Skip to main content


A guide to common and less know spices used in cooking.

This is a brief guide to the uses of the most common, and some of the exotic, spices and natural flavorings. The interest spices is growing. As their use in cooking is becoming more popular every day, due to the increasing internationalization of cooking methods and techniques, this guide will be very useful.

How spices get to the market

Spices are usually the dried, aromatic parts of plants; either seeds, berries, roots, pods, buds, bark, and, sometimes, leaves and flesh.

No long ago, most spices had to be bought at ethnic stores, since most of them came from tropical countries and required processing before they could be used. Today, most grocery stores carry a wide selection of spices. Always buy dry spices in small quantities; preferably from a store with a big turnover. Label with the date of purchase and keep for no longer than six to eight months.

How to use and store

As a general rule, the final dish always benefits if berries and seeds are freshly ground before being added to the pot. This will produce superior results. It is easily done with a mortar and pestle, a coffee or spice grinder reserved only for this use. Spice grinders are useful for peppercorns or coriander seeds. A liquidizer can be used if adding some liquid beforehand, like cooking stock. All this tools can be used for the purees and pastes so popular in India and South East Asia.

Spices lose flavor and aroma with age. Discard them if they have been sitting in the pantry for longer than six to eight months. Keep them in tightly closed containers, away from light.

Which are the essential spices and condiments to keep at hand? That very much depends on personal tastes, although there are a few everyone uses and some that will bring new flavors and make food less boring. Salt and pepper are two essential condiments, and sugar is as much. You cover all range of sweet and savory just with these. Now for more exciting flavors, bay leaf adds a wonderful flavor to everything from soups, braises or stews, from beans, meat and adds some vitamins A and C. Paprika is not used much, but it is an interesting spice not only to add color to soups, but for the flavor. Cumin and coriander quickly bring delicious aromas when added and, cinnamon and pumpkin spice are a must if you like baking.

Spices are buds, bark, roots, berries and seeds.

Culinary spices

Spices change the way food taste. As cooking techniques do not vary much from country to country, what gives a cuisisne its particular flavor, making it unique, is usually the condiments, herbs, and spices used; the way to combine them.

Pepper dominated the European spice trade in the Middle Ages. Pepper was once traded by its weight in gold. It was also used as currency for bartering, or to pay taxes, rents, and dowries.

The purpose of Columbus's first voyage to the Americas was finding a shorter route from Europe to the Far East to obtain spices.

The main producers of pepper are India, Indonesia, Brazil, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

Adding a few spices can transform an ordinary recipe. It is easy to become an international cook by using cultural flavor profiles.

Trying new uses and combinations spices is another form of creativity.

How to grow

Although few spices can be grown in a herb garden, there are some comments about how they are cultivated. Some of the plants included as flavorings, onions or garlic, for instance, can be grown in a kitchen garden.

Cooking with spices

Flavoring foods with spices is no mystery. We have tried to include at least one sample recipe for each spice, condiment, or flavoring included in this dossier, and some ideas about how to use each particular one.


Extra tips, tricks, and techniques that can be used at will. Including not so traditional ways to use a particular spice, tips to create your new, unique recipes, or to adapt the recipes we provide. Cooking is more art than science and everything is a matter of personal taste. Remember; cooking techniques are very similar all over the world. It is only the use of the spices characteristic to each region which gives each cuisine its unique standing.