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How To Use The Spices In Your Cupboard (Without A Recipe)

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Bowl of unmixed spices.

Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

One of the most common questions I get asked is, “How do I use the spices in my cupboard when I’m not following a recipe?” Spices add flavor, color, aroma, and depth to recipes, but sometimes it’s hard to know which ones to add. Knowing how to use your spice rack will not only elevate your cooking, but it will also spark your creativity and make you feel more confident in the kitchen.

The spice cheat sheet below describes the flavor of the most commonly used kitchen spices, as well as the spices frequently used in different regions around the world. With this basic info in your back pocket, you can feel free to play with spices in your cupboard while you cook – just sprinkle them in little by little, until the dish tastes good to you.

One final tip: if you’ve seasoned a dish generously with spices and it still tastes bland, you probably need more salt. The biggest mistake most home cooks make is under-salting their food. (If you’d like to print out this cheat sheet, click here for a printable version.)

Spices by Flavor

Allspice: Slightly peppery, warm, flavors similar to cloves. Commonly used in baking, Caribbean, and German cuisines. Try it in Pumpkin Pancakes or Jerk Chicken.

Ancho Chili Powder:  Warm, moderately spicy, raisin-y flavors. Commonly used in Tex-Mex cuisine. Try it in Ground Beef Chili.

Basil: Minty, licorice, clove-like flavors. Commonly used in Italian cuisine. Fresh basil is always recommended.

Bay Leaves:  Woodsy, slightly bitter flavor. Commonly used in Latin American and Mediterranean cuisines, especially stews and soups. Always remove and discard bay leaves before serving. Try it in Beef Stew or Beef Tzimmes.

Caraway Seeds:  Licorice, nutty, bitter-sweet flavors. Commonly used in German, Austrian, Eastern Europe and Scandinavian cuisines. It is also used to flavor sausages. Try it in Irish Soda Bread Muffins.

Cardamom:  Lemony, earthy, sweet, hints of mint flavors. Commonly used in Indian, Middle Eastern, and Scandinavian cuisines. A little goes a long way. Try it in Chai Spiced Banana Bread. Available in seed and ground forms.

Cayenne Pepper:  Spicy, smoky, hot flavors. Commonly used in Southwestern and Mexican cuisines. Try it in White Chicken Chili or Sweet, Spicy, Salty Candied Pecans.

Chili Powder:  Earthy, warm, mild to moderately spicy flavors. Blend of spices including ground chiles, paprika, cumin, garlic, and salt. Commonly used in Tex-Mex cuisine. Try it in Chicken Tortilla Soup or Carne Asada.

Chinese Five Spice Powder:  Warm, sweet, aromatic, licorice flavors. Blend of spices including fennel, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, Szechuan peppercorns. Commonly used in Chinese cuisine. Try it in Char Siu Chicken.

Chipotle Chili Powder:  Smoky, spicy flavors. Commonly used in Tex-Mex cuisine. Try it in Ground Beef Chili.

Cinnamon:  Deep, warm, sweet, aromatic flavors. Commonly used in baking, Middle Eastern, Moroccan, and Indian cuisines. Try it in a Rustic French Apple Tart or Middle Eastern Lamb Kofta.

Cloves:  Sweet, pungent, aromatic flavors. Commonly used in baking, Caribbean, and Indian cuisines. Try it in Pumpkin Bread. Available whole and ground.

Coriander:  Citrusy, mellow, earthy flavors. Commonly used in Indian and Mexican cuisines. Try it in Chicken Tikka Masala or Chicken & Quinoa Burrito Bowls with Spicy Green Sauce. Available in seed and ground form.

Cumin:  Smoky, sweet, earthy, pungent flavors. Commonly used in Southwestern, Mexican, North African, Middle Eastern, and Indian cuisines. Try it in Middle Eastern Chicken Kebabs or Roasted Tomato Salsa. Available in seed and ground form.

Curry:  Savory, earthy, warm, sweet flavors. Blend of cumin, turmeric, red pepper, coriander, cloves. Commonly used in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines. Try it in Chicken Curry.

Dill:  Aromatic, bitter, citrusy flavors. Commonly used in Middle Eastern and European cuisines. Fresh dill is often used in recipes. Try it in Buttermilk Ranch Dressing or Refrigerator Pickles.

Garam Masala:  Warm, sweet, aromatic, floral flavors. Blend of coriander, black pepper, cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon. Commonly used in Indian cuisines. Try it in Indian Spiced Red Lentil & Chicken Soup.

Garlic Powder:  Zesty, warm, pungent flavors. Used in a wide variety of cuisines. Try it in Buttermilk Fried Chicken Tenders.

Ground Ginger:  Woodsy, peppery, warm, sweet flavors. Commonly used in baking, Asian, Indian, and Caribbean cuisines. Try it in Old-Fashioned Ginger Spice Cookies or Asian Kale Salad with Ginger Peanut Dressing.

Nutmeg:  Warm, earthy, nutty, sweet flavors. Used in a wide variety of cuisines; including savory (meat-based, roasted vegetable) dishes and sweets (like muffins, cakes, and cookies). Try it in a Spinach Quiche or in Zucchini Muffins with Chocolate Chips.

Oregano:  Peppery, bitter, warm, sharp flavors. Commonly used in Italian and Mediterranean cuisine. Try it in Greek Shrimp with Tomatoes and Feta.

Paprika (sweet/Hungarian): Sweet, aromatic, spicy flavors. Commonly used in Spanish, South American, and Hungarian cuisines. Try it in Southwestern Maple Glazed Salmon with Pineapple Salsa.

Paprika (Smoked/Spanish):  (Also called pimento and smoked pimenton.) Warm, smoky flavors. Commonly used in Spanish and South American cuisines. Try it in Chicken Enchiladas with Tomatillo Sauce.

Parsley:  Bitter, bright flavors. Commonly used in Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines. Fresh parsley is always recommended.

Rosemary:  Woodsy, peppery, pungent flavors. Commonly used in Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines. Fresh rosemary is always recommended.

Saffron:  Floral, earthy flavors. Commonly used in Indian, Spanish, and Mediterranean cuisines (very common in paella and bouillabaisse). Available as threads or ground. Use it very sparingly (just a pinch), as it can taste medicinal if too much is added.

Sage:  Fragrant, faintly bitter, pine-like flavors. Used in various cuisines (common in meat, stuffing, potato, and bean dishes). Available as whole leaves, rubbed (leaves are crumbled), or ground.

Thyme:  Fragrant, lemony, earthy, peppery flavors. Commonly used in Mediterranean and French cuisines. Try it in Beef Stew or Roasted Carrots.

Turmeric:  Earthy, citrusy, slightly bitter flavors. Commonly used in Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, and Indian cuisines. Try it in Golden Gazpacho.

Spices by Cuisine

African:  allspice, cardamom, chile peppers, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, fenugreek, garlic, mint, paprika, parsley, ras el hanout

Caribbean:  allspice, ginger, chile peppers, cilantro, cinnamon, cloves, curry, garlic, nutmeg, paprika, parsley

Chinese: cinnamon, cloves, chile peppers, five spice powder, garlic, ginger, sesame seeds

French:  basil, garlic, herbes de Provence, marjoram, nutmeg, sage, tarragon, thyme, parsley, sage

Greek:  anise, basil, bay leaf, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, dill, fennel, garlic, ginger, marjoram, mint, nutmeg, oregano, parsley, thyme

Indian:  allspice, anise, cardamom, chile peppers, cilantro, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, curry, fenugreek, garam masala, ginger, mint, nutmeg, paprika, saffron, turmeric

Indonesian: bay leaves, candlenut, cinnamon, cumin, galangal, ginger, kafir lime leaves, kluwak, salam leaves, tamarind

Italian:  basil, fennel, garlic, oregano, parsley, red pepper flakes, rosemary, sage, thyme

Korean:  chile peppers, garlic, ginger, sesame seeds

Latin American:  anise, chile peppers, cilantro cinnamon, oregano, rosemary, star anise, thyme

Mexican:  allspice, chile peppers, chili powder, coriander, cilantro, cinnamon, cumin, garlic, oregano

Middle Eastern:  bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, dill, garlic, mint, nutmeg, oregano, parsley

North African: allspice, berbere, caraway, cardamom, chili, cloves, garlic ginger, nutmeg, paprika, ras el hanout, tabil

Thai: basil, chile peppers, cilantro, cumin, curry, garlic, ginger, mint, turmeric

Vietnamese:  chile peppers, cilantro, garlic, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, mint, star anise, basil

How To Use The Spices in Your Cupboard Printable

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  • Hi Jenn,
    Where do you get your spices? Thank you for this helpful list!

    • — Margo on February 8, 2023
    • Reply
    • Hi Margo, I actually just get them at the supermarket — no place really special. 🙂
      And glad you found this list helpful!

      • — Jenn on February 8, 2023
      • Reply
  • Looking for butter board suggestion, savory vs sweet, sounds intriguing, have you enjoyed this idea? Thanks

    • — JJ on November 29, 2022
    • Reply
    • Hi JJ, I recently went to a friend’s house and they had a butter board. From what I recall, it had lemon zest, fresh cilantro and chives, crushed red pepper, and honey. It was delicious! I haven’t made (or been served) a sweet version so I’m not much help there, but I’m sure you can find a ton of options online. I’d love to hear what combos you come up with!

      • — Jenn on November 30, 2022
      • Reply
  • Great share.

  • Thank you kindly for this generous gift. Ultimately, once you know how to cook you just need a guide like this on how best to combine spices to give foods distinct ethnic appeal. Then it’s time for fun kitchen alchemy. Lovely!

  • Just how wonderful! I usually cook Indian food, but this opens up so many doors for me! Thanks Jenn! As always, awesome👍🏻

  • This list is so helpful. I’ve needed something like this for years! Thank you.

  • This is as good as your other blog posts : D, appreciate you putting it up.

  • Thanks for the post!

    • — Oleta Sieracki
    • Reply
  • Wow! This is great. I’m printing out a copy to post inside my cabinet door where I keep my spices. I love the fact that along with your great recipes for all types of food, you want to help everyone elevate their cooking skills beyond following a recipe. Thank you.

    • 🙂
      (Soon I will be creating a version that’s a bit more printer-friendly if you’d prefer to wait for that.)

  • Very helpful to see & understand how to use spices. Would you please put the info in a
    format that can be printed. I wanted to make a copy & put it in my spice cabinet, but there
    is no “Print” icon and when I try to do it from the print button on my computer many of
    the spice items get cut off. I’ve tried it 3 times and failed. Your help would be most
    appreciated! Thank you!

    • Glad you like this, Toni. I plan to create a printable version of this soon, so stay tuned!

  • I needed this in my life!! Thank you soo much!! Is this list in your book or is there a way to get a print friendly version? I’m getting ready to order the book.

    • Hi Jen, it’s not in the book but I’m working on a print-friendly version of this it should be ready soon so stay tuned! 🙂

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