Commonly Used Spices A Chef’s Spice Guide
This guide is a quick look-up table for the commonly-used spices.
Oregano – A peculiar leafy green herb, in that it is one of the few which is more potent dried than fresh. Taste like a cross between mint and lemongrass. Famously used in much of Italian food, especially pizza and pasta sauces, but also good on salads and noticeably complimentary to tomatoes. Oregano also comes in a Mediterranean species, which is milder than the traditional Mexican form that is usually used.
Paprika – Paprika is actually a specially prepared ground capsicum pepper. Its original dates from Hungary, but it is used throughout the world in everything from soups to baked potatoes to roasts. Paprika actually adds more color and aroma than it does flavor. The bright stop-sign red color is distinctive, and calls attention to the fact that the dish has been seasoned.
Parsley – The ultimate culinary cliche is a sprig of parsley added to a dish for garnish. The parsley is to be stared at, avoided while the rest of the meal is consumed, and then it gets its final duty as dressing for an otherwise empty plate as it is escorted back to the kitchen and dumped, where it will enhance the garbage in the landfill by adding its nutrients back into the soil. But actually that’s the curly-leaf parsley; the flat-leaf parsley has a stronger flavor and can even be used in place of cilantro. Should you have gotten curious enough to have actually tried a bite of curly-leaf parsley, you may at least be assured that you made your vitamin C quota that day.
Rosemary – This herb is perhaps most famous of all for its aroma, which is very close to a rose. The thin needle-like leaves of this perennial woody herb are used in cooking. They have a bitter, astringent taste. Used in flavoring meat and fish dishes, or in breads such as Italian focaccia. You can either put whole branches of the plant on to the hot coals of a barbecue to flavor the food being cooked, or strip off the leaves and use the stem as a skewer for kebabs. Fresh rosemary’s aroma is so pervasive you need only run your hand through it to smell like it for hours.
Saffron – The most expensive spice in the kitchen, because saffron has to come from the little stamen (the male pole-shaped part) of the flower of its crocus species; you have to harvest a 100-square-foot plot of it to get a handful. Known for its distinctive neon yellow-orange color, saffron is used in many Spanish and Italian recipes. Due to its huge expense, however, it is falling out of favor to be replaced by turmeric.
Sage – The leaves of the sage plant ground into a seasoning form an essential ingredient in various foods throughout every continent of the world. Sage comes in a number of varieties, and is the model of an herb plant, being good for little else but excellent at adding aroma and flavor. Particularly used in poultry, fish, soups, cheeses, and breads. It makes an especially apt companion to onion, where it appears in stuffings and dressings.
Star Anise – A spice that closely resembles anise in flavor, obtained from the star-shaped fruit of a small evergreen tree native to southwest China. Widely grown for commercial use in China, India, it is used in much of Chinese cuisine, in Indian cuisine where it is the major component of garam masala, and in Indonesian cuisine. Star anise is also an ingredient of the traditional five-spice powder of Chinese cooking. It has an anise flavor even though it isn’t related, and has an aroma more like liquorice.
Sumac – A distinctively deep red powder with a sour taste, sumac appears anywhere your disk could stand a tart flavor. This spice comes from the Mediterranean and Middle East, using the berries of a wild bush, although there are many varieties all over the temperate world, and in fact it is a close relative of poison ivy and other hypo-allergic plants. It is an essential ingredient for Arabic cooking, favored over lemon for sourness and astringency. It is also used in making beverages in India, sometimes referred to as “Indian lemonade”.
Tamarind – One of the few known spices which is native to Eastern Africa, in particular Madagascar. The flat, brown, peanut-like pods of the tree are split open and the rind extracted for the seasoning. Widely used in Asian and Latin American cuisine. It is also an important ingredient in Worcestershire sauce.
Tarragon – Also known as ‘dragon herb’ in the Far East, this herb is a relative of wormwood. The two varieties are french tarragon, which is stronger, and Russian tarragon, which is milder. Both varieties have an aroma similar to anise. Tarragon is the key ingredient in Bearnaise sauce. It is used mostly to season chicken, fish, and egg dishes, particularly in French cuisine.
Thyme – Widely cultivated on almost every continent, thyme is used principally in flavoring meats, soups, and stews. It is also an essential component of a couple of sauces. It is especially used in French cooking.
Turmeric – Also called ‘yellow ginger’, this is a spice similar to ginger in appearance, but with an entirely different taste, and also gives its characteristic yellow color to the food. Turmeric is often used as a low-cost substitute for saffron. Turmeric, along with dill, gives pickles their characteristic taste. Its flavor is described as earthy, bitter, and peppery. It is used in many Asian dishes, so of course is also used in… wait for it… curry.
Vanilla – There’s no taste quite as distinct as vanilla. We get it from the vanilla bean, of the vanilla orchid, which has the distinction of being nature’s only food-producing orchid plant. Vanilla is native to South America. It is widely used throughout the world in beverages, desserts, ice cream, candy, flavoring syrup, and even used to add scent and flavor to incense and smoking tobacco.
Wasabi – Known as ‘Japanese horseradish’ although it is far more potent. This root herb has a distinctive neon green color. It is used almost exclusively in Asian cooking, particularly to ad flavor to sushi and other sea foods.