What Is A Spice? A Beginners Guide.

Spices are useful for adding flavor, aroma, and color to food. Although we could probably all name a few spices off the top of our head, few of us could define what a spice actually is. We also tend to confuse many herbs with spices, so today we’re going to answer the question: what is a spice? After reading this page, you’ll be armed with all the answers to impress friends and family the next time you’re at the dinner table. Let’s get started.

What is a spice?

Spices always come from plants and are packed with flavor, more so than most other ingredients found in the kitchen. They are often dried and could be a fruit, flower, stem, bark, root, or seed. In general, this is how spices are distinguished from herbs, which are usually leafy. This rule can be broken though. For example, a bay leaf is considered a spice, even though it’s a leaf. Curry leaf is another example. The reason for grouping these leaves as spices is due to their use in cooking. They are added as a supporting ingredient at the start of cooking, rather than adding for a burst of fresh flavor.

How do spices flavor food?

The flavor provided by spices is contained in bubbles of oil within the plant. They are locked away, only to be released when the plant becomes sick from infection or is damaged. How does the effect your next recipe? It means that to release the delicious flavors into your food, the spice needs to be ground, bruised, or heated. Indian cooking has known this secret for centuries, briefly frying or roasting aromatic spices before adding the rest of the ingredients. It is what makes a vindaloo or korma smell and taste so delicious.

What are the 5 types of spice?

1. Seeds

The seeds are the most common type of spice you’ll use in cooking. It makes sense that this part of a plant should be packed with flavor. They are the essential part of a plant’s ability to reproduce. The intensity of smell is crucial for fending off unwanted predators or restricting disease. Common examples of seeds include star anise, cardamom, fenugreek, mustard, and cumin.

2. Fruits

Fruits that grow on plants also serve an important role is a plant’s survival. They house the seeds and are high in sugar to appeal to animals. They will eat and then distribute the seeds over vast areas of land, allowing the plants to dominate their landscape. Some of the common fruit spices are chili, sumac, allspice, vanilla, and black pepper.

3. Roots

A root spice could be a corm, bulb, or rhizome. They are responsible for storing the plant’s food and so they are around 70% carbohydrate. Some of the best-known roots are ginger, turmeric, licorice, garlic, and galangal.

Tip: Be sure to check out our article comparing galangal and ginger so that you never get them mixed up again.

4. Stems

The stems of plants are rarely able to be used as spices, although there are a few that can. Cinnamon is derived from the outer bark of the cinnamomum tree; lemongrass comes from a tropical grass; and mastic, fantastic for making dondurma ice cream, is the resin collected from the lentisk tree.

5. Flowers

Flowers can be excellent stores of aroma, that are delicious for many culinary uses. Although most flowers don’t have enough intensity for seasoning food, there are some like cloves and saffron that are highly effective.

What is the benefit of using spices in cooking?

Spices are intensely flavored, so only a small amount is needed to bring delicious flavor to food. Not only are spices useful for flavor, but they are also low in calories and sugar. At the same time, they provide mineral-packed nutritional goodness and tend to be high in antioxidants, iron, magnesium, and calcium.

4 tips for cooking with spices

  1. Grind spices immediately before adding them to your food as they tend to lose their flavor intensity quickly.
  2. Although a mortar and pestle are good for crushing spices, consider using a coffee grinder as it is quick and effective.
  3. Making a homemade spice blend is easy and usually tastes better than packet mixes.
  4. To get the best out of spices, “blooming” is useful. This involves heating the spices in oil to release the flavors into the oil, which then coats the other ingredients that get added.

Do Spices Expire?

Always check the expiry date on spices; old products probably won’t make you sick but much of the flavor will have gone. Spices should always be stored in a cool dry location away from sunlight or the oven. Transfer bags of spice to an airtight container or jar to extend their life.

Related reading:
How to store spices – an ultimate guide.
How to describe spice flavors – 14 characteristics explained.

When were spices first used in cooking?

Spices have been used in cooking for thousands of years, with mentions of spices dating back to 1000BC when Queen Sheba offered spices, amongst other items, as gifts to King Solomon. Indians have been cultivating turmeric, cardamom, and others since 800BC. Chinese myths talk of spices being used for medicinal purposes back in 2700BC. Source.

Summing up

Spices play an important part in cooking but it’s not always clear what is, and isn’t a spice. In many cases, they will be dried rather than fresh. This makes it easier for us to differentiate them from herbs. Spices are often used to build depth of flavor in cooking rather than take “center stage” in the dish.


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