How to Use Cumin (and 9 Other Herbs & Spices)
Have no idea what to do with cumin? Does coriander mystify you? Knowing which spices to keep on your spice rack may seem overwhelming at first, but if you start small, and build up over time, you will soon find yourself an expert, tossing a “dash” here and a “pinch” there to create delicious dishes.
Herbs vs. Spices
Let’s start with the basics. By definition, herbs are the leaves and tender stems from a plant, and spices are the dried seeds, roots, or bark. Whole spices (cumin seeds vs. ground cumin) will stay fresher longer, but I find that for everyday cooking, ground spices are more practical.
Spice Storage (and herbs too!)
Dried spices and herbs should be stored in airtight containers, out of direct sunlight. Buy only the amount you will use over a one year period, as they lose potency over time. My spice cupboard, and the spices listed below, are mostly herbs and spices used in Mediterranean and Middle eastern cuisines, which also has some crossover with Mexican cuisine. If you tend to cook more Italian, French, or Indian dishes, your spice cupboard may look a little different.
An earthy tasting spice, I use cumin in many dishes, from carrot salad to this ground-beef skillet. Cumin is used in many cuisines around the world, and is a key spice in taco seasoning. I keep a high quality ground cumin on hand, plus some cumin seeds when I feel like grinding my own. The difference in freshness between already ground and grinding your own is astounding! However, for quick weeknight meals, already ground is more practical.
This is the only herb that made this list! I prefer my herbs in fresh form, and the oregano I use I grow and dry myself. If you are going to keep dried herbs, I suggest purchasing small quantities from a reputable supplier such as Savory Spice Shop or Penzey’s, as the ones in the supermarket tend to be flavorless and akin to dust. There are so many varieties of oregano, all having slightly different flavors, try experimenting a bit! I prefer Turkish or Mexican oregano over Italian or Greek varieties.
Paprika is a mildly flavored ground pepper that I use often. It adds a slight sweetness, pungency, and red-orange color to dishes. I also love using smoked paprika, a specialty of Spain, especially in vegetarian dishes. I almost always use paprika when roasting cauliflower.
Turmeric comes from a root, and has a very earthy flavor. It is best paired with something to balance that earthiness, such as tangy-ness (acid), like in this Tangy turmeric chicken recipe. Turmeric has received a tremendous amount of attention lately due to its health benefits, and I think a valuable spice to have on hand.
Ground sumac comes from the sumac berry, and has an extremely tart flavor. I like to use it in place of, or in addition to lemons. It’s a key ingredient Za-atar Spice blend, and can be surprisingly good in dishes like this simple lemon-arugula pasta recipe.
There are many varieties of cinnamon, and it is a spice highly prized for centuries for its medicinal benefits. While it is commonly associated with sweet dishes, I love to use it in savory dishes such as these lamb patties.
The flavor of allspice reminds me of my childhood. Again, this is a spice commonly used in savory dishes in Middle eastern cuisine, such as these Turkish-style kofte kebabs. Allspice comes from a tree, and is native to the West Indies and central America.
Aleppo pepper comes from the Halaby pepper, and is a mild, fruity pepper. It has gained much popularity in the U.S. in recent years, and I love using it in dishes for a slight kick, such as these sweet potatoes with chili and cinnamon.