Ever since Julia Child introduced French cuisine to American television audiences, our craving for ethnic foods has increased. This is especially true for Millennials and GenXers who are fueling the demand for exotic foods.

The popularity of cooking shows such as Iron Chef America, and meal kits like Plated or Hello Fresh, is proof that our collective palates have become more sophisticated.

That’s why we created the Ultimate Herb and Spice Guide for Ethnic Cuisine. When you understand how herbs and spices work to enhance food flavor, you will elevate your cooking beyond salt and pepper.

Understanding Flavor Profiles

The difference between an average meal and a fantastic meal is related to the flavor profile.

The flavor profile is defined by the ingredients, methods, and tools used to prepare a dish.

Herbs and spices play a huge role in this process. They help ‘brand’ the cuisine of a specific geographic region of the world based on what is available in the area. 

For example, Italian cuisine is defined by the use of herbs like oregano, rosemary, sage, basil, parsley, and other ingredients. Ginger, lemongrass, sesame seeds, and chilis help define Thai cuisine. Cooking with a wok, which is both a method and a tool, defines Chinese cuisine.

Key Factors Related to Flavor Profile

There are eight factors that impact the flavor profile of a dish:

  1. Salty – enhances flavors with the use of sodium.
  2. Sweet – the use of ingredients that add sugars to food.
  3. Savory (Umami) – use of ingredients whose flavors are meaty or earthy.
  4. Spicy – flavor enhancer of food elements.
  5. Sour – the level of acidity in foods.
  6. Bitter – this taste sensation acts as a counterpoint to sweet or savory foods.
  7. Texture – how food feels in your mouth.
  8. Bitter – the addition or subtraction of heat in the cooking process

What are Herbs?

 

picture of fresh herbs

In culinary terms, herbs are simply plants that possess aromatic or savory properties. They are the leafy green or flowering parts of plants and can either be used fresh or dried. Dried herbs are best when used with liquids like cooking oil, butter or water. 

Herbs can be divided into 3 categories: culinary, medicinal, and religious. Culinary herbs (and spices) are primarily used in the cooking process to enhance flavor. How they are used is usually based on regional or trade availability.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80% of some Asian and African countries still use herbal medicine as a form of primary care. Herbal teas, tinctures, essential oils, salves, balms, and aromatherapy fall in this category. The ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Chinese practiced herbology as part of their lifestyle. Herbs and spices have been known to relieve headaches, help with indigestion, control inflammation, lower cholesterol and even prevent aging.

However, not all herbs are good for you. There is a long of herbs that are suspected to have adverse effects on health when used as a treatment for certain ailments.

How To Store Fresh Herbs

fresh cilantro
Photo by Tomasz Olszewski

You know the drill. You buy bunches of fresh organic cilantro, basil, and parsley at the store. But after using only a portion of it for cooking, the rest turns into a wilted, soggy blob in the back of the refrigerator. Then you have to throw it all out and start over.

Green bags are good, but there are other ways to store your fresh herbs. You can:

  1. Dry them
  2. Freeze them
  3. Turn them into compound butter

To dry an herb like basil, wash thoroughly then place it in a brown paper bag. Store in a dry place for about two weeks. Then place dried leaves in a glass jar for later use.

You can freeze green herbs like parsley, cilantro, and chives. Just be sure to freeze them in the form that you will use them later when cooking.

Line a flat metal pan with parchment paper. Spread the chopped chives (or cilantro leaves) on the tray and freeze overnight. Place the herbs in a freezer bag and toss the bag back in the freezer. The herbs should stay fresh for about a month. Don’t forget to label the bag!

Making your own compound butter is another great way to store herbs. Basically you will want to press about 1 tablespoon of herbs into 2 tablespoons of softened butter. Spread it onto wax paper and roll it into a log. Twist the ends shut, place it in a container and freeze.

Tarragon, pepper, garlic, and cumin are just some of the herbs and spices you add to the butter to bring out rich flavors in all kinds of foods.

What Are Spices?

 

dried spices
Photo by Pratiksha Mohanty

Spices are the roots, barks, seeds, and buds of certain plants. They are commonly found in warmer climates and add flavor and color to food. Spices also do a great job of preserving meat.

You can purchase various spices in several forms: fresh, dried, or ground. In most grocery stores in the United States spices are sold whole and dried. Whole, dried spices ensure long shelf life and are less expensive than buying them fresh. On the other hand, fresh spices like ginger have more flavor.

India is the #1 producer of the world’s spices, contributing 70% of the global spice production. Bangladesh is second, followed by Turkey.

Spices: To Grind or Not To Grind?

When you grind spices, you increase the surface area and oxidation rate; thus enhancing its flavor.

There are several tools you can use.

  1. Mortar and pestel
  2. Microplaner
  3. Fine grater

Peppercorns like black pepper can be forced through a pepper mill or hand grinder.

Since spice flavors take time to infuse into food, it is best to add them early on in the food preparation process. 

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Herbs and Spices Help Define Cuisine

The term cuisine is a fancy word to describe the way people cook in a certain geographic region. The cuisine, or style of cooking, is influenced mostly by locally sourced ingredients and techniques. These factors will result in dishes that are specific to the culture. 

Other factors that influence cuisine include weather conditions, economics, social class, politics, and available resources. 

If you live in a place where there are harsh winters, finding ways to store food long term becomes very important. Therefore, food preparation involving smoking and picking will influence cooking. Herbs and spices that aid in the pickling and smoking process will take priority. This is known as adaptive cooking.

An example of adaptive cooking methods can be found in the evolution of Chinese cooking. Ancient Chinese culinary techniques involved cooking small pieces of meat, fish, and vegetables over hot flames. This was due to a scarcity of firewood. Since people needed a way to cook their food very quickly, they invented the wok.

Salt (technically a mineral) was mostly used to preserve meat in an age without refrigeration. People would add a ton of spices to rotten meat as a way to cover it up. Yuck.


Header for Ultimate Herb & Spice Guide
Photo by Nadine Primeau

When you understand the basics of using herbs and spices you will become a better cook. If you’re like me and want to elevate your cooking by creating depth of flavor, the guide below will help.

Ajwain: Ajwain is primarily used as a spice in Indian cuisine. It is characterized by its grey/green striped seeds. They resemble the flavor of thyme when crushed but are usually sold whole. Ajwain is used primarily in vegetarian dishes.

Allspice: The dried pimenta fruit of the evergreen myrtle plant Pimenta Dioica.

Anise/Aniseed: Not to be confused with Star Anise (used in Chinese dishes), this spice is a member of the carrot family which includes fennel, coriander, cumin, and dill. Anise seeds are grey-green to brownish in color. The flavor is similar to fennel with a mild licorice taste. When pressed, its oils can be distilled to produce the flavor for licorice candy. The culinary uses of anise include being added to baked goods such as cakes and biscuits. Anise is also used as an ingredient in drinks and cordials.

Annatto Seed: This orange-red seed is primarily a coloring agent used in Caribbean and Latin American cooking. It tastes peppery, with a hint of bitterness. It has a floral bouquet with hints of nutmeg and peppermint. Annatto is a common ingredient in certain cheeses, butter, stocks, and stews. In Mexican cuisine, Annatto is the main ingredient in recado rojo paste. Use it with allspice chilies, cumin, garlic, paprika, cloves, and oregano.

Asafetida: Asafetida is a gum that comes from the sap of the ferula species a giant fennel plant). Asafetida is known to emit a foul smell and its grayish-white color turns brown as it ages. It can be sold in blocks or as pieces of gum or in powder form. Asafetida is used in vegetarian cooking and has a strong garlic flavor. Most of the world’s Asafetida comes from Iran, Afghanistan, and Kashmir. It has been known by the nicknames ‘devil’s dung’ and ‘food of the gods’.

Basil: An herb native to India. It can be used fresh or dried. Basil is better when used fresh as it loses most of its flavor when dried.

Bay Leaf: The Bay Leaf or Laurel Leaf was once used to make the crown in the Roman empire. This leafy herb is great for slow-cooked dishes such as stews, soups, and casseroles. It comes from the Mediterranean.

Black Cumin: Black cumin seeds are striped, long and almost black in appearance. A bit sweeter than regular cumin they are also sweeter with a lemony flavor. Black cumin is grown in Kashmir, Iran, and Pakistan. It is used mostly in stews, meat dishes, and vegetables. It can also be added to enhance the flavor of curries, yogurts, garam masala, sauces, and bread.

Borage: This annual herb has flavor and scent of cucumbers

Brown Mustard Seed: (Brassica juncea) Brown mustard seeds are generally more pungent than white but less than the black seeds. They appear either light or dark brown.

Caper: A caper is an unopened flower bud that has been cured in brine, vinegar or oil. Capers have a salty, tart taste and is made of about 85% water. They are best paired with fish, olives, basil, mustard, garlic oregano and tarragon. Cold dishes work well as capers lose their aroma when heated.

Caraway: Caraway is a plant that is a member of the parsley family. Its seeds can be used whole or ground and have a peppery and pungent smell. They are a staple in European cuisine; in both sweet and savory dishes. Caraway seeds marry well with a variety of foods including noodles, duck, apples, cabbage, potatoes, and bread. Caraway is one of the oldest spices in Asia and Europe.

Cardamom: Cardamom is an ancient spice native to India. Egyptians used it to clean their teeth while the Greeks and Romans preferred it as a perfume. Next to saffron, it is one of the second most expensive spices in the world. The cardamom seeds come from a ginger-like plant. Indian cardamom comes in two varieties: Malabar and Mysore. The seed pods can be used whole or split in the cooking process. It is often used in beverages and sweet dishes.

Cayenne Pepper: The Cayenne pepper can be used as a powder, flakes or as a fresh ingredient in spicy dishes and sauces. Popular in Asian cooking, it is rich in Vitamins A, B6, E, potassium, riboflavin, and manganese. Consumption influences the amount of body heat put off due to the high amount of capsaicin. The Cayenne region of South America is where unusually hot peppers were traditionally grown. The name ‘cayenne’ became synonymous with very hot peppers. Red chiles or red peppers not only add heat to dishes but also influence flavor.

Chili/Chile: When fresh, chili peppers are considered a fruit. When dried, they are in the spice category. When used as a dry spice, the flavor is more complex than when used fresh. Dried chilis can be used in curries, chutneys, sauces, and pastes. The chili gets its ‘heat’ from a chemical it produces known as capsaicin. Popular in Asian cooking, it is rich in Vitamins A, B6, E, potassium, riboflavin, and manganese.

Chives: Chives are in the leek, scallion, garlic, and onion family of fresh herbs. They can be found growing wild in Europe, Asia, and North America. Chives smell like onions and/or garlic and their bulbs hold those flavors. They pair well with potatoes, eggs, sour cream, and cheeses. Chives (and herb) and green onions are not the same, although sometimes they can be used interchangeably.

Cinnamon: Cinnamon is a tree bark in the laurel family originating from Sri Lanka. It has a sweet fragrance and a somewhat woody flavor. It is a popular ingredient in Moroccan, Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine. It pairs well with fruits like apples, bananas, and pears.

Cloves: Cloves are made from the dried flower buds of trees in the myrtle family. They are best used sparingly as they can overpower other ingredients. Cloves contain eugenol, an oil, which gives them a pungent but fruity flavor. This spice can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. Cloves are one of the ingredients in Chinese Five-Spice and Garam Masala.

Coriander/Cilantro: Leaves, roots, and seeds can be used to flavor food. Leaves are known as coriander leaves, Chinese parsley or cilantro. Cilantro is a popular ingredient in many Mexican, Chinese and Thai dishes. The dried seeds are used as a spice that releases a citrus flavor when crushed. The coriander root exudes a strong flavor and is used in many Asian soups or curry pastes.

Cumin: A member of the parsley family, cumin has a strong, smoky flavor. Used as chili powder ingredient. Widely used in South Asia, Latin America, and North Africa.

Curry or Sweet Neem Leaf: The Curry (Murray Koenigii) leaf tree produces leaves that are used in many Indian dishes. Also known as sweet neem leaves, curry is a valued seasoning agent in South and Southeast Asia. Curry leaves can be used whole, crushed or chopped. It can be used in fish, meat and poultry dishes. Curry leaves can also be paired with turmeric, cumin, coriander, ginger, garlic, and fenugreek. The leaves can be frozen (best) or refrigerated for storage. It is recommended that the leaves not be removed from the branches until ready for use.

Dill: An annual herb with leaves that resemble fennel. Although it can be used both fresh or dried, the fresh plant has a sweeter fragrance. It can be paired with seafood, potatoes, eggs, fish, carrots and smoked salmon. It has a mild flavor.

Fennel: The fennel plant can be utilized as both an herb and a spice. When used as an herb, fennel leaves enhance the flavor of fish, mayonnaise, sausages and pork roasts. Fennel seeds are either brown or light green. They emit a sweet aromatic bouquet and have a licorice flavor. Seeds are also used in baking. A spice mill or mortar & pestle is recommended for crushing or grinding fennel seeds and should be stored in air-tight containers to maintain freshness.

Fenugreek: Fenugreek is both an herb and a spice. It comes from the seeds of a bean-like plant native to India and Southern Europe. Fenugreek comes whole and dried or in powder form from roasted seeds. The ground seeds have a pungent odor somewhat like curry powder. It tastes like burnt sugar with a bitter aftertaste. Fresh fenugreek leaves are used in curries or fry-breads. The dried version works well in soups, sauces, and curries.

File: Leaves from sassafras tree that are dried and powdered for use in gumbo.

Garam Masala (spice blend): Garam Masala is a spice blend used in Indian cooking. Garam translates as ‘heat’ while masala means ‘spice mix’. It is a mixture of black and white peppercorns, nutmeg, bay leaves, cumin, cloves, and black and green cardamom.

Garlic: Garlic has a strong, pungent flavor that will mellow during the cooking process. When roasted, the flavor smoothes out. It works well in sauces and soups. It complements ginger, basil, onions, tomatoes, turmeric, and chilis. Garlic also enhances the flavor of meats and seafood.

Ginger: A hot, fragrant root spice used in cooking. Young ginger rhizomes are juicy, fleshy and mild. Mature roots are dry and fibrous. It can be used in beverages and medicinally.

Hoja Santa: Aromatic herb often used in Mexican cooking for making tamales.

Horseradish: Horseradish is a large root that remains benign while intact, but emits a hot and strong aroma when grated. It can be used fresh, grated, dried, flaked or powdered. Horseradish is native to the Mediterranean.

Kaffir Lime Leaf: An essential ingredient in Thai cooking, the leaves of the kaffir lime tree are dark green and have a glossy sheen. The leaves vary in size and come in two parts: a top pointy leaf attached to a broader leaf underneath. The fruit of the tree is dark green. The plant has a thick rind that is used for making curry paste. The leaves and rind smell like a combination of lemon, lime, and mandarin.

Lemongrass: As its name implies, lemongrass is a grass plant with long leaves and a fleshy root. The root is the ‘spice’ that’s known for its bright, lemony flavor. It is also available as a dry or powdered spice and can be sold in slices or as an oil. Lemongrass should be pounded first then used whole or sliced. It is used in savory dishes that include meat, poultry, seafood, and vegetables. Lemongrass stems can be used to make tea or in adding flavor to marinades.

Mace: This spice is related to nutmeg. Both come from the Myristica Frangrans tree. While nutmeg is the pit or fruit, the mace is the webbing that surrounds its shell. Mace is used in baking and is the distinctive flavor in donuts. It marries well with allspice, cloves, ginger, sugar, and vanilla. Mace complements eggs, yams, potatoes, veal, and stuffings.

Mahlab: Mahlab is made from the stones of a cherry tree that grows in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Mahlab has a yellowish exterior. It is used primarily to flavor bread. The flavor is nutty, bitter and slightly sweet.

Marjoram: Used for seasoning sauces, stews, dressings, and soups. Related to oregano.

Mastic: Mastic comes from the bark of the Gum Mastic tree, commonly found in the Mediterranean, Middle East and the Greek island of Chios. It can be chewed like chewing gum. It is also an ingredient in liquors. When used as a cooking spice, this resin tastes like pine and licorice. It is used in desserts, syrups, and sweetmeats.

Mint: Also known as mentha is an aromatic herb whose leaf can be used fresh or dried. The mint leaf has an aromatic flavor with cool aftertaste. Used in beverages, candy, ice cream, and lamb dishes. There are 20 species of mint and hundreds of varieties of this very flavorful herb: peppermint, spearmint, Moroccan and Vietnamese are the most commonly known. It has a menthol aroma and lemony flavor. Cuisines that rely heavily on mint are Thai, Mexican, Mexican and Moroccan.

Mustard Seed: The mustard plant, belongs to the Brassica genus includes turnips, radishes, cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli. This spice family also includes arugula and mustard greens. It is one of the oldest, widely used spices in the world. The condiment is known as mustard and is made from grinding the seeds of the Senvy plant into a paste and mixing it with must — an unfermented wine. It was used by both the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Chinese. Related species that are grown for their seeds include brown, white and black mustard.

Nigella: Nigella is also known as Black Cumin. Native to South Asia, this plant known as Nigella Sativa produces small black seeds with a rough exterior and oily interior. When rubbed they smell like oregano. Nigella seeds have a bitter/peppery flavor and a crunchy texture. Nigella seeds are used mostly in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking as a spice or condiment. It can be used to season lamb, naan bread, vegetables, and chutneys. Nigella is an ingredient in garam masala and is one of the five spices in Panch Phoron. It also goes by the names black caraway and black cumin.

Nora: Nora is a dried red, round pepper. It is not spicy but has a sweet taste and boasts a strong aroma. Nora is used in making Paprika.

Nutmeg: Nutmeg is a spice that is used primarily in baking. It marries well with milk, cheese, chicken, egg, and lamb. It has a rich aromatic flavor profile with the essence of clove.

Onion: Onion is both a vegetable and an herb. The onion’s signature smell and flavor are due to the sulfur compounds contained in the bulb of the plant. Both the bulb and the stems are used in the cooking process. Fresh or dried, onions can be used in a variety of raw or cooked dishes. Onions are also considered medicinal. It has been credited with the ability to reduce blood sugar and relieve asthma, arthritis, and bronchitis. Onions are also considered anti-inflammatory agents.

Oregano: A herb related to Marjoram. Leaves have an aromatic flavor which is stronger when dried. Used mostly in Latin American, Mediterranean and Philippine cuisine. Oregano is a ‘wonder herb’ in that it not only adds robust flavor to foods but also has antioxidant properties. This wonderful herb originates from Asia Minor. It can be used to boost the flavor or sauces, flavor oil, or to marinate fish or poultry. Oregano is also added to cold cuts and sausages.

Pandan Leaf: This fragrant leaf is used to wrap meats and fish in before steaming or grilling. The leaves are also used to add flavoring to desserts and puddings. It is sold fresh, dried or frozen but is better fresh. Before use, the leaves must be bruised or boiled to release their flavor.

Papalo: Papalo is a herbaceous plant with a flavor profile similar to cilantro and/or arugula. Known in Mexico as papaloquelite. Used to flavor salsa.

Paprika: Paprika originated in Mexico and was brought to Spain in the 16th century. Made from dried chilis it adds color and flavor to soups, stews, meats, and rice dishes. It comes in several varieties. Flavor profiles range from strong and sweet to delicate and pungent. Made from the dried capsicum fruit, paprika originated in Mexico and was brought to Spain in the 16th center. It comes in several varieties. Paprika’s flavor profile ranges from strong and sweet to delicate and pungent.

Parsley: Can be considered an herb, spice, vegetable or garnish (curly leaf). Used mostly in American, European, Brazilian and Middle Eastern cooking. Parsley can be used as a herb, spice, vegetable or garnish (curly leaf). There are also many varieties of Parsley used in cooking around the world. It can be used in marinades and stews or to enhance the flavor of fish or vegetables. Most of its flavor resides in the stalk.

Poppyseed: There are several varieties of poppy seeds: blue, white, opium and oriental. The blue variety of these tiny hard grains are used in baking and confectionery in the West. They can be sprinkled on buns and pieces of bread. It complements honey. When added to coleslaw, poppy seeds provide added texture and color. In Middle Eastern cuisine, poppy seeds are usually added to cakes, candies, and pretzels. Poppyseed oil can be used as a substitute for olive oil. They’re hard to grind. If using a mortar and pestle, it is best to roast the seeds first. Blue and white share a flavor profile and can be used interchangeably. Both are mild until heated, then take on a nutty flavor with sweet undertones.

Rosemary: A staple in traditional Spanish cooking, this shrub is a native plant of the Mediterranean. It is a very versatile herb. You can add it to stews, casseroles, and cheese. Its springs bring out the flavor of poultry, lamb, and potatoes. Rosemary can also be used as medicine.

Saffron: Technically, saffron is a flower. When dried, it has a reddish color, a hay-like smell and tastes sweet. It is one of the most expensive spices by weight in the world.

Sage: This green and purple-hued leafy herb comes in over 700 varieties including garden, clary, pineapple and purple-leafed. Garden sage is primarily used for cooking. Fresh sage smells like pine, with notes of citrus. It is best used fresh and in moderation. Sage is best when used in slow-cook savory dishes and pairs well with poultry and sausages. It also pairs well with butternut squash. The sage plant is native to coastal areas of Southern Europe, the Adriatic, and the Mediterranean. Sage is a shrub that is native to the Mediterranean. It has a musky aroma and comes in several varieties including purple sage, Greek sage, blackcurrant sage, and pineapple sage. It helps with the digestion of fatty rich food and is usually paired with duck, turkey, and goose. Sage is also a flavor enhancer for dishes including apples, root vegetables, cheese, and onions. Sage is often used as a complement to bay leaves, garlic, parsley, thyme, and paprika.

Sesame (seeds, oil): Sesame is an ancient spice used by the Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Chinese. The tiny seeds come from the pods of a tropical plant and are sold whole, dried or ground to make tahini paste. Toasting the seeds enhance their flavor, which is described as nutty or earthy. Sesame seeds can be used in baking, as a hummus flavoring agent or in kebab sauces. Rich in vitamins and minerals, sesame seeds are a rich source of niacin, thiamin, folic acid, riboflavin, calcium, zinc, selenium, copper, and manganese.

Sichuan Peppercorn: This pungent spice is used to mask bad meat odors. Yuck.

Spearmint: Spearmint gets its name from its pointed leaves. An herb that can be used fresh, dried or frozen. Used in beverages, as a flavoring agent and fumigant.

Star Anise: Star anise is an aromatic spice which carries a rather sweet flavor. Tastes like licorice. Used in seasoning foods, candy, and beverages.

Sumac: Sumac is a spice used mostly in Middle Eastern cuisine. It has a flavor similar to lemon or vinegar. Sumac is used to season hummus, kebabs, rice and salad dressings. It can also be paired with seafood and eggs.

Tamarind: The Tamarind tree produces a curved brown bean pod filled with black seeds. When pressed out, the pulp renders out a juice or paste known for its sour taste and fruity smell. Tamarind is used in lentil dishes, curries and chutneys as a souring agent. It is also used to make Worcestershire sauce. Tamarind grows throughout Southeast Asia, the West Indies, and the Indian subcontinent.

Tarragon: In French, the word tarragon translates as ‘little dragon’ and has distinctive elongated and narrow leaves. Tarragon is used in sauces like remoulade, tartar, and béarnaise. It also complements chicken, shellfish, turkey, veal and egg dishes. Tarragon has a very strong flavor and can overpower foods. It can be added during the last few minutes of cooking to enhance soups and stews. Tarragon marries well with mayonnaise, potatoes, carrots, onions, mushrooms, beets, peas, lemons, organs, rice and pates.

Thyme: This herb is sold both fresh and dried. When fresh, it can be bought in sprigs. Unlike most herbs, thyme can retain its flavor in dried form. It is a member of the mint family.

Turmeric: This ancient root spice looks like a ginger root. Fresh turmeric has a reddish-brown color with rough skin. When in powder form turmeric looks bright yellow. It is used primarily as a dye or condiment and is an ingredient in curry powder. Widely used in Moroccan cuisines, turmeric is a meat and vegetable spice.

Wasabi Japonica: This pale green root spice has a very strong pungent flavor that serves a variety of culinary uses. Lovers of Japanese food recognize it as a pasty condiment served with Sushi, Sashimi and raw fish. It is also available in powder form. When using raw, the root should be handled like horseradish using a sharkskin grater or ‘oroshi’. Wasabi is in the cabbage family. It has health benefits that include fighting cancer, reducing the effects of food poisoning and detoxification. It is also a known antifungal and anti-bacterial agent.

White Pepper: White peppercorns are black peppercorns that have been soaked in water to remove the outer shell. This produces a mellower, slightly fermented taste. White pepper is preferred over its black counterpart in European and Southeast Asian cuisine. When added to most dishes, the white pepper disappears into the food, allowing the flavor of the dish to shine through.

This list of herbs and spices by cuisine is by no means exhaustive. I welcome your suggestions and recommendations as we add to the list. 

Pro Tip

Let’s be practical. You may not have the money or the storage space in your cupboard to buy all the herbs and spices mentioned in our guide. It’s best to buy based on the way you cook. If you rarely cook Thai food, then don’t invest in those types of spices.

 

Top 15 Essential Herbs & Spices for Your Kitchen Pantry

 

spice jars
Photo by Laura Mitulla

You can use this guide as a quick reference before you go shopping to replenish your herb and spice pantry. To save money, buy the herbs and spices you use most, based on cuisine. You can organize your pantry either alphabetically, or by the types of meals you cook most often.

 

  1. Bay Leaf
  2. Black Pepper
  3. Cayenne Pepper
  4. Chili Powder
  5. Cinnamon
  6. Cumin
  7. Garlic Powder
  8. Onion Powder
  9. Oregano
  10. Paprika
  11. Sage
  12. Salt (Himalayan or Sea Salt)
  13. Tarragon
  14. Thyme
  15. Turmeric

Pro Tip

Fresh herbs will usually last only about two to four days, depending on how they’re stored. Dried herbs will be stronger and have a much more intense flavor. When you substitute dry for fresh herbs, the recommended substitution ratio is 1:3 (dry to fresh).

Herbs & Spices by Region

Brazilian

  • Allspice
  • Annatto Seed
  • Cilantro
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Coriander
  • Ginger
  • Mace
  • Nutmeg

Caribbean

  • Allspice
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Ginger
  • Nutmeg

Chinese

  • Black Pepper
  • Chili
  • Cloves
  • Fennel Seeds
  • Ginger
  • Sesame Seed (Oil)
  • Sichuan Peppercorn
  • Star Anise

Creole

  • Basil
  • Bay Leaves
  • Black Pepper
  • File
  • Oregano
  • Paprika
  • Parsley
  • Red Chile/Cayenne Chili Powder
  • Thyme

French

  • Basil
  • Bay Leaf
  • Cayenne Pepper
  • Chervil
  • Cloves
  • Coriander
  • Cumin
  • Fennel
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Lavender
  • Marjoram
  • Mint
  • Mustard
  • Nutmeg
  • Oregano
  • Paprika
  • Parsley
  • Pepper
  • Rosemary
  • Saffron
  • Tarragon
  • Thyme

White Pepper

German

  • Bay Leaf
  • Borage
  • Caraway Seeds
  • Chives
  • Dill
  • Marjoram
  • Parsley
  • Thyme

Greek

  • Allspice
  • Basil
  • Bay Leaf
  • Cloves
  • Coriander
  • Dill
  • Fennel
  • Mahlab
  • Marjoram
  • Mastic
  • Mint
  • Oregano
  • Rosemary
  • Saffron
  • Sage
  • Sumac
  • Thyme

Indian

  • Ajwain
  • Aniseed
  • Asefetida
  • Basil
  • Bay Leaf
  • Bay Leaf
  • Black Cumin
  • Black Pepper
  • Brown Mustard Seed
  • Capers
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Coriander
  • Cumin Seed
  • Curry Tree or Sweet Neem Leaf
  • Fennel Seed
  • Fenugreek
  • Garam Masala (spice blend)
  • Green Chili Pepper
  • Mint
  • Mustard Seed
  • Nigella Seed
  • Nutmeg
  • Panch Phoron (Bengali Five Spice)
  • Poppy Seed
  • Red Chili Pepper
  • Saffron
  • Sesame Seed
  • Star Anise
  • White Pepper

Italian

  • Basil
  • Bay Leaf
  • Fennel
  • Mint
  • Onion
  • Parsley
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Thyme

Japanese

  • Allspice
  • Anise
  • Basil
  • Bay Leaf
  • Caraway
  • Cardamom
  • Cayenne Pepper
  • Chili Pepper
  • Chives
  • Cilantro
  • Cinnamon
  • Clove
  • Coriander
  • Cumin
  • Curry
  • Dill
  • Fennel
  • Fenugreek
  • Ginger
  • Horseradish
  • Kaffir Lime Leaf
  • Lemongrass
  • Mace
  • Nutmeg
  • Oregano
  • Paprika
  • Parsley
  • Rosemary
  • Saffron
  • Sage
  • Star Anise
  • Tarragon
  • Thyme
  • Turmeric
  • Wasabi Japonica
  • White Pepper

Mexican

  • Anise
  • Basil
  • Cayenne Pepper
  • Cilantro
  • Cinnamon
  • Clove
  • Coriander
  • Cumin
  • Ginger
  • Hoja Santa
  • Marjoram
  • Mint
  • Oregano
  • Papalo
  • Paprika
  • Parsley
  • Saffron
  • Spearmint
  • Thyme

Spanish

  • Bay Leaf
  • Cayenne Pepper
  • Garlic
  • Nora
  • Oregano
  • Paprika
  • Parsley
  • Rosemary
  • Saffron

Thai

  • Basil
  • Chili/Chilli/Chile
  • Cinnamon (from Cassia tree)
  • Clove
  • Cumin
  • Ginger
  • Kaffir Lime Leaf
  • Lemongrass
  • Mint
  • Nutmeg
  • Pandan Leaf
  • Sesame Seeds/Oil
  • Turmeric

Herbs & Spices for Beef, Poultry & Fish

Beef

  • Paprika
  • Garlic Powder
  • Black Pepper
  • Thyme
  • Cayenne Pepper
  • Onion Powder
  • Oregano
  • Rosemary
  • Ground Coriander
  • Turmeric
  • Cumin

Poultry

  • Sage
  • Marjoram
  • Paprika
  • Black Pepper
  • Thyme

Fish

  • Basil
  • Black Pepper
  • White Pepper
  • Thyme
  • Cayenne Pepper
  • Onion Powder
  • Paprika
  • Oregano
  • Chili Powder
  • Cinnamon
  • Rosemary
  • Celery Salt/Celery Seed
  • Garlic Powder
  • Dry Mustard
  • Bay Leaf
  • Ginger
  • Cardamom
  • Allspice