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Guide to Spices: From Allspice to Za’atar

Last Update: February 8, 2023

One of the big things that separates a totally-fine dinner from a totally-delicious meal is expert seasoning—and for that, you need spices. But aside from a sprinkle of salt and pinch of pepper, how do you properly use them? 

When you open your spice cabinet, a few big questions may come to mind: 

How do you combine different spices in a way that tastes good? 

Are herbs and spices the same thing? 

How do you know how much of a spice to add to your recipe? 

And what, exactly, is saffron? 

We’ve created an all-encompassing guide to spices to help answer your *spiciest* questions.

Herbs vs. Spices 

Herbs and spices are often used interchangeably (or at least in tandem), and while the two are similar in that they both add depth of flavor to your foods, they aren’t the same thing. 

The major difference between herbs and spices is that they’re made up of different parts of a plant, and are usually processed differently. Herbs are almost always made from the leaves of a plant; think of basil, with its large, flat leaves, or dill, with its long, thin leaves. Herbs can be used either fresh or dried.

Spices, on the other hand, are typically made of the plant’s seeds, flowers, bark, and roots, which are then dried and ground to create the powdered or granular texture you’re familiar with in your spice jars. 

Most Common Spices 

Allspice 

What it is: A spice made of the unripe, dried berry of the Pimenta dioica tree 

What it tastes like: Aromatic, sweet, peppery

Complimentary herbs and spices: Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg

When to use it: 

  • In Mexican pole 
  • In Jerk chicken 
  • In corned beef and beef stews

Cardamom 

What it is: A spice in the ginger family that is made of small green pods or black seeds 

What it tastes like: Herbal, tea-like, with hints of eucalyptus, mint, and fennel 

Complimentary herbs and spices: Cinnamon, cloves, ginger

When to use it: 

  • In chai tea 
  • In cakes, cookies, pies, or other baked goods 
  • To season rice (like in a garam masala spice blend) 
  • To season meats, like lamb or chicken 

Cayenne 

What it is: A dark red spice made from dried, powdered cayenne peppers 

What it tastes like: Very spicy, smoky, slightly sweet 

Complimentary herbs and spices: Chili flakes, cumin, nutmeg

When to use it: 

  • In meat marinades 
  • In barbecue sauces and rubs
  • In salsas 

Crushed red pepper flakes

What it is: A blend of dried peppers, particularly cayenne, jalapeno, bell, and other peppers in the capsicum annuum family

What it tastes like: Spicy, dry 

Complimentary herbs and spices: Chili powder, cayenne, garlic powder

When to use it: 

  • On pizza (duh!)
  • To top pastas 
  • In stir-fries 
  • To season vegetables 

Cinnamon 

What it is: A spice derived from the bark of the Ceylon cinnamon tree, an evergreen laurel tree 

What it tastes like: Spicy, warm, and slightly sweet

Complimentary herbs and spices: Cloves, curry, cardamom, ginger

When to use it: 

  • In baked goods like cakes, cookies, and pies 
  • In chili 
  • In warm beverages like teas, ciders, and coffee
  • In essential oils 

Cloves

What they are: Herbs made from the dried flower buds of the Syzygium aromaticum evergreen tree 

What it tastes like: Herbal, pungent, spicy 

Complimentary herbs and spices: Cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper

When to use it: 

  • In teas or ciders 
  • In cakes, cookies, and puddings 
  • To season dried fruits
  • In cocktails 

Coriander

What it is: A spice made from the dried seeds of the Coriandrum sativum plant; the leaves of this plant are what we know as cilantro 

What it tastes like: Citrus, nutty, warm 

Complimentary herbs and spices: Cumin, ginger, chili powder 

When to use it: 

  • In curries 
  • On breads, like naan 
  • To season grilled meats 

Cumin 

What it is: A spice made from the seed-like fruits of the Cuminum cyminum plant that is commonly used in Asian and Latin American cuisines 

What it tastes like: Earthy, heavy, peppery, slightly bitter 

Complimentary herbs and spices: Coriander, turmeric, cinnamon 

When to use it: 

  • In curries (or Indian spice blends like garam masala)
  • In soups and stews 
  • To season meats 
  • In taco seasoning 

Fennel seed

What it is: A spice made from the seeds of the Foeniculum vulgare plant, a plant in the carrot family

What it tastes like: Similar to anise, licorice 

Complimentary herbs and spices: Onion powder, garlic, coriander 

When to use it: 

  • In salad dressing 
  • In soups and stews 
  • To flavor sausages 

Garlic powder

What it is: A powdered spice made from dehydrated garlic cloves

What it tastes like: Garlic (naturally!), but much sweeter and milder than fresh garlic 

Complimentary herbs and spices: Ginger, black pepper, cayenne 

When to use it: 

  • To marinate meats or seafood
  • To season vegetables  
  • In pastas  
  • In bread dough 

Ginger

What it is: Dried, powdered ginger root  

What it tastes like: Sharp, zesty, bright 

Complimentary herbs and spices: Nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin 

When to use it: 

  • In marinades or dressings 
  • In teas
  • In stir fries or curries 
  • In cakes, cookies, or other baked goods 

Nutmeg

What it is: A spice made of the seed of the Myristica fragrans tree

What it tastes like: Warm, nutty, mildly spicy 

Complimentary herbs and spices: Cinnamon, ginger, clove 

When to use it: 

  • In cakes, pies, and other baked goods 
  • In pasta sauces 
  • In a rub for grilled meats 

Paprika 

What it is: A spice made from the pods of the Capsicum annuum shrub; in their full form, the pods are called chili peppers 

What it tastes like: Smoky, bright, earthy 

Complimentary herbs and spices: Red pepper flakes, ginger, cayenne 

When to use it: 

  • To season meats 
  • In stews, like Hungarian goulash 
  • When cooking seafood, such as a Cajun crawfish boil or Spanish paella 

Pepper

What it is: A spice made from the fruits of the climbing vine Piper nigrum

What it tastes like: Spicy, mineral, pungent

Complimentary herbs and spices: Salt

When to use it: At the start (and the end) of every dish 

Saffron

What it is: A spice made from the three golden stigmas (the slender parts that bear pollen) of the Crocus sativus flower; the most expensive spice in the world 

What it tastes like: Intense, floral, earthy 

Complimentary herbs and spices: Cinnamon, coriander, cloves

When to use it: 

  • In French bouillabaisse soup 
  • In risotto and rice dishes 
  • In baking and desserts, like puddings and ice creams

Salt

What it is: A mineral composed of sodium chloride in crystal form

What it tastes like: Salty, of course, though different variations have slightly different flavors (iodized table salt tastes a bit more metallic than, say, flaky Kosher salt)

Complimentary herbs and spices: Just about any other herb or spice 

When to use it: In any dish, anywhere, any time! 

Turmeric

What it is: A spice made from the dried root of the Curcuma longa plant, a member of the ginger family

What it tastes like: Earthy, bitter, musky

Complimentary herbs and spices: Ginger, curry powder, cinnamon

When to use it: 

Vanilla 

What it is: Dried, cured beans from the Vanilla plant, a vine that is a member of the orchid family; most commonly extracted into liquid form   

What it tastes like: Warm, sweet, rum-like

Complimentary herbs and spices: Star anise, nutmeg, cinnamon 

When to use it: 

  • In cookies, cakes, or other baked goods
  • In chocolate or candy 
  • In coffee drinks or liqueurs 
  • In ice creams or sorbets 

Popular Herb and Spice Blends 

Mixing and matching herbs and spices requires some trial and error, so leaning on classic spice blends while cooking or baking is a good way to create layered flavors that really work. If you don’t have these popular blends on hand, you can make them yourself by combining the following herbs and spices. 

Pumpkin pie spice

Cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom

Like the name suggests, you can (and should!) use this blend in pumpkin pie—but it also spices up pumpkin muffins, sweet breads, seasonal cookies, and warm beverages. 

Herbes de Provence

Dried marjoram, savory, thyme, tarragon, basil, chervil, rosemary, fennel, and lavender

This aromatic herb blend is quintessential to French cuisine. Use it to season meats and fish, in soups and stews, or even sprinkle some on the coals of your grill for an infused, smoky flavor.  

Garam masala

Cumin, coriander, cardamom, black pepper, clove, mace, and cinnamon

A cornerstone flavor profile in Indian cuisine, garam masala should be added near the end of cooking when preparing curries, meat, fish, or vegetables. 

Za’atar

Marjoram, oregano, thyme, sesame, and sumac

This bright and complex Middle Eastern spice blend brings out the flavor in things like vegetables, chicken, lamb, and fish, but it can also be mixed with olive oil to spread on pita bread.

Cajun seasoning

Paprika, mustard powder, garlic, black pepper, onion, dried oregano, cumin, caraway, crushed red pepper, cayenne, thyme, celery seed, and bay leaves

Use this bright red Cajun spice blend as a rub for grilled chicken or seafood, or mix it with something creamy to create a dipping sauce. 

Everything bagel blend

Sesame seed, dehydrated onion, sea salt, poppy seed, garlic, ground black pepper

Your first thought might be to use this crunchy blend on homemade bagels, but you can also use it to top avocado toast, scrambled eggs, or roasted veggies. 

This article is related to:

Cooking Ingredients, Cooking Tips

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Amy Roberts

Amy Roberts is Thrive Market's Senior Editorial Writer. She is based in Los Angeles via Pittsburgh, PA.

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