Spice blends are too often overlooked in everyday cooking, diminished to a few famous blends and always attracting less attention than individual spices. Think of it: most supermarket shelves only stock omnibus general blends like “Moroccan Blend” and “Yellow Curry Powder,” while media focus on certain well-known spices like cumin, nutmeg, and basil. Cookbooks tend to list individual spices to be used, perhaps fearing that a ready-made blend may send a recipe spiraling out of control.
Of course we consider spice blends an essential part of a well-stocked pantry, dispensed daily to add zest, round out flavor, add familiar notes, or even turn a dish around. Once you realize a spice blend is not an unknown factor but a reliable tool, you can start letting them do the work in your cooking to concentrate on other things. Here are 5 spice blends that exemplify this concept: just add it and forget it.
Ethiopia may not be the first place you look for a universal flavor, but its wildly popular Berbere spice blend can replace the seasoning in just about any cuisine with delicious results. Thanks to a heavy dose of sweet paprika and chilies, combined with aromatics like cinnamon, allspice, and cardamom, this fragrant mixture enlivens any dish. Meat from chicken to moose enjoys Berbere, as well as vegetables like cauliflower and lima beans. It’s found its way onto burgers, onion rings, even spaghetti. No wonder it’s one of our best sellers, and one of our few blends available in large-sized tins.
It’s surprising Za’atar isn’t a mainstay in most North American kitchens, since it’s one of the oldest Western spice blends- dating back to biblical times. This salty, herbaceous blend features thyme and oregano, bolstered by sumac and sesame seeds. While it may not have the versatility of Berbere, Za’atar spice blend is so consistently pleasing in a few common dishes you should really have it on hand. In the Levant it’s an instant bread topper, be it baked in or served as a dip with olive oil. Salad dressing, fish, and even hummus are all great examples of its many uses.
Cajun spice blend is such a powerful addition to Western cooking that it’s the only blend in this list that we included in our most recent book, The Spice Trekkers Cook at Home. Sweet smoked paprika, onion, garlic, and herbs are about the perfect combination to heighten classics like BBQ chicken, pan-fried fish and pork chops. It’s Cajun spice’s versatility that’s surprising: salad, tajine, even kale all benefit from a dose of Cajun.
The complexity of Ras-el-Hanout (or Ras-al-Hanout) is a tribute to Moroccan cuisine. Famously containing dozens of spices (there’s 27 in our blend), a quality Ras-el-Hanout spice blend is considered the mark of a good spice trader. Generally reserved for North African recipes like couscous and tajine, it also adds a sweet and aromatic subtlety to herbed and spiced sides like potatoes and goat cheese.
You’ll notice little heed to the herb vs. spice debate on this website. Our Mediterranean herb blend has become our favorite general use herb blend. 6 classic Mediterranean herbs, sourced from around the world, combine to make your new favorite addition to classic tomato sauce, chicken and lamb. It’s also an easy choice for your next salad dressing.
And these are just to start! Once you’ve got these blends in heavy household rotation, you can see where your desire leads you. Don’t worry, we’ve got over a hundred others for you to try. If you’re looking for even more ideas, you can check out more lists or even make your own blend!
Which spices and spice blends should you always have in stock? It’s not a simple question considering the hundreds of spices that need to be considered. Even without adding personal taste, there are numerous spices and spice blends that make a good starting point, whether for a new student filling a spice rack for his or her first apartment or an old spice hand who’s just looking for an update. These are the dozen or so spices we find indispensable for both everyday cooking and special occasions.
It may seem an obvious choice, but the quality of your pepper can make all the difference in your cooking, no matter if its added during cooking or sprinkled on at the end. Malabar pepper, one of the great classics, is ideal for everyday cooking, while those interested in a little more heat might prefer one with more character, like tribal.
Who cooks without chilies? You can choose one that’s light and all-purpose, like Korean pepper, to kick up sauces, pasta, and stir-fries. If you want a little more heat, we like Reshampatti, a kind of Cayenne.
Cumin winds up in just about every cuisine in the world, notably Moroccan, Indian, and Mexican. I little toasted cumin- ground or not- easily elevates the flavor of a soup or chili that lacks punch. It’s also a must-have for cooking pulses.
Who doesn’t like a barbecued or oven-roasted chicken? BBQ blends like Classic BBQ or Staff BBQ are generally used to flavor or marinate meats, but they’re also great for potatoes, yams and corn. With a little ketchup, vinegar and Dijon mustard, you can throw together a powerful BBQ sauce in minutes.
Don’t be confused by its name. It could really be called “All-Purpose Blend,” since it can be used to meld the tastes of grilled vegetables, salad dressings, soups, even chicken or fish. Does your dish need a little help? Bring on Vegetable Spice Blend!
We (sadly) have a tendency to only use cinnamon in desserts. It’s true that nothing beats cinnamon for cookies, cakes, and muffins, but it’s also great in braised beef, salads, or rice.
Nutmeg can be found in desserts, like apple pie, as well as savory dishes like potatoes au gratin. You can actually add a pinch to things like root vegetable purées, quiche, béchamel, in stew, or even in your rum punch! Have a few whole nutmegs on hand to be freshly grated.
Curries may be the most versatile of spice blends. Madras Curry is the great classic, and can be used in all kinds of dishes. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, try a Trinidad or Singapore Curry.
High-quality, all-natural vanilla extracts are hard to find and often expensive. Sure, we use whole beans in a few recipes, but vanilla extract is still the best option for most desserts. Making a homemade vanilla extract will save you time, money, and provide a much more flavorful ingredient.
Researching spices on the internet I come across a lot of talk about spice substitutions, particularly when it comes to chilies. It seems many of us are forgetting the cardinal rule of carefully reading a recipe before we start. I know I’ve been wrist-deep in a cookbook only to find I’m missing some regional rarity that is absolutely crucial but comes in a very small bottle. But thinking about how to replace, or really, resemble, a forgotten spice is less a list to remember and more an invitation to experiment. The possibilities are most apparent in the wide world of paprika substitutes. I find it’s less about finding the best paprika substitute or alternative chili pepper flake, and more a question of balancing tastes and flavors.
The Theory of the Interchangeability of Spices, outlined in The Golden Rules of Spices, highlights the differences between taste and flavor. Taste, experienced by the tongue, is limited to a few categories like sweet, sour, or hot, while innumerable flavors can be experienced by the nose. So choosing a chile powder or chile flake substitute with the same taste means you can experiment with as many flavors as you like. Continue reading →
Everyone knows Quebec’s most famous dish is Pork Chops Hochelaga. Since its fine dining debut at the ’67 Expo, this classic combination of herbs, spices, pickles and mushrooms has sauced pork chops around the world. At least, that’s what was supposed to happen.
Of course, no one today has ever heard of Pork Chops Hochelaga, nor the vaunted place it once held on the menu of Canada’s most expensive restaurant, La Toundra, at the biggest event in Canada’s history, the 1967 International and Universal Exposition. This unfortunate omission needs correcting: the untold story of Pork Chops Hochelaga tell us much of how a young Canada once presented itself to the world, and what it means to be Canadian.
It’s also a fun and easy recipe that’s historical, adaptable, and delicious.
The Expo and Food
Expo 67 opened 50 years ago to fanfare and hope. Dozens of nations were proud to show off their newest fashions, technologies, and ideas to over 50 million attendees from around the world. There were few opportunities for competing nations to parade their cultural best in a peaceful setting. Each national pavilion promised to be a microcosm of the best of what each country had to offer. Continue reading →
What is so darned appealing about whole cinnamon sticks? We’re not talking about the red-hot, brown colored powder you find littering coffee condiment counters, or the mysterious throat-burning flavor that haunts candies, drinks, and ready-to-eat pastries. No, this is an investigation of the true spice, the classic spice, the flaky, copper quills that have fueled global culinary desire for thousands of years. There’s a reason, or rather many reasons, the cinnamon stick keeps popping up: etched in Greek amphora, featured in Renaissance paintings, and adorning every pastry on Instagram.
The case for whole cinnamon sticks is not a hard one to make. First is the obvious advantage to keeping spices whole: increasing shelf life. Cinnamon sticks can be used differently than ground cinnamon, but can still be ground if you just need a pinch. Beyond the practicalities, a true cinnamon stick is a historical lesson, study in craftsmanship, and sensory delight all rolled into one. Ground or not, it’s a spice that’s bound to stick around. Continue reading →
I told them the only thing I wanted to do in Sri Lanka was see a cinnamon tree. Even after years as a Spice Trekker, the idea still blows my mind: this is the edible tree, the one tree of all trees, whose bark we eat. We couldn’t care less about its fruit or seeds! Sure, you could point to a few other examples of strange tree uses: Greek mastic, for example, comes from a kind of pistachio sap, and no Canadian company can forget maple syrup (we love it in chai). But I knew I had to see the bizarre tree-turned-shoot firsthand if I was ever going to believe it happens.
So when they asked what I wanted out of our first spice sourcing trip to Sri Lanka, I simply said, “see a real cinnamon tree.” We had the great fortune of being hosted by longtime family friends and suppliers, Deepa and Sanath, who wanted nothing more than to show us around Sri Lanka and help me make this absurd abstraction a reality.
Where Does Cinnamon Come From?
Let’s remember I’m talking about Ceylon cinnamon, or true cinnamon, which is more delicate and flavorful than its cousin, Vietnamese cinnamon, or cassia. You can read more about this subtle but important distinction here. Ceylon cinnamon has been the darling cash crop of Sri Lanka for millennia, its origins shrouded in mystery. Spice traders put such effort into keeping its provenance secret that Europeans didn’t know it came from a tree for centuries! Continue reading →
One of the most common questions we encounter in customer service is the real meaning of white pepper vs black pepper. While we agree they come from the same peppercorn plant, how different whole peppercorns come to be is not as clear: especially for white varieties. Black peppercorns, like Tellicherry pepper or Malabar pepper, are perhaps the most popular fruits of all pepper plants, and white peppercorns remain a source of mystery for plenty of cooks. We know they are different, but how are they different?
Where Do Peppercorns Come from?
Begin at the beginning: the pepper plant, growing from India to Indonesia to Madagascar, into long pepper vines wrapped around trees, trellises, the sides of homes. The fruit of these vines ripens to a bright, fragrant red, and from there they are dried to either black peppercorns or the mysterious white pepper. Continue reading →
Our trip to Kashgar in Northwestern China, near the border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, was the first that was deliberately ”not spice specific.” Our daughter Marika was living in The People’s Republic and, after completing a particularly arduous season in Montreal, we decided that rest, recreation —no spice hunting— and a strong dose of our much-missed offspring, had the making of a bona fide vacation.
References to Zinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region mentioned the blandness of the local Muslim food and made no allusion to spices whatsoever. Despite our ”no spice hunting” itinerary, we planned to explore the legendary Silk Route used by ancient merchant caravans to circumvent the Taklamakan desert on their way to oasis towns as Kashgar.
We kicked off our arrival in Kashgar by asking Nelli, the hotel receptionist, for directions to the local market. He obliged, making it clear that he was available, should we require an interpreter. The first market stall we encountered was dedicated to spices from all over Asia. Kashgar was a crossroad of the Middle East, India, China, Persia, Russia and even Greece —for art, jewellery, culture, fashion, and also for a large and impressive variety of spices. Continue reading →
Cabbage is markedly associated with traditional Quebec cuisine, never mind fall and winter food. It is adored the world over, not just because it’s available year round, but also because it’s cheap and versatile. Cabbage can mean anything from kale to Brussel sprouts or even bok choy, so it shows up in just about every cuisine in the world. It is, of course, an excellent base for all manner of spice dishes.
We met Sanath and Deepa… via fax! The memory of having made the acquaintance of this wonderful Sri Lankan couple using such old-school technology is amusing and nostalgic.
We knew that Mexicans are the biggest consumers of true cinnamon in the world. We also knew that the best terroir—or growing conditions for the grade we wanted in our spice shop—is the southwestern coast of the island country of Sri Lanka. Having never been to Sri Lanka, however, and as we didn’t know anyone who lived there, we decided to get our cinnamon from Mexico where we had loyal and ”resourceful” friends who were soon sending us gunny sacks of 4-foot Sri Lankan cinnamon quills, by mail.
It was a relief whenever our cinnamon arrived from Mexico. The arrangement we had with our ”supplier” (a friend’s brother and sometimes travel agent whose real calling was living ”the good life”) was not suitable for us. Our goal was to establish a supply chain headed by someone reliable. We were anxious to introduce real cinnamon to our clients, many of whom had been led to believe that the cassia bark they consumed, which has only one of the four volatile oils found in true cinnamon, was the real deal (more on cinnamon vs. cassia in this video). Continue reading →