Let's get spicy: reader-favorite cooking spices & flavor staples

Let's get spicy: your favorite cooking spices & flavor staples
Small Organic Spice Refills from GneissSpice

I recently read a book called Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine which was a fascinating look at the history of flavors in American cuisine and how they became staples in our diets (like how prevalent black pepper is in almost all savory recipes!). Some flavors are fads and some become instant classics. It made me revisit an old post about spices.

Way back in the day we called upon our Offbeat Homies to pony up their favorite garlic and onion alternatives for those of us who can't eat them. Sad, I know, but there ARE a ton of delish cooking spices that slay when it comes to amping up flavor in recipes. I decided to cull a bunch of those helpful reader comments into a roundup of reader favorite spices that will take your cooking game up a few notches.

For me, it's ALL about smoked paprika, ras el hanout, and smoked salt. I abuse the hell out of those spices all the time. Here's what else you can use to improve your spice game…

Smoke paprika and smoke flavor

Smoked paprika is $2 at Trader Joe's, y'all!

I also love liquid smoke, for almost any soup and especially for vegetarian dishes that you would otherwise flavor with bacon/ham. – Amanda

Flavored sea salts can have a huge impact on flavor. My two favorite ones are bourbon smoked sea salt and regular smoked sea salt, but they have so many kinds out there. – Leah

Ginger

I cook with ginger and lime together on nearly everything. Chicken, tofu, rice, grilled veg (particularly carrots yuuummm).

In terms of getting some bang for your buck try keeping a few fresh herb plants in the house. A fresh basil leaf or sprig of thyme goes a whole lot further than the dried stuff. Even you have no green thumb and they die off in a few months, it's still a better deal than spending nearly the same price (in my grocery store anyhow) on some packaged cut fresh herbs that will be rotten within the week. – Angela

Let's get spicy: your favorite cooking spices & flavor staples
Five-Row Spice Rack from BotanicalWare

Toasted sesame oil

I'm gonna add toasted sesame oil to the ginger and lime combo. I only started using it this month but now I fry everything in it! And especially fried up with ginger and vegetables, or on noodles, then a squeeze of lemon or lime (or from a bottle!) to give it a last hit of freshness. – Von

Sesame anything (oil, paste/tahini, toasted seeds). A little drizzled sesame oil or a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds can really liven up a dish at the last minute. – Morgan

Furikake

Furikake, a seasoning salt with sesame seeds and seaweed is also excellent. – Morgan

Dried mushrooms

Dried mushrooms are also fantastic for giving you a rich stock (as I'm guessing commercial stock powders are out) that you can then add other flavors to. They're also really deep and rich flavor themselves to chop up and add to food. They can be expensive but they're really cheap in my local Asian supermarket – which you'll find with all spices and herbs so look them up! – Von

Mushrooms are a staple in our house, too. Although they can be expensive, dried mushrooms often offer a really good bang for your buck. You can soak them in hot water and then save the broth for other dishes. Alternatively, if you re-hydrate them in the juices of whatever you're cooking, they can add a really nice flavor. – Katie

Cinnamon

Another spice to try is cinnamon. Persian cuisine makes great use of cinnamon in savory dishes, and it's something I'm trying to experiment with a little more myself. – Katie

Yes! Cinnamon in savory foods is wonderful! I like it best on chicken or beef, paired with allspice, cumin, ginger, and lemon juice. It also pairs well with cayenne red pepper, cumin, and chili powder. – Jenniferjuniper

Citrus flavors

Consider using citrus as a flavoring, rather than an ingredient itself (lemon on chicken or pasta is a lovely light flavor, orange goes well with pork). – Jane

Roasted red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes

Roasted red peppers. While they're not technically a spice, they're loaded with flavor. I love it in soup, and it pairs well with red pepper flakes. With a jar of roasted red peppers, some chili flakes, two sweet potatoes, and some coconut milk, you can make a banging soup in the crock pot.

On a similar note to red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts impart a lot of flavor on pastas and veggie dishes. Also, if you're blender happy like me, create a similar to pesto sauce (leaving out the garlic, of course) using pine nuts and either sun dried tomatoes or roasted red peppers. It makes my tummy happy. – Lis

Celery & celery salt

My "spice" suggestion is actually not spices at all–it's chopped celery and carrots! In a lot of various recipes, you can sauté them up in place of onions and garlic and come out with a totally tasty result (which won't be exactly the same, of course, but will most likely be delicious.) I had a friend who made bolognese this way and she'd just add a few splashes of balsamic vinegar at the end to add a little twang. – Dootsie

If you miss a bit of onion texture in a dish, you can use some finely chopped celery (or other vegetables). No one will even believe you there's no onion in there with chopped celery. – Bren

Dill weed

I'm a little obsessed with dill. I love it on basically everything, but I think it works best on salmon, in canned tuna, and in deviled eggs. Throw some capers, lemon and olive oil into the mix (or maybe just some cheese), and you're good to go! Sometimes, you get a tasty Greek flavor out of it, but other times, it just adds a little savory, tart punch. – Daisy

I am a big fan of tarragon as well as dill — both have such distinctive flavors that you don't need much else besides salt and pepper to season a dish (in fact, it's smarter not to use anything else as other herbs and spices tend to clash with whichever one of the above you're using). Tarragon tastes great on everything — I've used it in risotto, creamy sauces, sauteed veggies, roast veggies, salad, chicken (with veggies). It's distinctive but delicious on almost everything. Try white bean tarragon salad — yum! – Channamasala

Ground mustard and mustard seed

Mustard — in either seed or liquid form. If you go for liquid, I prefer either Dijon or whole grain mustard. It makes a wonderful sauce for meat, veggies, or anything else. – Ashley

Turmeric

A key ingredient in anti-inflammatory recipes like Golden Milk, turmeric is healthy AND adds amazing dimension to dishes. – Catherine

Capers

Capers — I put capers in lots of stuff — try a rosemary-thyme-basil mix on halved cherry tomatoes with a touch of salt, lemon juice or vinegar, olive oil and capers. – Channamasala

Fennel seeds

Fennel seeds are great, too, as well as curry spices such as allspice, clove, ginger (fresh ginger root = my true love!), cardamom, and coriander. – Liz

Fennel pollen. Worth the price.- SafroniaB

Lemongrass

Lemongrass is an interesting addition to any dish – you just lightly bruise it with the side of a knife and let it release its natural aroma as the food cooks. – Liz

Lemongrass — I make a mean red curry, green curry and Indonesian rendang daging. – Channamasala

Truffle oil

Truffle oil — a bottle of it so small it could stand in for a normal-sized bottle of nice olive oil for a doll costs about $10, but for any given dish it only takes a teaspoon or so to turn it from "this is good" to "THIS IS AMAZING! WTF DID YOU DO TO THIS, SEASON IT WITH THE TEARS OF A VESTAL VIRGIN?? – Channamasala

Fermented bean pastes

Fermented bean pastes (black bean paste, miso, gochujang (which is Korean bean and chile paste). They can make very good asian sauces when they are primary ingredients or add richness and complexity of flavor to anything from enchilada sauce to pizza sauce. Gochujang is my favorite. – Morgan

Herbes de Provence

Herbes de Provence is my "secret" in everything. It's a bit more delicate than Italian seasoning and is good in just about anything you put it in (meats, bean soup, roasted potatoes, you get the idea). – Kat

Love Herbes de Provence! I make a super tasty baked tilapia with tomatoes and bread crumbs and it totally delicious! – Heather B

Our Thanksgiving turkey this year was rubbed in Herbes de Provence and HOLY FREAKING COW it was amazing! – Alissa

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African & Middle Eastern Spice Tin with 9 Spices from
SpiceKitchenUK

Curry, Middle Eastern, and North African spices

I use a lot of curry spices (garam masala, vindaloo, the list goes on…), as well as ras el hanout (a North African spice that is AWESOME). I'd also look into some salt-free spice blends if you want a more complex flavor profile. – Mallory

I generally make my mixes from scratch so here's the common spices you could use for a curry:
coriander, cumin, fenugreek, Vietnamese cinnamon, cinnamon, red chili powder (hotter than "Amercian" chili powder and as red as paprika!), coriander seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, ginger, turmeric, hing/asafoetida, curry leaves, black cardamom (smoky!), green cardamom (citrusy!), cloves, star anise, fennel, and tamarind. – Claire

I just love a good quality garam masala. It's the smoky flavour in Indian cuisine and I've been using it everywhere: pan-fried potatoes (add cauliflower for a homemade gobi masala!), carrot ginger soup, roast chicken or beef, tomato sauce based dishes, stirfries, squash. It's super versatile and really warm and comforting this time of year. Can be spicy, but you can cut it with turmeric or paprika if the heat is too much. – Mandy

Cloves, cardamon, ginger, chili powder, curry powder, dried mustard, fenugreek powder. I'm a spice hoarder (as in I have a huge drawer full) and those are what I go for the most after garlic.

I recommend hitting up your nearest Middle Eastern or Indian market and start sniffing. There are plenty of recipes online and you can omit what you can't have (bonus points of way less salt). – Alice

Asafoetida! Used sparingly and heated in the pan at the beginning of the cooking process, it gives a bit of a garlicky flavor. Emphasis on sparingly — it's strong stuff.

I second Claire on the fenugreek. It's another one that benefits from toasting before use, even if you're using ground. It has a round savory flavor that I think goes really nicely with chicken. – Selkie

I second the asafoetida. Its aroma when it's being cooked is pretty much identical with that of onion and garlic. It has a very strong smell when raw, though. You might find it a bit unpleasant, but the smell goes away when cooking. And you'll only need max. 1/4 teaspoon for most two- to four-person dishes, so one of those yellow jars (you'll see them if you do a Google search) goes a long long way. – Bren

Has nobody mentioned sumac??

Get it at the middle eastern grocery — it's fantastic on savory yoghurt dishes or anything with yoghurt sauce, grilled/baked/BBQ meats, grilled vegetables, popcorn with butter, salt and pepper, pumpkin-tomato dishes, couscous… it's actually just all-around great. – Channamasala

Chaat masala — totally different from garam masala (which is also great). Try it with chickpeas, chopped tomato, lemon juice, salt, and grab a bag of "sev" from the Indian grocery (or you could use puffed rice/unsweetened Rice Krispies). Top with yoghurt, tamarind date masala and coriander masala if you want.

South Indian hot lime and sweet lime pickle – both fantastic.

Bere-bere/berbere – it's the garam masala of Ethiopia. Mostly paprika with some other additions, like allspice.

– Channamasala

Spice Blends from PhoenixHeartDesigns

Bay leaves

Bay leaves are great in almost any kind of sauce or stock. – Kathleen

What spices did I miss?! Let me know in the comments!

  1. I think everyone’s covered most of my favourites… Oh! Wait! VINEGARS. A splash of the right kind of vinegar can add another dimension and balance out a lot of dishes. (I personally think balsamic and apple cider are the most versatile place to start, but there’s also sherry, white wine, red wine, raspberry, rice wine…)

    And the brine from pickled things is dead handy for adding more complex flavour in a pinch. I like to add the brine from pickled jalapenos to the rice when I’m having a chilli ready meal, and I’ve used it when half-assing hot and sour soup, too. Different veg and different brine ingredients will give different flavours, so it’s worth experimenting.

    A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil can also be nice in the right dish, as well as the fancy flavoured oils mention above.

    3 agree

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