Spices are essential for making great vegetarian recipes. Combined with fresh produce, the two are harmonic and elevate each dish. However, let’s talk about two things that ensure spice success. refresh often and make sure you are sourcing well.
1. Refresh often: Because spices are best when first ground, buy in small quantities in the smallest container or bulk bins (even per recipe, if it’s a very uncommon one) so you’ll use them up while they’re brightest. I know for myself, my lesser used spices used to sit in the cupboards for years, and when I’d need them, they’d be stale. Ground spices should be cycled through every six months while whole spices can last up to a year in an airtight container. To test them, use your nose. If the spice doesn’t have a strong aroma, pitch it.
2. Trust your source: I recommend finding spice companies that tell you the stories behind the growing and origin, like Frontier Co-op. While a few of the spices below you can grow at home, most are sourced overseas from farms that do not have the best worker practices so it’s very important to find a reputable brand.
There are few spices that match the beautiful floral flavor of cardamom. While green is the most common and balanced (likely what you’ll see in your store), black and white are also grown. Of note, black cardamom has a slightly smokey flavor that is wonderful in savory dishes and spice blends such as garam masala.
Cardamom is best purchased whole, which will keep for up to a year and grind fairly easy. But you can also find the seeds (which have been taken out of the pod) and ground cardamom (this fine powder works excellent in baking). I tend to add cardamom to sweet dishes such as cakes, puddings, and granola, but will occasionally add it to curry as well.
If I want to add a bit of heat to a recipe, I reach for cayenne pepper. It is a type of chili pepper in the Capsicum genus, which also contains bell peppers. Used in very small amounts, it adds balanced warmth and has a fairly pronounced flavor.
Cayenne falls lower on the Scoville scale of heat, which means it’s not extremely hot. You can find them dried at your local international market or you can even grow your own. Cayenne peppers can be used whole, or as you’ll most commonly use, ground or crushed in the form of red pepper flakes. I like to add cayenne pepper to soup, stew, and chili, along with the occasional sauce.
I am a bit of a chipotle chili lover. They are actually large jalapeño peppers that are dried, then smoked to produce their distinctive flavor. Chipotles have a smoky heat that provides just the right amount of spice and flavor to vegetables and beans.
These peppers can be purchased whole after drying/smoking, in powder form, or rehydrated in a can with a spicy sauce (chipotles in adobo). If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also dry and smoke your own peppers. Chipotle pairs well with chocolate and sweets but I use it most often in stews, sauces, and on roasted vegetables.
Chances are, cinnamon is always in your pantry. It’s a common spice called for in many desserts, baked fruit, curries, savory rice dishes, and one of my favorite: cinnamon rolls. However, it’s important to know what variety of cinnamon you are using, and the sourcing, as . most store-bought (or generic) cinnamon lacks the true, bold flavor.
Cinnamon is cultivated from evergreen trees grown in Sri Lanka, Madagascar, China, Indonesia, India, and Vietnam. Ceylon cinnamon comes from tree bark of a small tree native to Sri Lanka, while Cassia, Saigon, and Korintje (three of the hundreds of varieties of cinnamon) come from different trees grown in regions throughout the world. Cassia is most commonly sold in stores, but has a slightly bitter flavor profile compared to the Ceylon variety, which you should purchase in small amounts and use within a few months for best flavor. You can also purchase quills (also referred to as sticks, dried long bark), which will last 2 to 3 years in an airtight container.
For a large part of my life, I only used cloves in sweet applications. They are dried flower buds of a native Indonesian myrtle tree, however, cloves are also harvested throughout the tropics; specifically in India, Madagascar, and Sri Lanka.
The warm and peppery flavor of cloves is a perfect compliment to cinnamon and ginger, especially in treats like gingerbread. However, cloves are now an essential part of my savory cooking, just be sure to start with a small amount and increase as desired. You’ll also find them in five spice and garam masala mixes, and are the perfect addition to spice-heavy recipes. Cloves are best stored whole, but ground cloves are readily available and easy to use. If buying ground, look for those that are dark in color- a good indicator that the powder contains the oils that give cloves their flavor.
I love cilantro, so it’s no surprise I use quite a bit of coriander in my recipes, the dried seed of cilantro produced after the plant flowers. The seeds, when used whole or freshly crushed, have almost a citrusy/floral flavor that works well in sweet and savory dishes.
Coriander can be used whole or ground in spice blends, pickling blends, or as a main component of condiments (like harissa). I typically pair coriander with cumin and limes, but it can also be wonderful in homemade curry blends. The flavor of coriander can change if using ground versus whole. I typically buy the whole seeds, then toast and grind before using.
Of all the spices on this page, I use cumin the most. It’s used throughout many different cuisines, but I mainly use it in Mexican and Indian dishes. Cumin seeds come from a plant that flowers, then produces seeds. The seeds are small and oval with ridges, similar to caraway. This warm spice is strong and distinct, that really shines in vegetarian cooking.
Like coriander, I like to purchase cumin seeds, then toast and grind myself. The flavors of freshly toasted/ground cumin are no match for the ground, store-bought version. You can use it in a pinch, just make sure it has a strong aroma, signaling that it’s fresh. The seeds will keep for up to a year, while the powder is good for about 6 months.
If perusing the ingredient area on the site, you’ll see fennel, which is one of my favorite plants, primarily because it has so many uses. The bulb and stalks can be used in cooking, while the fronds and flowers make for an excellent garnish. If left alone, the flowers will turn to seeds and thus, fennel seeds. The seeds have a stronger, sweeter flavor than the fresh parts of the plant, but still have that distinct licorice flavor. Fennel seeds are often compared to anise seeds, and while they both have a licorice-based flavor, they are not the same.
I primarily use fennel seeds in my pickling spice mixture and homemade five-spice powder, but you can also use fennel in sweet dishes. You can buy whole or ground fennel seeds, but I prefer whole seeds that I can grind as needed. and grind myself. Fennel seeds are used in many different cuisines and recipes including pastas, breads, and soups.
I keep fenugreek on hand for one particular use: homemade curry powder. The sweet, grassy flavor is what makes or breaks my homemade curry powder. The sweetness is the perfect complement to other spices within the blend. While not common in the United States, the leaves of the fenugreek plant can be used as an herb, while the sprouts can be used as greens. There is a lot of information about using fenugreek safely because it can be an allergen and cause side effects. However, in small amounts, the side effects aren’t a concern.
Fenugreek is a common spice used in Indian, Turkish, and Iranian cuisines – mostly stews, curries, and chutneys. You can buy fenugreek seeds or find them pre-ground. I prefer to buy the seeds and toast them along with the other seeds I use in my curry mix.
I’ve been around numerous people who thumb their nose up at dried garlic because fresh is so readily available. However, dried garlic has a substantial place in my kitchen. Garlic powder/granules have a slightly sweeter/more subtle flavor compared to the fresh garlic. You can find granules and powder in the spice aisle – the only difference is the texture. Fresh garlic and garlic granules are not always even substitutes, but it can be done.
I primarily use garlic powder in spice blends and as a way to add flavor to food without salt, perfect when you have a baby that isn’t supposed to eat much salt. As for the spice blends, the flavor works well with most savory spices, but a few of my favorite combinations include smoked paprika and garlic, cumin and garlic, or a mixed of paprika, cumin, and garlic. Also, I love making homemade popcorn with a bit of garlic powder tossed in.
I often keep fresh and powdered ginger in my kitchen, but for this particular section, I’ll only be referring to the dried version. Powdered ginger has warm, ginger flavor without the bite that comes with fresh ginger. Ginger powder is used in spice blends, most notably pumpkin pie spice, and also quite lovely when paired with cardamom.
Dried ginger can also be used in savory dishes such as curries and stews. If I don’t want the ginger flavor to be overpowering in curries, I will often use ginger powder instead of fresh ginger. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also make ginger powder from fresh ginger – all it takes is dehydrating and grinding. Ginger will last up to six months, but I highly recommend buying in small quantities. I’ve found ginger looses it’s flavor rather quick and can be quite dull after a few months.
My first introduction to mustards seeds came in the form of pickles. The small yellow balls are the key ingredient in my families pickle recipe and from there, I branched out to start making my own mustard. Mustard seeds come from the mustard plant which is actually part of the brassica family. Mustard seeds come in various colors including white, yellow, brown, and black. They also have different pungency levels, the white/yellow mustard seeds are a bit more mild, while brown and black are spicier.
The flavor of mustard seed can be enhanced if toasted prior to use. They’re also sold in ground form, but I almost exclusively buy the seeds for pickling and mustard making. Mustard seeds are also great additions to sauce, curries, and marinades. They’ll keep for a year in an airtight container.
Nutmeg is a key spice in much of my recipes. When used in correct amounts, it adds a subtle pine-esque, warm flavor to the dish. If overused, it’s all you can taste, which will ruin just about any recipe. Nutmeg comes from an evergreen tree that bears a fruit. The fruit has a husk that splits and reveals the fruit. The fruit has an outer red layer, which is used to make mace while the inner kernel is nutmeg. The brownish kernel is what you see sold whole in stores. Nutmeg and mace have similar flavor profiles, but nutmeg tends to be a bit more pungent, while mace has a delicate quality.
This strong spice is typically used in baked goods and paired with other warm spices like cinnamon and ginger. However, nutmeg can be a nice addition to savory dishes such as stews and sauces. In fact, it’s the secret ingredient often used to differentiate a savory dish. One of my favorite combinations is winter squash pasta, finished with nutmeg.
A quick warning: raw nutmeg is large doses has been known to have a psychoactive effect. In cooking, you’re not using enough to even come close to this but it is in which to be aware. Nutmeg comes ground and whole. I like to keep the whole kernels on hand and use a microplane zester to ‘grind’ the spice.
Paprika is a must in my pantry. It’s slightly sweet and warm flavor is the perfect companion for vegetables, grains, and legumes. Of note, paprika is a bit of a generic term. Ground paprika is made from red sweet peppers but can also be made with hotter chili peppers as well. The varieties of paprika are regional and can range from sweet to hot. Hungarian paprika is dried in the sun, while Spanish paprika (known as pimentón) is dried by smoking.
I like to keep sweet paprika and smoked paprika on hand, but more often use smoked, which adds a beautiful smokey flavor to a dish. Paprika also works well with cardamom, ginger, garlic, and turmeric. Just use caution – paprika can burn easily which will leave a bitter taste behind. Paprika is only sold ground, which means you should buy in small quantities and refresh every six months.
I find it is easy to forget about pepper as a spice. It’s a home kitchen and restaurant staple, right next to salt, but needs to be used more subtly. Peppercorns are the fermented and dried fruit of a flowering vine. The most common is black peppercorn, but you will also see white, red, and green. The different colors denote the stage the peppercorn was at when harvested. Black peppercorns are slightly before ripe, while white and red peppers are mature. White peppercorns are hulled version of the red peppercorns. Green peppercorns are harvested the same as black, but not allowed to dry and are sold in pickled form. You may see a pink peppercorn marketed, but it is not from the same plant.
I prefer white peppercorn in cooked dishes – the flavor is more on the mellow side, but does have a bit of heat to it. Black pepper, when cracked fresh brings brightness and depth as a finishing ingredient. I recommend buying whole berries and grinding fresh – the flavor is unmatched, as the flavor comes from the essential oil content. Whole pepper can be stored up to a year in an airtight container.
Depending on sourcing and the quality of ingredient, spices can be expensive. Saffron is on the high end of that list. Saffron come from the dried crocus flower, and is extremely labor intensive to harvest. The good news is that most recipes require just a pinch of saffron to get the musky floral flavors and beautiful red tone. Saffron’s bright color is also used to dye fabrics and linens.
I buy saffron for very a specific purpose: paella and risotto. Saffron is a key ingredient in classic paella and even though I make it vegetarian, the earthy undertone is a must. Saffron can also be used to make beautiful desserts such as a saffron panna cotta. I rarely keep saffron on hand and treat it as a specialty ingredient that I only purchase when needed. Store saffron in a dark container in the freezer- light and heat can ruin the flavor of this spice.
Part of the ginger family, turmeric is a root native to India. Some specialty and international markets sell fresh turmeric root, but for the purpose of this section, I’ll be referring to the ground powder. Turmeric is used in curries, stews, and soups for the flavor and color.
Ground turmeric is made through a drying process of fresh turmeric. While it’s not as pungent in flavor, some of the overall flavors of fresh turmeric can still be found in the powder. Turmeric is also a natural dye, so use caution when using either fresh or ground – it can stain easily. Turmeric has a slight bitter, woody flavor that may take some getting used to, so work your way up to what you like.
Turmeric will lose flavor over time, so use your nose. If the turmeric is fragrant, it’s still fresh. I like to pair turmeric with paprika, cumin, and coriander in savory dishes. Turmeric can also be used in sweet dishes, like one of my favorites: a turmeric latte.
It’s hard to lump vanilla into the spice category since the primary use is liquid vanilla extract. However, vanilla comes from a flowering orchid that bears a pod, which we call a bean. The pod is picked while it is still green/not ripe, placed in hot water, then laid out to dry for a few months. the result is the dark brown pod you buy at the store. The orchid is native to Central America but also grows in Madagascar, Tahini, and Indonesia. Different growing regions produce vanilla with different flavor profiles. Most of the vanilla sold in stores comes from Madagascar and Réunion.
Vanilla is labor intensive, which is why the beans are expensive. Look for beans that are pliable, or purchase pure vanilla extract. Whole beans, seeds, and extract are used in sweet foods, but have a place in savory dishes as well, especially with root vegetables and winter squash. Air is a natural foe to vanilla beans, so wrap vanilla beans in wax paper and store in an airtight container. Vanilla beans can last up to two years. If your vanilla beans have dried, soak in hot water and use as intended.