Spices come in a wide range of flavors providing the home cook with endless options for flavoring food. When we describe a taste, it can be salty, sweet, sour, bitter, or umami. But food experts have a much larger number of characteristics for describing a spice’s flavor. If you enjoy cooking with spices then it is useful to learn how to describe their flavor profile, and what other ingredients work well with them. In this article, we’ll look at some popular ways to describe the flavor of spices and provide examples of each type.
14 sensory characteristics of spices
Some spices can contain a sulfur-like taste which is slightly metallic and bitey. The flavors in this group are generally dominated by meaty and oniony flavors and there is a definite pungency.
Examples: Hing, onion, garlic, asafoetida, mustard seeds, nigella seeds
We’re all familiar with bitter flavor which is commonly found in foods like grapefruits and kale. Not everyone enjoys the taste when eaten on their own, but bitterness can help balance food. A rich heavy meaty dish is given a burst of life with a touch of bitterness incorporated.
Examples: oregano, turmeric, summer savory, thyme, fenugreek, cumin, ajwain, star anise.
As the name suggests, woody spices have a wood-like flavor that are more pleasant than the description suggests.
Examples: Juniper, Sichuan peppercorns, coffee, cinnamon, cardamom.
When we think of a sour flavor, lemons usually spring to mind for many. It conjures up memories of mouth-puckering taste that isn’t pleasant. But used in moderation, with contrasting sweet or salty flavored foods, it is perfect for many recipes.
Examples: Tamarind, sumac, amchur.
Pungent spices are usually front and center in a dish with their strong flavor and smell.
Examples: garlic, horseradish, onion powder, wasabi, allspice, grains of paradise, ginger.
Floral taste is commonly associated with drinking herbal tea, but spices can also provide this flavor. Floral notes provide subtle reminders of a spring meadow, filled with flowers. The floral characteristic is heavily impacted by our sense of smell.
Examples: Saffron, thyme.
Have you ever eaten a mouthful of food and sensed a cool sensation? If you’ve popped a menthol mint in your mouth, you’ll know what we mean. Cooling spices are useful for bringing freshness to meals. Indian curries are lifted with the brightening inclusion of cardamom and turmeric. A paella lacks authenticity without the cool floral taste of saffron.
Examples: Cumin, saffron, turmeric.
Interesting reading: What is a spice? Get the definitive answer.
Spices with pine notes provide a woody, astringent flavor that has a bite.
Examples: Bay leaf, fennel seeds, juniper berries, mace, nutmeg, sumac.
Spices that offer earthy characteristics have an aroma similar to earth with a dusty, somewhat burnt flavor. Although foods that taste like dirt don’t sound appealing, they can add a comforting feel to a casserole on a cold winter’s night.
Geosmin is a protein that humans are extremely sensitive to, and it is the reason for the earthy taste contained in food. Some loathe it, while others love it.
Did you know? Earthy spices often contain compounds that act as poison to ward off pests; however, they will not hurt humans in small doses.
Examples: Cumin, fenugreek, maras pepper, annatto, coriander seed, achiote, saffron
Some spices contain an almond-like flavor which is buttery and useful in many dishes. These spices often gain a lot of their flavor from being toasted or roasted.
Examples: Caraway, cilantro seeds, cumin, nigella seeds, fenugreek seeds, poppy seed, ajwain
Fruit spices tend to be sweeter than others. They have prominent fruity, fresh, and often malty flavors. They contain aldehyde compounds in abundance and tend to be quite subtle on the palate.
Examples: Star anise, summer savory, fennel, nigella.
An herbaceous spice carries flavor notes similar to those of a herb. Perhaps the best way to describe the taste is to compare it to cut grass.
Examples: Oregano, cilantro
Almost everyone has experienced fiery hot food at some stage in their life. They can reach feverish thanks to chemicals that create an illusion of burning, by sending warning signals to the brain.
Hot spices cause the mouth to sense heat, ranging from a pleasant warmth through to an eye-watering intensity. Our taste buds can build resistance to hot food, the more we eat of it. People who regularly eat spicy Thai or Indian dishes will build up a tolerance, while newcomers will find even the mildest spice a challenge.
Examples: Chili pepper, wasabi, horseradish, black pepper, white pepper.
From an early age, we learn to detect sweet flavors and it is one of the more popular tastes in cooking. Sweet spices are excellent in desserts but also pair well with salty or sour ingredients in savory dishes.
Examples: Star anise, green cardamom, cloves, caraway, allspice, anise.
Now that you have a solid list of flavor characteristics, you’ll be able to describe different spices that you encounter. Keep in mind this is not a definitive list as there are dozens of ways to describe their flavor. However, it’s a great list to get you started.
Although it’s useful to increase your cooking vocabulary, the real value is knowing how to balance dishes with the addition of spice. A smack of sumac pairs deliciously with grilled lamb, a burst of hot wasabi provides relief from oily fish. Learning what goes with what is a skill that develops with experience. Keep testing flavor combinations and you’ll soon be on your way to mastering flavor in your cooking.