Spices: Adding health benefits and flavor to your food.
“Wars were fought over them, kingdoms were lost because of them, and new lands were discovered in search of them. In ancient times and for centuries to follow, (herbs &) spices were often more precious than gold. But before they were money, spices were medicine.”
– Bharat Aggarwal, PhD
Another night of grilled chicken breasts is a simple healthy choice, but imagine spicing up a simple but healthy meal that is good for your taste buds and your health. Reach for your spice rack or Masala Dabba and you’ll not only up the flavor of your food, but you’ll also get a boost of antioxidants (substances that protect cells from damage).
Spices aren’t just delicious flavorings; they are potent food as medicine. I consider them our allies in our home cooking. It allows our senses to come alive with infinite flavor combinations to elevate basic whole foods, experience other cultures on our plates, and provide health benefits that are pleasing and healing.
Many traditional foods use spices liberally in their meals and innately understood the wisdom of using spices perhaps to aid in digestion or nutrient absorption. Yet, few home cooks today feel confident about how to use them in their everyday cooking. This guide will review my top spice must-haves, their health benefits, storage, and how to liberally and fearlessly spice up your life with daily food as medicine.
Spices come from a part other than the leaf – think of seed, root, or bark. If you buy spices, I recommend you buy them whole. Whole spices last much longer in your pantry, up to two years, vs. ground that lasts six months to a year. Use whole spices at your will to grind them up and release their aroma and oils.
Benefits of Spices
- It adds flavor and can increase the enjoyment of food.
- Imparts characteristic flavor (sour, sweet, salty, tangy).
- Some are natural tenderizers for meats.
- Many offer health benefits through abundant phytonutrients and other physiologic effects, such as the digestive system.
- Provide healthy amounts of phytonutrients to our daily eating habits are protective compounds found in plants with health-promoting properties (antioxidant and anti-inflammatory). They also give food their color and present in white foods like garlic and onions.
Four main spices, sweet, sour, bitter, and hot, transform our dishes from savory to sweet.
Cinnamon is an example of sweetness. Check for loads of layers, grind it or break a piece off, roll it and smell it again -I use it in my marinades to flavor lamb or vegetable curries.
Sumac is a unique spice indeed sour like a lemon with a slaty after taste – use it in marinades to sprinkle in salads or roasted squash – you haven’t lived until you tried it!
Turmeric is a root and a bitter spice – it grows like ginger – use it sparingly – watch your fingers – it will color your world with good health, flavor your rice dishes, and golden coconut milk lattes.
Hungarian Paprika – a powdery form of bell pepper – it has a sweetness and sharpness to it – be fearless and sprinkle it on coconut ice cream to fish dishes.
Here are a few of my must-have spices in my pantry:
Black pepper helps blood circulation. I always buy it whole, grind it to release the oils, and I can’t do without it in my kitchen.
Cardamon is a wonderful detoxing spice with strong medicinal quality that helps lower blood pressure. It comes in two types black and green pods that deliver a wonderful spicey sweet flavor to your palate. It is brilliant in curries, rice dishes, and puddings.
Coriander, these citrusy seeds are perfect whole in fermenting pickles or grind in fragrant stews and marinades. I love tossing the whole on avocado toast. Coriander stimulates digestive enzymes and juices, which are known to enhance our digestive system. To reap its maximum benefits, you can also consume coriander water. Throw some coriander leaves in a bottle of water and leave it in the refrigerator overnight. Drink it the following day.
Cinnamon is sweetly fragrant and lends a sweet taste to food without adding sugar – studies indicate it supports the body’s response to sugars, with heart-healthy benefits such as reducing and lowers cholesterol and triglycerides. It is pretty popular worldwide and especially in our apple pies. Try adding it to your smoothies stews, meat rubs, or chillis.
Cumin is a savory spice that is aromatic and nutty. In addition, cumin contains vital nutrients such as iron and copper, needed for healthy red blood cells necessary for dancers’ stamina and performance.
Ginger is a tropical plant used in Asian cultures for thousands of years to treat stomach upset, diarrhea, and nausea. Some studies have also found that ginger cuts the severity of motion sickness or prevents the symptoms altogether. Buy it fresh to make teas or add stir fry dishes, smoothies, or homemade salad dressings to baked goods.
Turmeric is best known for its use in Indian curry dishes. However, it has become a trendy superfood because it contains curcumin, and research indicates its ability to reduce inflammation in the body.
Rub it on roasted vegetables, meats, tacos, or create a curry.
I look at spices and herbs like a palette of colors to paint my dishes in an aroma of intoxicating flavors.
- Keep herbs and spices readily available:
- Best stored in airtight tin or glass container (keep these on hand for when making fresh spice mixes or drying herbs from the garden)
- Store in a cool dark place (50-60* F)
- Some experts recommend not keeping longer than six months, while others say one year for ground spices and two years for whole spices
- Nose Test- open the bottle and, if slight aroma, tosses it out. Take the whole spice and rub between fingers- it should release volatile oil that can be felt and smelled
Benefits of Homemade Spice Mixes:
- Can avoid fillers, flavor enhancers & preservatives (modified food starch, partially hydrogenated oils, MSG, etc.)
- Increased freshness and enhanced flavors
- The convenience of not running to store every time need a spice mix
Notes on Making Mixes:
Spice mixes are best used in one month (though some can last 3-6 months)
- 1⁄2 the recipe the first time to get an idea of how quickly you’ll use
- Have clean airtight containers on hand for storage of mixes
Homemade Spice Mix
- Two tablespoons whole cumin seeds, toasted
- Two tablespoons whole cardamom seeds, toasted
- Two tablespoons whole coriander seeds, toasted
- 1/4 cup ground turmeric, one tablespoon dry mustard
- one teaspoon cayenne
Place all ingredients in a container with an airtight lid. Shake to combine. Store in a cool, dry place for up to 6 months. When ready to use, grind and add to dishes according to taste.
One of the most significant benefits of using spices is that they are a healthy way to get you out of an eating rut. Enjoying your food is key to maintaining healthy habits for the long term. Be sure to talk to your doctor or a nutritionist before changing your diet.
Try this Moroccan Lamb Stew
We often associate Cinnamon with sweet foods, but it works in savory dishes as well, like this Moroccan Lamb Stew
Ceylon (true) Cinnamon:
Mountain Rose Herbs
My Spice Sage
Recipes and Cookbooks
Healing Spices by Bharat Aggarwal, PhD
The Flavor Bible Page & Dormenburg
Rebecca Katz, RD