How do you take a basic meal to the next level? With flavorful aromatic spices, of course! But where do you start if you have been using the same 3 stale spices your whole life? With this blog post, no doubt! Keep reading to discover my 10 favorite spices and my favorite ways to use them.
One of my favorite things about being vegan is the variety of flavors, textures, and colors in my meals. While most people go their lives eating the same small selection of foods, becoming vegan opens your eyes to the incredible abundance of delicious edible plants and cuisines we have access to. And the spices! Once you’ve started exploring the wide world of spices and herbs, you unlock a whole new level of culinary enjoyment.
What are spices?
If you go to a great grocery store or market, you’ll find a wide selection of aromatic and colorful spices from all around the world. Spices are strong flavorings made from plants; leaves, roots, bark, skin, flowers, and fruits. While most plant-based foods (especially vegetables and fruit) have plenty of flavor on their own, spices add more flavor and draw out flavor from other ingredients. When we’re talking about meat, spices (which are almost always plant-based) are crucial to make flesh tasty.
There are individual spices like cinnamon (made from a tree bark) and cumin (a seed), as well as spice blends (like garam masala) that combine a number of aromatic spices to create something extraordinary. Leaves used for flavoring a meal––think bay leaves, thyme, and oregano––are also considered a spice. You can find a delicious spice for every taste you’re craving: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or umami.
For the purpose of this post, my list of essential spices only includes dried spices, not sauces and pastes. We’ll save those flavor-makers for a future post!
Can you add too much spice?
Yes, you most definitely can go overboard and add too much spice. Unlike fresh herbs, spices have a very concentrated flavor and aroma. Too much of it and you can easily ruin a meal with far too much pungent flavor. If you’re new to cooking, I recommend following recipes and starting small when playing around with spices in the kitchen. You can always add more, but you can’t remove a spice that has already mixed into a dish.
Are spices healthy?
Spices are full of flavor and nutrients. Because they are a concentrated part of the plant, they are often chockfull of vitamins, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients. However, because you only use a small amount of each spice, depending on the spice, you may not get as many nutrients from it. I’ll speak on the health benefits of each spice on my list below.
How to Store Spices & Keep Them Fresh
Spices can be expensive, so follow these tips to protect your tasty investments, and make them last as long as possible.
- Spice jars should be air tight. Remember to replace the lid after using. If you purchase spices in bulk, transfer them to an air tight container before storing.
- Keep spices out of direct sunlight to preserve their color, flavor, and nutrients. I store my spices in a kitchen drawer.
- There is no need to store your spices in the fridge or freezer to keep them fresh.
- Add a few grains of white rice to spices that tend to harden, like onion powder, to remove excess moisture that may sneak into your spice jar.
- Measure spices on the kitchen counter before adding them to food on the stove. The last thing you want is for moisture to enter your spice jar.
- If you buy spices in bulk, like me, keep what you use everyday in a small spice jar to avoid having to expose the large bulk package to air and moisture.
Whole Spices or Ground?
For the freshest flavor, purchase whole spices (ex. cumin seeds) and powder them yourself using a spice grinder. This is especially useful when you buy spices in bulk and worry about storing them and keeping them fresh for a long period of time.
Whole spices can also be used in recipes to add a unique flavor and texture to meals. You will notice that certain cuisines, like Indian, use whole spices in many recipes.
Stock your Kitchen with my Favorite Spices
Below you’ll find a list of my 10 favorite spices and spice blends (in no particular order), along with notes on those spices and recipes so you can start using them right away! After you read this post, please leave a comment below and tell us about your favorite spice. I’d love to hear how you like to use it!
Perhaps my most frequently used spice, smoked paprika is made from pimentón peppers that are smoked over oak. The result is a rich spice that has a strong smoke flavor, with subtle earthiness and woodiness.
Smoked paprika recipes:
Garlic powder is so simple and basic, but also downright wonderful! Made with just ground dry garlic (not to be confused with garlic salt), garlic powder adds concentrated garlic flavor to your recipes. I sprinkle it on roasted vegetables and beans, and use it in sauces when I want a less pungent garlic flavor.
Where/how to buy: I use so much garlic powder, I buy it in bulk. Garlic powder is readily available at all grocery stores. It is likely the most common spice on this list.
Garlic powder recipes:
Nutritional yeast is an inactive yeast powder that can be used for a wide variety of meals. It has a savory, nutty, slightly cheesy flavor, making it a terrific cheese replacement in recipes. I most often use nutritional yeast on beans, vegetables, and in sauces and dressings.
Where/how to buy: Not to be confused with brewer’s yeast. Look for nutritional yeast in the “health food” section of your local grocery store. Or buy it online. You can even find it in bulk at vitamin stores.
Nutritional yeast recipes:
Fennel seeds are the quintessential spice that you have no idea that you love, until you try them in something new. This whole seed spice has a complex flavor similar to licorice or anise. This unique taste pairs well with everything from sweet potatoes to sausages. Toasted fennel seeds are also delicious. Try sprinkling the toasted fennel seeds on avocado toast.
Fennel seeds are high in vitamin C, help aid digestion, and aid milk production in breastfeeding women.
Quick tip: Chew on fennel seeds after a meal to freshen your breath and/or reduce gas.
Fennel seed recipes:
PORCINI MUSHROOM POWDER
For the ultimate taste of umami––savory goodness––you need porcini mushroom powder. Umami is the 5th taste too often missing in vegan recipes. Whenever I want to add depth and roundness to a meal I use this spice. Porcini mushroom powder is simply powdered dry porcini mushrooms. Porcini mushrooms are a good source of B vitamins and numerous minerals––selenium, zinc, copper, and potassium.
Where/how to buy: This is an ingredient you will likely need to purchase online. A little goes a long way. You may also find it at a gourmet grocery store.
Porcini mushroom powder recipes:
Cardamom is my favorite exotic spice. It’s prized for its pungent, earthy, sweet, and totally unique flavor. This spice is used in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine, and often used in sweet dishes like coffee and baked goods. I like to pair cardamom with coffee, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and use it in baked goods where it is least expected (like my vegan peach pie).
Where/how to buy: Cardamom is commonly green pod, as whole seeds, and as a powder. This is one of the most expensive spices, so don’t be shocked at the price tag. For the best deal, buy cardamom seeds (not in the pod), and grind them yourself as you need them. Your expensive cardamom will stay fresh longer, and freshly ground cardamom has the most exquisite flavor.
Briny and tasting like the ocean, dulse is my favorite spice to use when I make a vegan “seafood” recipe. Dulse grows in saltwater along the northern coasts and is harvested during low tide. Harvested dulse is then dried, packaged, and sold.
Dulse apparently tastes like bacon when pan fried! Raw dried dulse is very salty/briny, but develops a smoky bacon-like flavor when cooked. It can be used whenever you need to replace the taste of seafood in a vegan recipe, and in recipes where you want a rich smoky umami flavor.
Like other seaweeds, dulse is rich in fiber, protein, and minerals, specifically iodine.
Where/how to buy: Dried dulse can be purchased as paper-thick chewy sheets, as granules, and powdered. I like the granules, which are coarsely ground, best. This is one of the ingredients I purchase in bulk.
If you’re not using Old Bay in your vegan crab cakes, are you even making vegan crab cakes? This O.G. spice blend from the Chesapeake Bay is a must when you’re making any vegan seafood dish. Old Bay is a special blend of celery seed, red pepper, black pepper, salt, and who knows what else. It’s salty, spicy, and aromatic.
Where/how to buy: Look for Old Bay at your mainstream local grocery store or buy it online. It’s a very common spice, so you should have no problem finding it in most states.
Old Bay Recipes:
The spice of Ethiopia, Berbere is a richly aromatic blend of chili pepper, ginger, coriander, fenugreek, cardamom, paprika, cinnamon, allspice, and more. It’s earthy and spicy with subtle notes of sweet. If you’ve had Ethiopian cuisine you likely tasted this yummy spice blend––it’s used in the red dishes like Doro Wat, Tibs, or Shiro (one of my favorite foods).
You can use Berbere anywhere you want a savory, warm, and spicy flavor. Try it on vegetables, in stews and soups, in burgers, or even sprinkled on fresh fruit.
Where/how to buy: Pickup Berbere from your local Ethiopian store if you have one. If you’re in LA, stop by Azla Vegan to pick up a jar. Like everything else, you can order it online.
I have a thing for rich spices, and Garam Masala is one of my favorites! This Indian spice blend is a mix of coriander, cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, and more. It serves as a base for many Indian recipes, and is versatile enough to use in all sorts of recipes. It is also used along side curry powder, and not usually a suitable replacement. The blend of spices that make a Garam Masala are great for digestion, maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, and fighting inflammation.
Where/how to buy: I usually buy Garam Masala at my local Indian grocery store. Look for it in the spice section at your mainstream grocery store too. You can also buy it online. You probably have many of the ground spices needed to make Garam Masala, so consider making your own if you can’t find it in store.
Garam Masala Recipes:
What are your favorite spices?