Novice or pro, you cannot even begin to cook unless your pantry is stocked with essential dried herbs and spices. While you may be well aware that cinnamon and cardamom can go into both savoury and sweet dishes, this is only the beginning of your cooking journey! Follow our list of herbs and spice mixes to check how far long you have come on your path to mastering cooking.
Asafoetida (or hing) – used as a digestive aid in Indian cooking. Asafoetida has a strong odour that mellows out into a garlic-onion flavour.
Basil – highly aromatic with a robust liquorice flavour. Excellent in pestos, as a finishing touch on pasta dishes, or stuffed into sandwiches. A spicy, edgier cousin to this is Thai basil, which is a must-have for Thai stir-fries, Vietnamese Pho, spring rolls, and other South Asian dishes.
Bay leaf – adds a woodsy background note to soups and sauces.
Caraway seed – these anise-tasting seeds are essential for soda bread.
Coriander seed – earthy, lemony flavour. Used in a lot of Mexican and Indian dishes.
Cumin – smoky and earthy, used in Mexican cuisine, as well as North African, Middle Eastern, and Indian ones.
Curry leaves – these pungent leaves are not related to curry powder, but impart a similar flavour. Mainly used in Indian, Malaysian, Sri Lankan, Singaporean, and Pakistani cuisine, the leaves are used to flavour curries, soups, stews, and chutneys.
Fennel seed – lightly sweet and liquorice flavoured. It’s excellent with meat dishes, or even chewed on its own as a breath freshener and digestion aid!
Fenugreek – although this herb smells like maple syrup while cooking, it has a rather bitter, burnt sugar flavour. Found in a lot of Indian and Middle Eastern dishes.
Kaffir lime leaves – used to flavour curries and many Thai dishes as well as South Indian dishes. Can be found fresh, dry, or frozen.
Mace and nutmeg – mace is the spice made from the reddish seed covering of the nutmeg seed, but tastes more subtle and delicate. Mace is great in savoury dishes, especially stews and homemade meat dishes. Nutmeg is sweet and pungent, and works well in baked goods, but also adds a warm note to savoury dishes.
Mahlab – ground from sour cherry pits, this spice has a nutty and somewhat sour flavour. It is used in a lot of sweet breads throughout the Middle East.
Oregano – robust, with somewhat lemony flavour. Used in a lot of Mexican and Mediterranean dishes and can be used as an added kick to local tomato, egg and potato dishes as seasoning.
Paprika – adds a sweet note and a red colour. Used in stews and spice blends. There is also a spicy version labelled hot paprika. The smoked version adds sweet smokiness to dishes.
Sage – pine-like flavour, with more lemony and eucalyptus notes than rosemary. Found in a lot of northern Italian cooking.
Star anise – whole star anise can be used to add a sweet liquorice flavour to sauces and soups.
Sumac – zingy and lemony, sumac is a Middle Eastern spice that’s great in marinades and spice rubs.
Turmeric – sometimes used more for its yellow colour than its flavour, turmeric has a mild woodsy flavour. Can be used in place of saffron in a pinch or for those of us on a budget.
Thyme – adds a pungent, woodsy flavour. Great as an all-purpose seasoning. A variant, lemon thyme adds a sweet lemon aroma, and a fresh lemony-herbal flavour. This is excellent with poultry and in vinaigrettes.
Herbs used on their own or as part of mixed spice rubs are also part and parcel of great cooking. You can even add what you have at hand to make spice mixes from around the world!
Berbere – an essential from Ethiopia, this includes hot peppers, black pepper, fenugreek, ginger, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, and cloves. Other ingredients may include ajwain, cumin, allspice, nutmeg, paprika, onion, or garlic. Used to flavour slow-cooked stews.
Bouquet Garni – a classic French specialty where the herbs are tied together, includes thyme, parsley, and bay leaf. Can be used to flavour broths and soups.
Chinese five-spice powder – adds sweetness and depth to savoury Chinese style dishes, especially beef and duck. Made with star anise, Szechuan peppercorns, fennel, cassia, and clove.
Dukkah – an Egyptian condiment made with nuts (most often hazelnuts, but can be made with other nuts as well), sesame seeds, coriander, and cumin. Also works as a great spice rub for lamb, chicken, and fish.
Pumpkin pie spice mix – made with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves. Used for seasoning pumpkin pie, but also great in other spiced baked goods.
Ras el Hanout – hailing from Morocco, this mix has cardamom, clove, cinnamon, paprika, coriander, cumin, mace, nutmeg, peppercorn, and turmeric. Can be used as a spice rub on meat or as a simple condiment.