About Spices

About Spices

I recently had a personal conversation with a friend, Karen, who expressed an interest in understanding spices and seasonings better, so consider this commentary a starter conversation on the subject.  We’ll do research, we’ll share thoughts and in the end, I hope we’ll all be better able to decide what other flavors and tastes we’d like to try and  experiment with various foods to open up new avenues for old favorites.   Further, maybe we’ll run across  some themes from past recipes that have become lost in our ever-widening search for new tastebud sensations that deserve a revival.

If we can narrow down some of the elements of different spices and define those elements, we will better equipped to use them.  We’ll be able to relate to traditional uses and more creative in adding them to new recipes.  We’ll then not only have an idea for some possible specific uses, but we might be better able to decide on a substitute that works when the original is not available.

Part I.


Facts:  It is ground seeds from plants in the Zingiberaceae family (Ginger genus).

It is the 3rd most expensive spice by weight  (next to Vanilla#2, Saffron#1)

Uniquely, intensely aromatic resinious fragrance,  cardamom has smokey, but not bitter quality and cool (like mint) ; large quantities should be kept in pod form as ground cardamom loses flavors quickly.

Common Uses: Indian foods, Nordic dishes/baked goods.

Possible uses

As some chefs use nutmeg, I use a pinch of cardamom in creamy sauces and aiolis that will accompany pasta, fish, vegetables and in salads that contain bread.  Also, in a situation where I have needed nutmeg, but didn’t have it, I have substituted cardamom and a tiny pinch of cayenne to make us the missing warmth. I have also used cardamom successfully in sweet drinks containing coconut (Pina Coladas, etc) adding a bit of mystery to the experience.


From the  inner bark of several trees in SE Asia and Sri Lanka most cinnamon is a combination of various plants in the Cinnamomum genus.  It is used heavily in Indian foods, and other Asian dishes, both sweet and savory.  It’s characteristics are largely aromatic with  touch of warmth and the sensation of sweet and sensuous.

While Cinnamomum verum is sometimes considered to be “truecinnamon”, most cinnamon in international commerce is derived from related species, which are also referred to as”cassia” to distinguish them from “true cinnamon”.

Cinnamon’s uses are many, from baked goods, stews with chicken and other fowl, to hot drinks i.e. hot chocolate, teas and coffee.  It’s aroma conjures up images of warmth and security, home and hearth, richness and comfort and is a staple in winter holiday dishes.  Perhaps that is why my mother often referred to it as a “Winter Spice” in her recipes.  Possibly, there are few foods that don’t pair well with a pinch of cinnamon, mostly tomato based dishes containing strong garlic.  If you have made a dish that feels flat in taste, add a little cinnamon and you’ll notice the change.


A rhizome of Zingiber officianale/Family Zingiberaceae, mainly from So.  Asia but has spread to E. Africa and Caribbean.

It is a hot fragrant spice made from the rhizome, sometimes dried and grated (shredded)  or preserved as a candied root for preservation.  It is also used fresh, grated (shredded) in many Asian dishes, teas, often in dishes that contain bland vegetables or meats that require a boost of flavor.  It is used both savory and sweet.

Ginger’s characteristics are lively, hot, aromatic and stimulating.  It is often thought of as a medicinal spice as well as an ingredient in cooking. The only substitute I’ve ever found similar to ginger is a small amount of fresh finely ground nutmeg or mace paired with cayenne pepper 1/1.  Other information on this specific is welcomed.


The nutmeg (genus Myristica) tree is any of several in this family species, the most important commercial species being Myristica fragransAn evergreen, there are two spices derived from the fruit: nutmeg and mace.

The first harvest of nutmeg trees takes place 7–9 years after planting, and the trees reach full production after 20 years

Nutmeg is the seed of the tree, dried, while mace is the dried “lacy” reddish covering or aril of the seed.. Nutmeg is usually used in powdered form. This is the only tropical fruit that is the source of two different spices. Several other commercial products are also produced from the trees, including essential oils, extracted oleoresins, and nutmeg butter (see below).

From Indonesia, Penang Island in Malaysia and the Caribbean (Grenada)  Some from New Guinea and India.


Aromatic, warm, associated with other “Winter Spices”, it also has a nuttiness and mysterious excitement in it’s flavor.


A little nutmeg goes a long way.  Be sparing!

Eggnog! Warm drinks, coffee, cocoa, any creme drink, especially warm.  Creamy sauces, such as sauces for mac and cheese, creme sauces for vegetable dishes, scalloped potatoes or au gratins, creamy gravies for chicken fried steaks, country gravies and sausage gravies.  Any dishes containing sausage.  Surprise yourself, it’s good in Chili!

Substitute:  Mace

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