it makes an aromatic infusion for ice creams and sorbet.
Mace blades are actually the covering of the nutmeg seed; they are softer in flavor but used similarly to add an old-world spiciness. Crush or grind the blades to release their flavor. Use in baked goods, seafood, poultry, game, and grains; it's especially good in creamed spinach and apple pie.
This relative of the mint family tastes like a sweeter, gentler oregano. Throughout history, marjoram has been thought to have medicinal properties. Crush the herb in your hand before using to release its flavor. Add marjoram at the end of cooking to fish, poultry, eggs, tomato dishes, sauces, soups, stews, pasta, frittatas, and vegetables. It enhances the flavor of meat dishes and is especially good with lamb.
This delicious combination of orange peel, cinnamon sticks, allspice, cloves, and star anise is used to flavor hot wine and cider. Bundle the spices in cheesecloth before adding to simmering liquids. Use 1 tablespoon per bottle of wine or half-gallon of cider; you may also add raisins, sugar, and orange or lemon juice to suit your taste.
Mustard comes from the seed of a plant in the cabbage family that is native to India and China. It has a tart, pungent flavor. Use the seeds in pickling or as a seasoning in cooked food. Mustard is delicious in sauces, salad dressings, and pates.
Black mustard seed
This seed is widely used in Indian cuisine. When heated in oil, it pops and releases its flavor. Add to crackers and curries; use in pickling.
Yellow mustard seed
This seed is what gives "ballpark mustard" its color. Use it with boiled vegetables, and in sauces, salad dressings, and fish and poultry marinades.
Add this variation to marinades, poultry, vegetables, fish, meats, and chutneys.
New Mexican chile powder
Anaheim peppers give this powder its flavor. The peppers are milder than most red chiles; they are dried while still green. Use this powder in chili and Mexican sauces; try it as a milder alternative to cayenne pepper.
This large seed comes from a West Indian evergreen. Use it sparingly, and grate it fresh onto food before serving as a garnish. Nutmeg adds flavor to white sauces, spinach, baked goods, beef, chicken, and pork. It is good in warm beverages like brandy Alexander, hot chocolate, and cider; sprinkle it over eggnog.
This variety is milder than Italian oregano and has a slightly bitter, minty taste. Though essential in Italian, Greek, and Mexican cooking, oregano did not gain popularity in the United States until after World War II. Crush the herb in your hand or with a mortar and pestle before using. Oregano is a natural in tomato and pasta sauces and on pizza; use it with eggplant, beans, marinades, roasted and broiled meats, and chicken. Heat oregano with butter and lemon juice, and drizzle onto chicken or fish as it grills.
The dried, ground pod of the sweet red pepper produces this spice; the hot variety adds red capsicum pepper for heat. Paprika has a higher vitamin-C content than citrus fruits; it's wonderful sprinkled over roasting chicken, and is often used as a garnish. Mix paprika with breadcrumbs, and serve over vegetables.
Use in goulash and with beef, veal, potatoes, vegetables, and sauces.
The taste is pungent and fiery; use it with beef, veal, and poultry.
Pasilla chile powder
The pasilla pepper is 6 to 8 inches long with blackish-brown skin. When dried and powdered, it adds mild flavor to poultry, meat, pork, moles, and stuffings. Mix the powder with butter for a flavorful cornbread spread.
This soft, unripe berry has a mild, fresh taste. It is the pepper used in cooking the French classic steak au poivre. Do not grind the peppercorns; instead, crush them or leave them whole to add bursts of flavor in brown sauces and mayonnaise or with pork chops, duck, and vegetables.
These are not true peppercorns, but berries from a relative of the sumac tree which grows on the island of Madagascar. They have a mild, sweet flavor, and are used for their aroma and color. Do not grind the peppercorns; crush them for use in fish sauces, vegetables, salads, and for use with meats.
Although not true peppercorns, these dried seedpods provide a similar pepper flavor with a distinctive taste. Briefly toast the peppercorns until they begin to smoke; then grind them when they are cool. Szechuan peppercorns taste great with meat, poultry, game, and fowl, and they are especially good with duck and pork dishes. Try grinding the peppercorns to make a spice rub for grilling.
These Indian black peppercorns develop longer on the vine for a more complex flavor. They are the best of the black peppers with a bolder flavor, bigger berry, and blacker color. Use ground, crushed, or whole in savory dishes.
White muntok peppercorns
These are grown on the same vine as black pepper; however the berries are picked when ripe and the hulls are removed in water. The flavor is slightly milder than that of black pepper. Grind the peppercorns, or use them whole in marinades; they are good with cream or white sauces and stews. Try using the ground peppercorns sparingly on vanilla ice cream for an unusual flavor.
Originally native to Mediterranean regions, these blue-gray seeds from the Netherlands and Australia have a nutty flavor. Poppy seeds have been cultivated for more than 3,000 years. They are often used in European and Middle Eastern cooking. Try them in sweet and savory baked goods, noodle dishes, and salad dressings.
The name "four spices" refers to a classic French blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves. Add the blend to pates, soups, stews, and vegetables.
Ras el Hanout
This Moroccan blend includes mace, ginger, allspice, pepper, and cardamom. Use it to flavor game, rice, and stuffing.
This multitalented herb has the look and smell of pine needles. It has been used extensively for cooking and medicinal purposes since 500 B.C. Crush rosemary in your hand or with a mortar and pestle before using to release its flavor. It is often paired with garlic, and it gives a pungent Mediterranean flavor to marinades, grilled fish, roasts, soups, beans, sauces, organ meats, game, vegetables, and bread. It is the perfect herb for lamb or rabbit and is tasty baked in focaccia.
Saffron is actually the dried stigmas of the crocus; each flower yields only three stigmas. Saffron is hand-picked and is the world's most expensive spice. It imparts a golden color to food. Use it very sparingly as a few threads go a long way. Toast the threads before grinding them, or steep whole threads in water, stock, or milk to release the flavor. Do not use wood utensils when cooking with saffron as wood absorbs the spice. Saffron is good in risotto, bouillabaisse, paella, fish soups, and sauces.
Rubbed sage leaves
This powerful herb from the mint family has an evergreen smell. Historically, sage was thought to improve the memory. Use sage sparingly as it adds a very strong flavor. It is good for sausage, poultry, game, soups, stews, meat, vegetables, beans, and stuffing; it is essential in the classic veal dish saltimbocca. Try rubbing it into pork before cooking, or top swordfish or tuna with sage and lemon butter.
Black sesame seeds
These seeds have the hulls left on to give them their black color. They are common in Chinese cuisine, and are good raw. Use them in baked goods, chicken, vegetables, and pastas. Try garnishing hors d'oeuvres with them, or encrusting salmon fillets before sauteing for an unusual presentation.
Toasted sesame seeds
These seeds have a rich, nutty flavor. With 25 percent protein by weight, they are one of the most nutritious seeds. They make a tasty addition to salad dressing, baked goods, crackers, chicken, fish, vegetables, and pastas. Sprinkle them over salads, noodles, and stir-fried foods.
This herb from the mint family has a mildly sharp, salty flavor that's a cross between thyme and mint. Crush it in your hand or with a mortar and pestle to release its flavor. Summer savory is classically paired with dried beans; it adds piquant flavor to fish, pate, meat, poultry, eggs, soups, stews, and chowders.
This delicious blend of salt, coriander, garlic, and other spices is a staple in Indian cooking. Use it in a marinade, basting sauce, or as a dry rub for poultry, lamb, or meat. It's wonderful rubbed on grilled salmon or chicken.
This versatile herb is a member of the sunflower family. Essential to French cooking, it has a mild, aniselike taste. Heat intensifies the taste of tarragon, so use it sparingly. It is often used in egg, cheese, or tomato dishes; it is good with poultry, fish, vegetables, and sauces. Tarragon brings a distinctive flavor to bearnaise sauce, marinades, and seafood in Cajun recipes. Try basting chicken with tarragon, butter, and lemon.
There are more than 100 varieties of this member of the mint family. Native to the Mediterranean region, thyme has had many uses other than cooking throughout history: Egyptians embalmed with it, Greeks bathed with it, and it was used as perfume during the Renaissance. Thyme gives depth to poultry, fish, vegetables, soups and chowders, stews, sauces, stuffings, meat, and game. It is often paired with tomatoes, and it goes well with eggs and custards.
Marco Polo mentioned the use of turmeric, a ginger-related root from India with a pungent, biting flavor. More commonly used for its bright yellow-orange color than for its flavor in curry blends and mustards, it is sometimes substituted for saffron. Add turmeric to meats, poultry, fish, soup, lentils, relishes, and chutneys.
This extra-hot curry blend contains coriander, salt, cardamom, garlic, and other spices. Use it carefully, you can always add more. This blend is the main flavor in classic Indian vindaloo dishes; use it with poultry, meat and lamb.