What Spices Do What? Cooking with Spices

Spices and herbs give recipes much of their character and complexity. Virtually free of calories, they create enough interest that you often don’t need to use as much salt and sugar in your cooking. From common spices and herbs like pepper and basil to the more exotic anise and cardamom, cooking with spices lets you tour the world from the comfort of your own kitchen.

Common Spices in Cooking: What are Herbs and Spices?

Although the terms “spices” and “herbs” are often used interchangeably to describe anything used to season food, they actually come from different parts of a plant. Herbs usually consist of the leaves of plants grown in the temperate zone, and spices are made from the bark, berries, flower buds, roots or seeds of tropical plants.

Cooking with Spices: Herb and Spices List

Browse this herb and spices list to find out what common spices taste like, what kinds of foods they flatter, and how to choose the right herbs and spices for cooking up your culinary creations.

  • Allspice: A cacophony of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, allspice complements fruitcakes and other sweet, spicy desserts, as well as pickled and meat recipes.
  • Anise: If you love licorice, you will enjoy anise, which carries its flavor. Use it in desserts such as coffee cake and biscotti.
  • Basil: Basil tastes dramatically richer when fresh. To make fresh basil last longer, trim the stems near the bottom. Place the basil in a vase with room temperature water covering the stems for a few inches, and put it in a place that has light but not direct sunlight. Cut a few holes into a plastic bag, and wrap it over the plant. Use basil to in pesto, tomato-based dishes, Thai and Chinese dishes, to season soft cheeses and even in ice cream.
  • Bay Leaves: Bay leaves taste mildly bitter. Use them in a “bouquet garni,” a classic French assortment of herbs bunched together, to flavor stews and stocks.
  • Cardamom: People commonly use this ancient spice in Indian food. It also adds pizzazz to spicy desserts, sweet breads and Turkish coffee.
  • Cayenne: This versatile spice comes from ground chili peppers. Cayenne is among the most common spices because you can add it to just about any spicy dish–from Cajun stew to fettuccine with cream sauce–to pack heat and subtle sweetness.
  • Celery Seed: A blend of bitterness, fresh zing and vegetal sweetness, this spice tastes just like concentrated celery. It complements potato, macaroni, tuna, crab and other cold salads; it also excels in barbeque sauces and pickled foods.
  • Chives: Chives belong in the onion family. Buy them fresh for best results, and store in the refrigerator in a plastic bag. Use chives in rich, herby recipes that feature such foods as potatoes, eggs and mushrooms.
  • Cilantro: Cilantro figures commonly into salsa, tacos and other Latin American dishes, especially in tandem with lime. Thai and Chinese recipes often call for the herb as well. As with other herbs, add cilantro after you have finished cooking. To keep it fresh, follow the instructions for storing basil, but keep it in the fridge.
  • Cinnamon: You can buy cinnamon in powder form or sticks (which stay fresh longer). If cooking with sticks, discard them before serving. Cinnamon buns and oatmeal cinnamon cookies take advantage of this spice’s sweet, warm taste and delicious aroma; also use cinnamon in stews.
  • Cloves: Cloves carry an intense flavor that adds punch to cold-weather recipes like ginger bread, pumpkin pie and chocolate spice cookies. Buy cloves whole to better preserve the taste, and grind them with a coffee grinder or a pestle and mortar just before using them.
  • Coriander: Among the most ancient spices for cooking, coriander dates back to 5000 B.C. and contains hints of lemon. Use it in bold dishes such as smoked meats, Moroccan stews, chili, game, pork and ham recipes that include orange.
  • Cumin: Earthy and pungent, cumin goes into curries, chili and bean soups, and it can really spice up a potato. Use it sparingly or it will overwhelm your dish.
  • Dill: Dill has a grassy taste, and dill seeds taste like anise blended with celery. Use this herb to make dill pickles, to flavor root vegetables, and in recipes that feature pungent cheeses (such as goat and cheddar cheese).
  • Garlic: Given how pungent this member of the onion family tastes, garlic goes well in a surprising number of dishes. Buy it fresh; it will last for months on your counter. If you love garlic, invest in a garlic mincer, which saves you the trouble of all that fine chopping. Garlic can add decadence to bread, pasta, stir-fry, pizza and countless other dishes.
  • Ginger: Ginger is hot, sweet, highly unique and usually center stage among the spices used in cooking. Use it to make ginger cookies, ginger salad dressing and in Thai recipes.
  • Mint: This cool herb goes well in cold recipes such as iced tea, mint juleps and ice cream, and it adds dangerous decadence to chocolate. Impress guests by serving water garnished with mint ice cubes.
  • Nutmeg: On your spices list, nutmeg features in both cooking and baking. It adds warmth to such savory foods as chicken and salmon, but goes best with dessert. Carrot cake, pumpkin pie, sweet potato soufflé and apple pie do well with nutmeg.
  • Oregano: This herb figures largely into Italian cuisine. Though it tastes best fresh, you can keep jarred oregano on hand for convenience. Because oregano goes with so many foods, you can experiment more freely with it than most spices.
  • Paprika: A kind of red pepper, this red, finely ground spice often garnishes deviled eggs and cream soups. You can also use it in marinades, roasted dishes and smoked foods.
  • Parsley: The most popular of all herbs, parsley possesses a mild taste that provides subtle nuance to soups, tomato sauces, salads (especially the Middle Eastern salad, tabouli) and a slew of other savory recipes. Use parsley to garnish bland-colored dishes.
  • Rosemary: The strong, piney taste of rosemary makes it a good companion for breads, meats, potatoes, salad dressings, beets, squash and other such heavy foods. Wrapped in a paper towel and sealed in a plastic bag, rosemary will stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
  • Saffron: This luxury herb costs quite a lot, and has a slightly bitter flavor akin to seaweed and fish. You can make saffron the focus of your dish with such recipes as saffron rice and English saffron bread, and it can also enhance herb-blend dishes: Just spice carefully so that its subtle taste doesn’t get lost.
  • Sage: You can use powdered, dried or fresh sage. Its sweet, gentle flavor lends itself well to herb blends, roasted dishes, stuffing and cream sauces.
  • Thyme: This herb has a gentle flavor; it blends well with other spices for cooking up soup bases and sauces. Thyme pairs wonderfully with lemon.
  • Turmeric: Peppery and quite warm, turmeric gives mustard its color and goes into most curries. Use it in Indian dishes, to make food yellow (such as scrambled tofu that emulates eggs), and in relish.

Using Herbs and Spices for Cooking

In general, if you are trying to reduce the amount of salt in a dish, use savory herbs and spices, such as garlic, curry, cumin, basil or oregano. To reduce sugar, use sweet spices, such as cinnamon, ginger or cloves. Powdered spices are usually stronger than crumbled spices and dried herbs are stronger than fresh. If you’re unfamiliar with any seasoning, start small so you don’t overwhelm the meal–you can always add more!