Learning how much spice to use in cooking is essential. You can make tender meat that falls off the bone or a delicious fragrant curry, but if the spice ratios are wrong your efforts are wasted. Most spices are bursting with flavor so it’s a good idea to follow some ratio guidelines. Let’s take a look at how to season without over or under-doing it.
An introduction to spice ratios
If you are following a recipe then this is your first point of reference. They’ve done the hard work testing how much of each ingredient works best. Don’t mess with those quantities unless you suspect there’s a mistake. Use recipes developed by reliable sources you can trust.
Got no recipe?
If you aren’t using a recipe or it doesn’t state how much to use, you’ll need some guidelines for using spices. Here is our advice for using spice:
- Use ½ teaspoon of spice for every pound of meat or vegetables used in the recipe.
- Use ¼ teaspoon when using powerful spices like red chili powder, garlic powder, sumac, oregano, cumin, or cayenne pepper.
- Use ½ teaspoon of spice for meals that are of a size to serve four people.
- Use ½ teaspoon of spice for every pint of liquid used in a chowder, sauce, or soup.
As the cooking progresses you should taste whatever you’re making frequently. Your receptors will lose their sensitivity after several mouthfuls, so a great idea is to drink some water. Try to get out of the kitchen for a few minutes if possible. This will reset your taste and smell senses and allow you to test more accurately. You may also want to enlist the help of someone else to try your food for a second opinion.
9 tips for getting the flavor right
1. Add in stages
In many dishes, you can add seasoning early in the cook, then add more later, if needed. It is much easier to dial up the flavor than it is to pacify an over-spiced meal.
2. Consider the temperature
Flavors have different intensity based on their temperature, so take this into account when adding spices. The colder the food, the duller its flavor becomes. A great example is basil ice cream that tastes just right at room temperature, but once frozen, it may not have enough intensity.
3. Take all the ingredients into account
When adding salt to food, use less than usual if there are already sodium-rich ingredients added. Anchovies, bacon, capers, and olives bring way more saltiness to the food.
4. Respect the chili
Spices like cayenne pepper, chili flakes, or spice blends with chili in them are usually hot. Their heat will start out mild and build strength as you continue eating. Remember this when taste testing.
5. Cook to everyone’s preferences
Although you may enjoy a fiery dish loaded with ghost pepper, most others probably won’t share your enthusiasm. Work out the flavor preferences of everyone you’re cooking for before starting.
6. Salt with the end use in mind
If the ingredients you’re adding spices to are part of a larger dish, then consider adding salt more aggressively. For example, a pie filling will include pastry that will offset the salty flavor of the mixture.
7 Allow time for flavors to interact
Are you making a salad dressing or a spice-infused Anglaise to churn into ice cream? Flavors take time to bond. It is best to allow time for all the flavors to come together.
8. Some spices lose intensity
Although most spices are added early in the recipe, keep in mind that some lose their intensity if heated too long. Chili flakes will lose some of their heat if added at the start of cooking. You’re better to add towards the end.
9. Ground Vs Whole
Whole spices that you freshly grind in the kitchen will have more zing than the dry powdered option. Use a little less if you’re using fresh spices.
What about herbs?
For fresh chopped herbs start with one to two teaspoons and add more if needed. Use half the amount of dried herbs as they have a more intense flavor that can easily overwhelm the other ingredients.
Want to know what spices work best with specific meats, vegetables, and other spices? Take a look at our guide on how to use spices in cooking.
Adding the correct amount of spice is an important part of getting the recipe right. Providing exact measurements on how much to use is a challenge as each spice varies greatly is strength. If you don’t have a recipe, a useful starting point is adding half a teaspoon of the spice to a meal for an average-sized family. It is unlikely that you’ll overpower the dish with this amount, and you can always add more if needed. Of course, some spices are extremely hot, like cayenne pepper. For these, we recommend using a quarter teaspoon and testing from there.