Seven Spice Blends That Are Worth Buying
Peek inside a home cook's spice cabinet and you'll likely see, crammed in among the cinnamon and oregano, various spice blends. Adobo, chili powder, herbes de Provence—they're all amalgamations of any number of herbs and spices. Why bother stocking up on these mixes? Well, for one, they're convenient. Pre-mixed in (supposedly) pleasing ratios, you can just flip the top and shake them onto whatever you're cooking for instant flavor. Plus, some spice mixes include ingredients that can be difficult to source on their own.
Still, many cooks—professional and amateur—won't use them on principle, or else they turn to them only in rare cases. Spice blends can contain dehydrated garlic, which may taste stale and like a pale imitation of fresh garlic. And they may be too heavy or too light on a particular flavor. Take, for instance, pumpkin pie spice. Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice are the usual ingredients, but our food editors in the Martha Stewart Living test kitchen said they prefer a higher ratio of cinnamon than the mix offers. Other spice blends, like curry powder or herbes de Provence, are a grab-bag since every brand makes them differently. Because they vary so widely, it's more reliable to write a recipe that calls for, in the case of curry powder, specific amounts of black pepper, cardamom, cayenne, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, dry mustard, ginger and/or turmeric.
That said, there are some spice blends that are test kitchen-approved. Here we share the seven spice blends our food editors use.
This traditional Ethiopian spice blend is made with chiles, garlic, fenugreek, and warm spices, including allspice and cinnamon, and is becoming more widely available—McCormick offers its own tasty version. It's a great way to amp up flavor in a chili or in lentils, and it's especially good with poultry. Follow the advice of Lauryn Tyrell, senior food editor, and mix it with a some mayo and lime juice before adding it to chicken salad; you could also whisk it into olive oil and rub over a whole chicken before roasting.
Like curry powder, chili powder—a common ingredient in chili and tacos—can include any combo of ingredients. We've seen ones made with sweet and smoked paprika, garlic and onion powder, cayenne, oregano, and cumin; others include a variety of chiles, such as ancho, cascabel and arbol. It can have whole cumin seeds, ground cumin, or none at all. If you find one you love, great; but know that other brands can taste wildly different.
Chinese Five Spice
Although this blend always includes just five spices, they're not always the same five. Many versions are made with Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, and fennel, but others skip the peppercorns in favor of ginger or white pepper. Whichever blend you use, it usually has a warm, spicy-sweet flavor, and is great in everything from meaty dishes to desserts (particularly gingerbread cookies, pumpkin pie, and other treats where you'd typically use warming spices).
Its name means hot spices and this Indian spice mix overlaps slightly with curry powder, but garam masala has a more pungent flavor. It often includes some combination of cardamom, black pepper, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and cloves. Though you'll also see ginger, mace, bay leaves, chiles, star anise, fennel seeds, and nutmeg. The test kitchen likes it in soups and curries.
Ras el Hanout
Common in North African cuisine, ras el hanout usually consists of more than a dozen ingredients. Among the more popular ones are cardamom, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, dry ginger, chili peppers, coriander seed, peppercorn, sweet and hot paprika, fenugreek, and turmeric. It's wonderful on roasted vegetables, particularly cauliflower.
This Mexican seasoning (Tajín is the brand name) is made with chile peppers, salt, and dehydrated lime juice. Deputy food editor Greg Lofts loves it as a more flavorful alternative to a salt rim for a margarita and says it's also great to rim a glass for a michelada. More terrific uses: sprinkle it over popcorn, tortilla chips, and grilled corn on the cob smeared with Mexican crema or sour cream.
We're crazy for this Middle Eastern mixture which usually includes ground dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, toasted sesame seeds, and salt (and some versions also include sumac). It's earthy, savory, and even a little tangy; fantastic on everything from roast chicken to hummus to pita bread (mix it with olive oil, spread it over the bread and bake).