Your guide to using spices in healthy cooking

Spice it up in the kitchen

Spices are one of my favorite ways to add flavor and interest when I'm cooking.  In today's post, I thought I'd dive deep and answer the top questions I get about spices as a wellness chef.

What are the best spices to keep on hand?

You know the answer to this one: it depends on what you like!  Ugh.  However, the top basic spices I recommend to keep your pantry flexible and usable are cumin, smoked paprika, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, red chile flake, black pepper cayenne and maybe a couple of ready-to-go spice blends that you like like chili powder, curry powder or Chinese five spice powder.  My next level go-to's are sumac, chipotle powder, mustard seeds, whole cumin seeds, amchur, asofoetida and garam masala.

Where is the best place to get spices? They are so expensive.

Yes, spices can be expensive!  The good news is, unlike a lot of other foods in a healthy shopping cart like vegetables and fresh herbs, they don't really spoil, so you can take your time in using them.  I like to get my spices at one of three places: the bulk section of a health food store or Whole Foods, an ethnic grocery store or a specialty spice shop.  All of these options are going to be less expensive than average grocery store brands.  

The bulk section is fantastic if you just want to try something new or if you don't have a lot of storage--it'll cost you pennies to just buy the spice of chipotle powder that you need!  Ethnic grocery stores are great for buying large quantities of a spice you use a lot like cumin or cinnamon.  And speciality spice stores are perfect when you want something quality, unique or want an expert to help you pick something out.  Often the prices are a speciality shop are the same or lower than the grocery store.

Are you in Chicago?  My favorite places are The Spice House, Epic Spices and Patel Brothers.

How long can I keep spices? I think I have some from 10 years ago.

The good news is spices don't really go "bad" the same way your fresh foods do.  Spice experts like the owners of The Spice House say you should keep a ground spice for about a year for maximum freshness.  That's not a hard and fast rule though--just be aware that your cinnamon will be less cinnamon-y as time goes on, so you'll want to use more or expect the flavor to decrease a little bit.

What's the best way to organize my spices?

This one is totally depending on your space and preferences but I'm a big advocate for storing spices in a drawer.  I think racks and cabinets make it hard to see what you have and get disorderly pretty quickly.  I'm nowhere near a type A person, but I did get these spice jars* in bulk so that all my spices would be in the same size jar, with a label on top so I can get what I need pretty much instantly.  It makes me very, very happy.

A crazy person's spice drawer.  I know, I need to reprint those labels...

A crazy person's spice drawer.  I know, I need to reprint those labels...

When do I add spices in cooking if I'm not using a recipe?

A good rule is whole spices (like cumin seeds or star anise) get added first thing to a hot pan right after you add oil.  The spice releases its volatile oils into the cooking oil and then the flavored cooking oil flavors your food.  Ground spices need to be added later in cooking, otherwise they'll burn up.  I add ground spices after I add aromatics like onion, garlic and ginger to the pan.  They won't burn up but can still release their flavor in the oil with the help of heat.  

Spices generally need both heat and oil to fully bloom so add them early in the cooking process.

What's the difference between an herb and a spice?  Where does salt fit in?

Ah, yes.  You may be wondering why I haven't mentioned the importance of salt or listed anything like thyme or oregano.  Spices come from the roots, flowers, fruits, seeds or bark of an herbaceous plant whereas herbs are what we call the leaves, whether fresh or dried.  The coriander plant is a great example: we call the leaves and stems cilantro and use them fresh or dried (herb) and the seeds get dried and ground and used as coriander (spice).

Salt is a mineral typically mined from the sea, mineral deposits in the earth or manufactured in a lab.

What are some good spice-filled recipes to get started?

My favorite ways to use spices in cooking are spiced nuts, lentil soups, and dry rubs for fish, tofu or cauliflower steaks.  I also love added ground spices like cumin or smoked paprika to vinaigrettes to make raw or cooked vegetables come alive.  

Want to try some of my spicy recipes? Check out these four:

*Note: This is an affiliate link.  Affiliate links don't change the price to you--or the fact that these are my true recommendations, purchased with my own money--but I wanted to make sure that you knew that.