Growing up in the ’90s, cooking from scratch wasn’t as encouraged as it is nowadays. There were few if any food bloggers that were posting health-conscious and palate-pleasing recipes for the world to make.
Back in the day, my mom would make tofu tacos for dinner sometimes (still one of my favorite meals) with the help of a spice packet. Honestly, I had no clue what was in this little yellow packet for most of my childhood until one day I decided to look at the ingredients. I was shocked to see additives like maltodextrin and silicon dioxide. I didn’t know the purpose of these ingredients, but thanks to my health class, I knew that if I couldn’t pronounce, I shouldn’t eat it.
It wasn’t until my senior year of college when my outlook on spices changed. I moved in with my friend Allie who had an entire cabinet dedicated to her spices. One night, with her help, I measured out spices like cumin, chili powder, paprika, and chipotle for my tofu tacos instead of relying on that little yellow packet. Once I tried the tofu tacos with just the spices and no additives, I never looked back.
My Favorite Spices to Cook With
It’s been a couple years since that experience in college and I have made a conscious effort to expand my palate by cooking with more spices. The reason I love to cook with spices is that they add depth to every bite and a beautiful color to my dishes (I’m looking at you, turmeric). The best way to release their fragrance is by cooking them. Anytime I am making a meal that calls for spices, I typically start out by adding them to the pan first. This time alone in the pan allows them to become friends with the oil and eventually become a powerful duo. I love to cook ethnic dishes like Indian, Thai and Asain food, which rely heavily on spices as the backbone of their cuisine.
So, in case you were curious, these are my favorite spices to cook with:
- Cumin seeds are without a doubt my favorite spice to cook with because they add not only a crunch but an earthy flavor that works well with soups, stews, and rice.
- Where would I be without cinnamon? Cinnamon is a warm spice that most people are introduced to early in life, and I would be lying to say I didn’t eat the cinnamon sugar pretzels from Auntie Anns. But nowadays, I am using cinnamon on my oat pancakes, in smoothies and sometimes in a soup for extra flavor.
- Turmeric has a very strong flavor that can be overpowering, so use sparingly. You really only need a couple teaspoons or so to get the most of its health benefits and bright golden color. I’m using turmeric in smoothies, lentil dishes, turmeric lattes, and Butternut Squash Soup.
- I make breakfast tacos quite often and chili powder has the perfect ratio of heat and flavor. It’s a bit spicy but the good kind of spicy where you feel it hit the back of your throat and makes your tongue tingle.
- Za’atar, oh man do I love you. I’ve eaten you on hummus, salad and even in my cocktails (Thank you, Zahav). The mix of earthy sumac and crunchy sesame bring any dish to life but certainly works well with Mediterranean food.
- Red crushed peppers older and dare I say more hip sibling, Aleppo is a spice that I use mostly to add on meals such as a rice bowl, bean spreads and pizza for that little zing! Aleppo originates from Syria, Turkey and I love to use it because it’s not quite as spicy as red crushed pepper but certainly packs a punch of flavor.
- Remember how I said cumin seeds are my favorite spice to cook with? I was lying –ginger is my favorite. Besides already being a ginger (Hi, @thisredheadcooks), it awakens my tastebuds and helps with my digestion. I pretty much add ginger to everything, Thai food, smoothies, stews, soups, muffins, you name it.
Yes, spices are fantastic because they are flavorful, earthy, warm and colorful. But, perhaps the most important thing to know about spices is that they each have a unique health benefit that heals our body. Packed with antioxidants, they help reduce inflammation and flare-ups for people living with chronic disease.
Start Cooking More With Spices
When I first started cooking, I had no clue what spices to use. I knew the basics – oregano, garlic powder, pepper but that’s about it. I learned through trial and error and I’m always on the lookout for new spices to bring into my collection. I bought my boyfriend a bunch of spices as a little move in present last year and now he’s always cooking with cumin, paprika, oregano, etc which I am so proud of him for. If you’ve never cooked with spices before, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Trust me they aren’t as intimidating as they may seem and once you start understanding their taste profile, you’ll feel more comfortable using them. Say goodbye to those premade spice packets, and start building a spice cabinet of your own!
Also, check out this infographic from Cooksmarts. I hope this helps you start cooking with spice!