Mayo Clinic Health Library

Slide show: Your guide to spices

Updated: 01-29-2011

Guide to spices

Photograph of spices paired with fruit

Spices play a big role in adding variety, flavor and enjoyment to food and beverages. Some spices even boast health benefits because they're good sources of antioxidants. Spices come from a variety of tropical plant and tree parts, such as seeds, fruits, roots, buds, stems and bark. They're usually available in dried forms.

Spices add a negligible amount of calories to your food but lots of flavor. Learn more about six common spices and how to use them to create flavorful dishes and desserts. Experiment to see how you most enjoy using spices. Keep in mind that ground spices release flavor faster than do whole spices. And remember, spices are meant to enhance the flavor of a dish, not overwhelm it.

Cayenne

Photograph of ground cayenne Cayenne, sometimes called crushed red pepper, is made from ground dried hot chili peppers. Cayenne is the main ingredient in chili powder. It lends warmth to dishes. Cayenne is often used in barbecue sauces, but you also can use it to season tomato sauces, soups, casseroles, baked egg dishes, cheese sauces and lean meats.

Cinnamon

Photograph of cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon

Cinnamon is made from the bark of the evergreen cinnamon and cassia trees. Cinnamon is sold in ground or stick form. Cinnamon flavor runs from strong and spicy to sweet and mellow, making it versatile for cooking and baking. Cinnamon is used in cookies, breads, pies, candies, and coffees and other beverages. You can also use it to season meats, pasta and marinades. Cinnamon also pairs well with sweet vegetables, such as squash and sweet potatoes. You can even add cinnamon to fruit salads or baked beans.

Cumin

Photograph of cumin seeds

Cumin is made from the dried seeds of a plant in the parsley family. Its flavor is earthy and nutty. Cumin is sold as seeds or as a powder. Cumin seeds can be toasted in a dry, nonstick skillet to enhance their flavor. Cumin is commonly used in curries and to season chickpeas, chili, stews, couscous, vegetable dishes and condiments, including raita, a yogurt-based Indian dish.

Paprika

Photograph of paprika

Paprika is made from ground sweet red peppers. Paprika's flavor may be mild and sweet or hot, depending on the variety. It's traditionally used in goulash, but you also can add paprika to potatoes, cheese sauces, tomato sauces, baked fish or chicken, soups and salad dressings.

Saffron

Photograph of saffron threads

Saffron is made from a purple-flowered crocus. Saffron generally comes in a powder form or as saffron threads. To use saffron threads, crush and then soak them in hot liquid for about 15 minutes before adding to your dish. Or add them to a dish early in the cooking process. You can remove saffron threads from a dish before serving, but they are edible. Saffron lends a golden color to foods, such as paella, a traditional Spanish dish. You can also use saffron in soups, seafood, poultry, pasta and rice dishes, or even in baked goods, such as bread, rolls and cookies.

Turmeric

Photograph of ground turmeric

Turmeric is made from a root related to ginger. Its flavor is sharp and woodsy. Turmeric is frequently used in South Asian cuisines. It pairs well with potatoes, lentils, cauliflower and rice. Turmeric lends a yellow hue to dishes.

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