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Ultimate beginners guide to cooking with spices

Ultimate beginners guide to cooking with spices

A comprehensive guide to spices that simplifies cooking with spices if you are a beginner or wish to learn more about the uses of spices in everyday cooking. 

Cooking with spices
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Are you someone who passes through the spice aisle and wonder how to use spices in cooking?

Learning how to cook with spices is perhaps one of the easiest ways to add flavour to your meals in just a pinch.

You can use them in many forms, in different ways and jazz UPP your meals,  all you need to know is the How To??...

Why Are Spices Used For Cooking?

Using spices for cooking food has become increasingly popular because of their flavour and health-enhancing properties.

The reason we use spices for cooking are:

  • To add instant flavour and taste to a meal
  • To define cultural cuisine such as Indian, Mediterranean, Cajun, Middle-Eastern etc.
  • Added health benefits that come from using spices
  • Make food look appealing

What Are The Basic Spices Used For Cooking

Spices are flavourings that you can add to your dish to enhance the taste, aroma and the overall flavour of the dish.

One of the best ways to navigate your way around cooking with spices is to treat them as an extension to your normal salt and pepper.

Each cuisine of the world have a few basic spices that you need to make an ethnic dish.

You will find comprehensive spice lists and guides for each ethnic cuisine on this link here.

One of the pressing questions if you happen to be a complete beginner cook is what spices to use and how to use seasonings ?

This is where this post will prove to be helpful as it includes:

  • Suggested list of herbs,spices and seasoning most commonly used for cooking .
  • Step wise guide on how to use spices and herbs
  • Easy recipes for beginner cooks.

Let us begin with some of the most common spices used for cooking to start your spice pantry.

All the spices listed can be easily bought from any super market. I would say they are the essential spices for beginners to begin their journey of cooking with herbs and spices.

NOTE – You can click on the orange link of the spices for detailed info about the spice, cooking ideas and recipes using the spices.

Most Common Spices:

  1. Cumin seeds
  2. Cinnamon 
  3. Whole green cardamom pods 
  4. Ground cumin powder
  5. Ground coriander powder
  6. Turmeric 
  7. Paprika
  8. Garlic powder or flakes

Most Common Herbs:

  1. Basil (fresh or dried)
  2. Dried Oregano
  3. Italian seasoning
  4. Parley ( fresh or dried)
  5. Fresh Cilantro
  6. Thyme (Fresh or dried)

Most Common Spice Blends:

  1. Curry powder
  2. Taco seasoning
  3. Garam Masala 
  4. Cajun spice
  5. Mediterranean spice blend 
  6. Everything Bagel spice blend

Apart from the above essential spice list, here is a list of the top 28 spices used for cooking Indian food along with images and cooking purpose.

5 Step Guide To Cooking With Spices For Dummies

A popular reason for most attendees who attend my cooking classes is not just to learn ‘A’ dish.

It is more a need to know, when and how to add spices during the cooking process for the dish to taste authentic.

This indeed is very important.

Randomly adding spices without an awareness of their effect on the dish, may lead to a flavour mishap.

This may well discourage you from experimenting with spices because you don’t want to waste that beautiful cut of lamb you bought from the fresh market.

There is a method that is recommended to be followed when cooking with spices.

This stepwise guide shares a few tips on identifying the right spice to go with the type of food you wish to make, when and how to add spices to your dish during the cooking process.

This guide takes you through a journey of a spice life cycle when cooking with them to elevate the flavours.

Step 1 – Get to know your spices by type 

There are seemingly hundreds of spices all over the world.

Spices can be broadly divided into 2 types:

  1. Whole spices
  2. Ground spices

Whole spices – They are the spices what are found in whole form such as seeds, buds, flowers, bark etc. They add aroma to the dish.

Ground spices – They are the powdered form of whole spices such as ground cumin, ground cardamom. ground cinnamon etc. They add taste to the dish.

The way to know your spices is to work with them.

You need to understand that each spice plays a certain role in the dish.

Use your sense of intuition when it comes to selecting and adding spice to the dish.

You can do so by smelling or perhaps even tasting just a tiny speck of the spice you wish to use.

One key point to remember is that not all spices render taste.

Different spices serve different purposes.

Few add flavour and aroma, some spices are used to add taste while there are others used for adding colour.

It is mostly the powdered spices that enhance the taste of a dish, while whole spices are used to impart flavour and aroma.

For example, a spicy vindaloo or rogan josh will require more spices to make it hot and spicy and hence use more quantity of powdered spices.  While a mild korma or creamy gravy will require whole spices,  since korma dishes are mild and aromatic.

When it comes to cooking with spices, it is best to first identify whether the dish requires enhancing taste, flavour or both and select your spices accordingly.

This will give you an idea of how much or how little or the type of spice you need to make the dish.

Step 2 – Anticipate the change in form

Once you are able to differentiate between whole and ground spices and their impact on food,  it is time to start cooking.

We know that carrots taste different when eaten raw, cooked, boiled or baked.

This goes the same for spices.

A unique quality of spices is the way the essence of a particular spice changes when it is processed further.

What I mean by this, is that same spice can taste different and give a completely different kind of taste or flavour to the dish depending on how it has been processed during cooking.

Let’s take cumin seeds as an example ingredient for this Lamb Bhuna recipe.

Cumin seeds when used whole imparts a woody aromatic flavour but does little to the taste.

The same spice in a powder form provides a pungent spicy taste to the dish. If the seeds are roasted and ground then the flavour and the taste both get further enhanced and give a woody, fresh and a sharp spicy taste to the dish.

In this Lamb Bhuna dish we have used whole spices and then used them again in a roasted ground form. 

This changes the form of spices during the cooking process. That is it changes from being a raw whole spice to roasted ground spice emitting stronger flavour compounds.

Forms of cumin spice
Forms of cumin

So, once you have selected your spices, think about the following two points:

  1. The form you will be using it in that is whether as a whole spice, ground or roasted form and;
  2. How it’s going to be processed further during the cooking methods applied i.e. tempered, sautéed, simmered.

Planning the type and form of spice and anticipating the change in taste will have a direct effect on the dish’s palatableness.

Step 3 – Consider combinations during the cooking process

This brings us back to the question of ‘What spices go with what food?’

Apart from being of a particular form that is ground or whole, spices also have distinctive taste classification such as sweet, sharp, pungent or simply a colour enhancer.

When familiarising yourself to spices in Step 1, do at the same time identify the taste classification of the spice.

There is a Taste classification spice chart below that guides you on how to use spices along with what food combinations go best with spices.

This will help in simplifying the underlying taste that you wish to bring in the dish.

For example:

  • sweet spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom will give a subtle sweetness to the dish and impart flavour.
  • sharp or hot spices such as chilli powder, pepper, garam masala will render heat.
  • pungent spices such as coriander powder, cumin powder,  asafoetida are primarily the taste enhancers giving the dish a distinctive taste.

When using spices, it’s always a good idea to bear in mind the combination of taste with other ingredients in the dish. This will help you to get a balance of taste and flavour.

Step 4 – Less is More – when cooking with spices 

A common belief when cooking with spices is to make the dish spicy.

Does that mean that you add as many or as much spices to your dish just for it to be called ‘spicy’?

The answer is a FIRM NO!!

Spices, especially those that render heat such as chilli powder, pepper, is an individual preference.

If one person enjoys the hot kick that does not mean that others like their ears and mouth to be put on fire!

Also, spicing a dish with every other spice from your cupboard DOES NOT mean you are making a spicy curry.

There has to be a method and need for it.

As I mentioned in previous steps, first get yourself familiar with the spice, its form and work on the combination of mixing spices with other ingredients.

The best way to do this is to follow recipes which call for simple and minimum spices. Start with small amounts like ½ to 1 tsp of spice and slowly work your way.

Over spicing simply kills the taste of other ingredients and does more harm than good.

Step 5 – Experiment with spices     

I hope by this step you have a better understanding of why spices are used in food and how it impacts the flavour depending on the type and amount of spices you add.

The best way to get comfortable working with them is to turn your kitchen into a spice lab!

If you start small but often, you will get more confident using and cooking with spices.

Start with stocking up on some of the common spices and herbs  listed above. You can spice up your steaks, stews and soups too!

The advantages of doing this are that spices give an instant lift to any dish and also have health benefits. 

As you get more comfortable with using spices in combination with others, you can eventually start making your own spice blends and storing them for easy access.

There is no limit to the various kinds of combinations you can make with spices varying the ingredients and quantities.

Spice Chart With A List of Common Spices, Their Uses & Suggested Food Combinations

All you need to do now is to follow the 5 steps explained above and start with an easy recipe that requires minimum spices.

This infographic is a list of common spices popularly used and is a good start-up point for beginners.

Treat this ‘How to Use Spices Chart’ as a reference to spices you may wish to add to your pantry.

Begin with a few of these spices which will gradually help you identify the spices, their primary taste, the impact it has on the dish and the best food combinations using the spices.

Spice infographic of List of spices for beginners for cooking with spices and their uses

Recipes For Beginners

With the cooking tips and guidelines mentioned above, all you need to do is get cooking with some simple spices.

Start with recipes that use 2-3 spices like this  Easy Pumpkin and Beans Curry with Coconut MilkThis dish is made with basic Indian spices both in whole and ground form and is a good starting point.

This Multigrain Pulao Dish uses a mix of whole and ground spices that elevated both the taste and the flavour of rice and is very easy to make.

And if you thought spices are used only for making curries then try this flavour-packed Vegan Santa fe Salad or Spicy corned beef hash .

You can also use the spices mentioned in the recipe to make roasted vegetables as a delicious spicy side dish.

Online Spice & Cooking Workshop

Are you still unsure about Spices?!

You also have the convenient and cost effective option of  joining a fully interactive online Indian cooking and spices workshop to master the use of spices and learn cooking techniques to transform your meals with BOLD flavours.

Check out the video below to see how the classes look like and what it offers.

Shopping For Spices

If the whole process of buying individual spices, looking for recipes and making them sound a bit complicated to you, then I have a perfect solution.

Try the World is an online gourmet store with a collection of exotic international dishes delivered to your doorsteps. 

If you subscribe to one of their packages, they will deliver pre-packed boxes of multiple dishes from around the world to try.

Every box comes with an assortment of international dishes. It also includes detailed recipes and cooking method to make each of the dishes at home.

Cooking tips and stories about regional cuisines makes cooking with the new ingredients not only easier but exciting.

As a special reader of my blog, you get to try one of their boxes for free by clicking on the link below.

Take a food journey around the world

Introducing new flavours from around the world and experimenting with spices and other ingredients couldn’t get any easier.

All you need to do is order a box while all the ingredients and instructions get delivered to you ready for you to begin your culinary affair.

So put on your scientist coat aka apron and get experimenting and enjoy Spicing it UPP !!

Recap Of Tips For Cooking With Spices

If you have been toying with the idea of adding spices to your food and are not sure where to start, then all I can suggest is get yourself 3 basic spices such as

  1. cinnamon stick
  2. coriander powder and
  3. cumin powder

These three spices are very versatile and have a subtle flavour.

They can be easily added to many dishes and not just Indian meals.

Few tips on to begin adding these spices to your meals are:

  • Throw in a cinnamon stick while you boil the soup broth.
  • Add a tsp or two of cumin powder to your stews and soups
  • Add coriander powder to dressings and rubs
  • Marinade your meat with a mix of cumin and coriander powder.
  • Add a stick of cinnamon when you cook rice
  • Make a little blend of cinnamon powder, cumin powder and coriander powder and add a tsp to make a basic curry sauce with onion, ginger, garlic and tomatoes.

Following these tips will help you become comfortable with spices and slowly you can build your spice cabinet.

My suggestion is to start with the dishes you have already made before and alter the recipes by adding a tsp or two of your chosen spice and taste the difference.

If you like the change when experiment with few more until you become a spice pro!! 🙂

Over to you

What has been your experience so far with adding spices to your food?

Do you have any favourite spices that you feel most comfortable using?

Let me know your thoughts.

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Courtney from Antipodean Adventurer

I’ve always been so scared to use spices incase it ruins the food so I’m excited to use some of your tips! I loveee Indian food so would love to make my own 🙂 thanks for sharing!

6 years ago

I agree I think Indian cuisine has the most complex type of ingredients especially when it comes to spices. The taste and flavors are very rich and learning to blend each is difficult but with expertise and skills its possible.

Vogue violet
6 years ago

Love it!we Indians anyway love spices in our food 🙂

7 years ago

Thanks, great article.

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