Spices are aromatic flavorings that come from bark, fruits, seeds, rhizomes, and a host of other plant parts that you use to preserve and season food. Spices also have a place in medicines, perfumes, and dyes, and they’ve been a very high-priced trade good for centuries. Spice derives from the Latin species, and this means wares or merchandise. You can buy them in dry form, but they won’t last forever. The strong flavors will eventually dissipate, especially if you expose them to air and light.
Cooking with Ground and Whole Spices
Most professional chefs will recommend purchasing whole spices and grinding them down when you want to use them because whole spices retain their compounds much better than ground. However, most people use spices as a convenience. The goal is to have a mix of ground and whole spices in your kitchen that you’ll use relatively quickly to prevent them from sitting in your cupboard or cabinet for months and losing flavor.
Try to use whole spices to get the maximum flavor for your dishes if you’re able to grind your own. Or, you can add them directly to stews, braises, teas, creams, and other culinary infusions. Toasting some spices in a pan until they pop can help mellow out the flavor profile. No matter if you want to use ground or whole spices, the following list will help you make a stunning lineup for all of your dishes.
The first type of spice on the list is allspice. This is a brown berry from the Pimenta dioica tree, and you dry it. There is a clove that is related native to Central America and the West Indies that gives it a very distinctive flavor, especially when you add it to Jamaican jerk seasoning or Swedish meatballs. The name allspice came from the 17th century when Europeans who tried it decided that this type of spice tasted like nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. It shares the main aromatic compound with cloves called eugenol.
Cloves come from the Syzygium aromaticum tree as dried, immature flower buds. This tree is native to Indonesia, and it’s popular for use in Chinese cuisine dating back thousands of years. It has also been popular throughout Europe since the Middle Ages. You get between 11 and 14% essential oil content with this type of spice, and this means that cloves have the highest percentage of aroma compounds out of any available spice. The flavor comes from the compound eugenol, and this has also made this spice popular in medicine. The medicinal flavor with the dried buds are nice in dishes like apple crumble, roasted ham, garlic, Chinese five spice, and mulled wine. You should use them sparingly as they are very strong.
3. Grains of Paradise
Grains of paradise are very glossy brown seeds that come from the Aframomum melegueta. This is a very reedy plant that is part of the ginger family, and you can find it growing in the Gulf of Guinea to western Africa. It has a slightly spicy, floral, woody taste and scent to it, and it’s popular to use this type of spice instead of black pepper when you pickle items.
4. Star Anise
This is a star-shaped dried fruit that has a reddish-brown coloring to it, and it comes from the Illicium verum tree. This type of spice is native to Vietnam and China, and you can even find marigolds that mimic the strong flavor. It doesn’t have any relations to anise, but both spices share the antheole compound. This is the spice that adds the sweet flavoring to Chinese five spice powder, and you will find it included if you eat Vietnamese phở. It’s also very popular in meat-heavy dishes.
Did you know that chilies are fruits? The seeds of this fruit get protected by a burning chemical called capsaicin. This is one of the most popular types of spices in the world, and there is a consumption rate that is 20 times higher than black pepper, the second most popular spice. There are 25 Capsicum species, and only five are domesticated. Almost any chili you eat comes from Capsicum annuum, and this has been used for over 5,000 years in Mexico. You can eat them fresh, but they’re also good dried because this concentrates their flavor profiles.
- Aleppo pepper gives a spicy note to Middle Eastern food
- Crushed into chili flakes, whole chilies turn into Korean gochugaru, and this is an essential ingredient in Kimchi
- Dried whole chilies are popular in Mexican stews and soups
- Spain and Hungary ground their chilies into a fine pepper that can be smoked, hot, or sweet.
The Zingiber officinale is a tropical flowering plant that produces ginger on the underground stem or rhizome. It’s in the same family as turmeric or cardamom. You’ll get a very sharp bite when you try fresh ginger, and this comes from the aromatic compound called gingerol. This compound will partially transform into a sweeter flavor when you dry or heat it, and this is why ground ginger is popular in gingerbread, pumpkin pie, and gingersnaps. Ground ginger is much less pungent than fresh.
Cinnamon is another popular type of spice that comes from the inner back or the Cinnamomum tree. This is a tropical species, and cinnamon gets sold as rolled sticks or ground into a very fine powder. Cinnamon has several aromatic compounds, and the most recognizable one is cinnamaldehyde. This lends the slightly spicy bite to it. You can find several different types of cinnamon, including:
- Cinnamomum Cassia – This is the most popular variety of cinnamon in the United States and East Asia. You get thick, dark, coarse quills that come in a double spiral shape. It has higher levels of cinnamaldehyde, and this gives it a burning, bittersweet-spicy flavor profile. This is the type of spice that you find mixed into Chinese five spice powder.
- Cinnamomum Zeylanicum or Verum – Better known as “true” cinnamon, you’ll see smooth, brittle quills in a single spiral that’s a dark brownish red on the inside and tan on the outside. It has a more delicate flavor profile to it, and you’ll get more floral clove notes with less cinnamaldehyde. It works very well in carnitas and arroz con leche.
Cinnamon also mixes extremely well with sugar. You’ll find it in a range of savory, meaty dishes like Moroccan tagines.
This type of spice comes from the underground stem or rhizome of the Curcuma longa. This is a ginger relative that was first domesticated in India in prehistoric times. It has a bright yellowish-orange coloring to it, and this color made it a very important dye. You’ll get a very earthy, sharp flavor that is similar to mustard and pepper with turmeric, and this makes it a nice addition to Indian dal and Moroccan tagines.
9. Juniper Berries
The juniper berry is a very small round seed cone that comes from the juniper tree. You’ll find that people use these immature berries to flavor gin. The darker and more mature ones get crushed and used in pickling to make marinades for cuts of meat. This works very well to reduce gamy flavors in wild boar and venison. This is a very bittersweet type of spice that has notes of wood, pine, and pepper. You’ll purchase them whole since their compounds for the flavor are extremely volatile.
When the Indonesian evergreen tree the Myristica fragrans has plum-like fruits that ripen, they’ll slowly split open to reveal a shell-covered seed with a very deep red fleshy outer lattice on it called an aril. You remove this aril and dry it to produce mace, and the seed inside turns into nutmeg. This type of spice has the very same aromatic compounds as mace, including pine, fresh, sweet, woody, floral, citrusy, and sassafras hints. Nutmeg is a popular ingredient when you make bechamel sauce, and you put both mace and nutmeg in spicy sweet and eggnog. It’s also a very popular holiday scent for candles.
This is a yellow-brown and flat seed from a Mediterranean plant that is a part of the pea family. You get burnt-sugar/bittersweet and celery flavors when you use it. This makes it a good type of spice to feature in the moroccan spice blend called ras el hanout or in chutneys. You can toast the seeds to help them lose the bitter edge.
Unlike most types of spices, you have no real reason to buy black pepper that is pre-ground. You can get pepper mills attached right to the jars of whole peppercorns that allow you to grind them as you need them. You could even toast them in the oven before you grind them to bring out more of the flavors.
- Black, White and Green Pepperorns – All of these pepper types come from the fruit from the black pepper vine called Piper nigrum. The black pepper has the strongest flavor profile while green, immature peppercorns are milder. You can get them brined or dried, and they’re popular in Asian food. White peppercorns are actually black peppercorns with the outer husk removed, and they’re popular for aesthetic purposes. Using whole peppercorns is a good idea if you’re going to braise meat.
- Japanese Sansho – This peppercorn comes from the Zanthoxylum genus. You don’t toast it before you use it, so it has a more citrusy flavor.
- Pink Peppercorns – These peppercorns come from the Brazilian pepper tree. Originally in the 1980s, companies marketed this type of spice as a pepper. They have a very sweet, citrusy, and fresh pine flavor that makes them very popular in desserts.
- Szechuan Peppercorns – These peppercorns come from a different plant, and you get them from a prickly ash that falls into the Zanthoxylum genus. You’ll get a numbing sensation with a more lemon flavor, and you typically roast them before you use them to bring out the woody flavors.
13. Mustard Seed
You can get one of three types of mustard seed to use in your kitchen. This includes black mustard that is the most pungent variety, Mediterranea yellow or white mustard that was the only and first pungent spice available, or Himalayan brown mustard that is currently the dominant mustard in Europe due to how easy it is to harvest and how pungent it is. The burning sensation you get with all three of this type of spice comes from reactive sulfur compounds in the spice. You’ll find these same compounds in wasabi, horseradish, and onions. It releases this compound when you damage the plant cell walls. They are so tiny that they can get into your nasal passages from your food, and this is why very hot spices can make your nose burn. If you don’t enjoy this effect, you can cook the mustard seeds prior to use.
Cardamom is a type of berry, and you dry this Elettaria cardamomum fruit. It’s a member of the ginger family, and it originated in southwest India. You get a sweet, warm, fruity, and floral flavor profile to it, and it’s essential is Arabic coffee and Nordic baked goods. There are two main varieties of this type of spice, and mysore is green and bigger with eucalyptus and woody notes while malabar is smaller with floral notes.
- Black or large cardamom comes from a completely different plant called Amomum subulatum. This plant grows in the eastern portion of the Himalayas. It has a very long reddish-colored pod with strong flavors that you can make even more pungent by smoking. You’ll find it in a range of savory dishes, including pho.
Saffron is the autumn crocus flower’s golden stigma. The Greeks most likely domesticated this type of spice during the Bronze Age. It’s one of the most expensive spices in the world, and you have to harvest the fragile stigmas by hand. This means that there are roughly 200 hours of labor for every pound of dried saffron you get. You’ll get a very penetrating, bitter, hay-like scent with a brilliant golden coloring.
16. Celery Seed
Celery seeds are extremely small, and they come from the exact same plant that you get celery from. So, it makes sense that you get a very strong celery flavor with this type of spice. It’s a very popular flavoring in Mediterranean food, and the ancient Chinese used it as a medicine. You can add this spice to soups, sausages, pickles, or blend it with a salt to have a celery finishing salt on hand.
This is a very dark red type of spice that comes as fruit from shrubs in the Rhus genus. This means that sumac is related to mango and cashew plants. It’s very popular in North African and Middle Eastern cooking, and you can easily sprinkle a small amount on top of hummus or use it to flavor your meat dishes. You get a very citrusy, tangy flavor with pine and woody notes.
This type of spice has seeds that appear after the cilantro herb flowers and produces small fruits. You can harvest them when they’re green, or you can easily leave them to dry out and brown right on the plant. If you have pounded fresh coriander, you’ll get a very bright flavor profile that works well for salad dressing. The tan, dried pods have a very floral and citrusy taste to them, and it’s popular to pair it with cumin. It works well in a poaching liquor for fish or on homemade burgers.
Coriander by chiss / CC BY-NC 2.0
Anise seeds are the small fruit that comes from the Pimpinella anisum. This is a flowering plant that is in the parsley family. This type of spice has a very high level of anethole, and this is up to 13 times sweeter than traditional table sugar. You’ll see it used to flavor a range of drinks and in Greek meat dishes. In India, it’s common to find candy-coated anise, and it’s also used to flavor milk.
Anise by annosvixit / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
20. Dried Herbs
You typically think of types of spices as seed parts, fruit, or bark, while you consider herbs to be fresh leaves from your plants. However, there are a few dried leaves that should end up in your spice cupboard, including curry leaves, rosemary, oregano, and kaffir lime leaves. However, be mindful that most dried herbs will have a different taste than their fresh counterparts, and you can’t substitute them in a one-to-one ratio. Bay leaf is one of the most common types of dried herb available, and it’s used to flavor stews, soups, mainades, and braises. Sassafras leaves also get dried before getting ground down into a powder that goes into Creole dishes like gumbo.
Caraway is the dried fruit from the Carum carvi plant. This is a member of the parsley family, and it was one of the first types of spice that Europeans cultivated. It’s still popular throughout Europe to flavor pork, sauerkraut, and potato-based dishes. You get a very warm flavor with rye notes and a hint of citrus when you use it.
Caraway by Steven Jackson / CC BY 2.0
When the Myristica fragrans, an evergreen tree that originated in Indonesia, produces plum-like fruits that ripen, you’ll get fruits that split open to show a shell-covered seed with an aril. You remove this red, fleshy outer lattice and dry it to produce this type of spice. Mace has a more refined and sweeter taste to it, and you’ll get sweet, woody, fresh, and pine notes when you use it that make it nice in ground meats and baked goods.
Mace by -Reji / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The fennel plant will produce small fruits that then get dried to produce fennel seeds. You can eat the fronds as a herb and the bulb as a vegetable. You get a very strong anise flavor with this type of spice, and it has pine, floral, bitter, and fresh notes. Fennel is native to the Mediterranean and southwest Asia, and it grows like a weed in certain parts of the United States. It does very well when you put it with pork, and it’s a critical spice in Italian sausage.
Fennel by Mark / CC BY 2.0
What you know as vanilla bean is a pod-shaped fruit that you find growing on a climbing type of orchid in the Vanilla genus. There are around 100 species in this genus. The pods are between 6 and 12 inches long, and they have thousands of tiny seeds in each pod that stick to the walls. The vanilla flavoring in this type of spice comes from vanillin, and you can find this on the pod wall and on the sticky resin around the seeds themselves. There is no scent in freshly harvested vanilla beans. You have to damage them to make them release their aromas, and this process can take a few weeks to a few months.
Once you cure the vanilla pod, the beans can get processed and turned into vanilla extract. You make this extract by running alcohol through vanilla beans that you chop up before aging the mixture. You want to add vanilla extract toward the end of the cooking processes because a lot of heat exposure will make the taste vanish. You’ll find that vanilla beans are popular for use in frostings and creme brulee.
Vanilla Extract by Brian Boucheron / CC BY 2.0
Cumin comes from the ridged, dried, small fruits of a plant that is native to Southwest Asia. Cumin seeds look a lot like caraway seeds, and they also have a very similar taste to them. The main flavor compound in this type of spice is cumaldehyde, and you find this in eucalyptus too. You can toast it to make a finishing salt, and you can then apply it as a rub to steak to make delicious carne asada tacos.
Cumin by Gusjer / CC BY 2.0
Black cumin or nigella is a smaller black seed that is native to southwest Asia, the Mediterranean, and Africa. You get a very complex but mild flavor with this type of spice with a fennel-like scent. It reminds people of nutmeg, oregano, and caraway. You can knead it into Armenian string cheese or sprinkle it on naan.
Nigella sativa seeds – זרעי קצח הגינה by Eran Finkle / CC BY 2.0
Finally, dill seed comes from an oval fruit that is on the same plant that produces fresh dill. It’s native to southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean, and it’s popular for use in flavoring borscht, gravlax, and pickles. The main flavor compound is one that you can also find in spearmint and caraway.
Common Spice Blends
If you have a spice mix that you really like, adding it to a dish is an easy way to introduce a recognizable flavor. The specific types of spices used in each blend will vary from region to region or family to family, but a few of the most popular options are:
- Egyptian Dukkah – Coriander, sesame seeds, hazelnuts, and cumin
- Ethiopian Berbere – Garlic, ginger, chile, koreima, salt, ajwain, shallots, coriander, nigella, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek, besobela, cinnamon, rosemary, and thyme
- Moroccan Ras El Hanout – Cinnamon, fenugreek, coriander, cloves, mace, cardamom, and chili powder
- Moroccan Chermoula – Dried cilantro, garlic, onion, black pepper, chili pepper, and cumin
- Cajun Blackened Seasoning – Mustard powder, paprika, black pepper, garlic, dried oregano, onion, caraway, cumin, cayenne, crushed red pepper, celery seed, cayenne, bay leaves, and thyme
- Jamaican Jerk – Nutmeg, allspice, cayenne pepper, black pepper, thyme, sugar, paprika, garlic, ginger, and salt
- Mexican Recado Rojo – Dried oregano, annatto, clove, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, black pepper, and garlic
- Pumpkin Pie Spice – Ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger
East Asian Spices
- Chinese Five Spice – Cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel, and black or Szechaun pepper
- Japanese Curry Powder – Bay leaves, black pepper, cardamom, cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, dried oregano, dried sage, fenugreek, ginger, mace, nigella, Szechuan pepper, and turmeric
- Japanese Shichimi Togarashi – Dried mandarin peel, mustard, poppy seed, sansho, and sesame seed
- Fines Herbes – Chives, dried chervil, parsley, and tarragon
- Herbes de Provence – Basil, chervil, dried marjoram, fennel, lavender, rosemary, savory, tarragon, and thyme
- Quatre épices – Clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper
How to Store Your Spices
Ideally, you’ll store your spices in opaque glass jars in a cool, dark kitchen cabinet. Any spices that you don’t use a lot you can store in the freezer in airtight containers. To prevent condensation, bring any frozen spice to room temperature before you use them. Label all of your spices with their purchase dates, and smell them every few months to ensure that they’re still strong. Ground spices will oxidize more quickly than whole types of spices due to the bigger surface area that is exposed to oxidation. They’ll also lose their flavor in a few months, but whole spices can last a year.
These 27 types of spices and spice blends should give you everything you need to set up a solid spice rack in your kitchen to enhance the flavor of your dishes or baked goods. Try to buy whole spices instead of ground if you can help it, and only buy what you’ll use in a few months to get the most flavor possible out of each dish.