Spice market in Cairo, Egypt
Spice market in Cairo, Egypt

Spices are a group of plant products used to impart flavor to foods. Unlike herbs, spices are generally derived not from the leafy and other green portions of the plant, but rather from the seeds, fruits, flower parts, bark, or rhizomes.

Spices are also generally distinguished from herbs by the greater strength, intensity, or pungency of their flavors.

For thousands of years, humans have added spices and herbs to their foods in order to improve taste. Before modern refrigeration and canning, the first signs of spoiling could be masked by adding parts of aromatic plants—spices and herbs. In modern times, spices and herbs are added only to enhance the flavor of foods.

Spices are distinguished from herbs based upon what part of a plant is used and the way it is prepared. Generally spices are flavorings from dried seeds, fruits, or flower parts. A few spices are from dried bark and rhizomes.

Spices can be used as intact dried fruits or seeds, but most often they are ground into a powder used in food preparation. Herbs, by contrast, are typically flavorings from leaves or other green parts of plants.

Spices are used in a wide variety of dishes, from sweet to savory: desserts, breads, pickles, fruits, meats, and vegetables. Different spices are characteristic of different ethnic and regional cuisines.

In the late twentieth century, with the rise in global communications and travel as well as mass movement of migrant populations, the “typical” spices of North American cuisine increased and became more diverse, particularly in regions where many different cultures came together.

Sacks of dried spices
Sacks of dried spices

All spice, from the myrtle family, is prepared from the dried fruit of a West Indian tree, Pimenta dioica. Whole all spice is used in preparing pickles and relishes and to flavor meats such as pot roast; the powder is used in cakes, cookies, pies, and mincemeat.

Anise seeds, from the celery family, come from the herbaceous plant anise, Pimpinella anisum, from the Mediterranean region. Whole anise seeds are used as flavorings in stews, pot roasts, and some Chinese meat dishes. Crushed or powdered anise seeds are used as flavorings in Italian cookies, cakes, and liqueurs, as well as German breads.

Cardamom, from the ginger family, is prepared from the seed pods of large herbaceous cardamom plants, Elettaria cardamonum, native to India. The dried pods are crushed and used in many Indian and African meat and vegetable dishes, in rice dishes, and in Scandinavian breads.

Cinnamon, from the laurel family, is made from the dried bark of several species of small tropical trees in the genus Cinnamomum. The bark is cut into 3- or 4-inch lengths and is permitted to curl.

These dried “cinnamon sticks” often flavor hot cider and other beverages as well as meat stocks. Ground cinnamon is widely used to flavor cookies, pies, cakes, sweet rolls, and candies and is added to Mexican meat dishes.

Spices pots in Marrakesh souk
Spices pots in Marrakesh souk

Cloves, from the myrtle family, are the dried, unopened flower buds of a tropical tree, Eugenia caryophyllata, possibly native to the Moluccas Islands. The dried buds are ground for use in cookies, gingerbread, pies, and cakes. They are used whole in pickle brines or to flavor ham and other meats.

Coriander, from the celery family, comes from the dried seeds of the herbaceous plant Coriandrum sativum, a Mediterranean native. The seeds are used either whole in pickles and preserves or ground in cookies and puddings.

Cumin, from the celery family, comes from the dried seeds of the herbaceous plant Cuminum cynimum, also native to the Mediterranean region. Powdered cumin is widely used to flavor stews, fish and meat dishes, curries, and Mexican dishes, and it is one of the main ingredients of commercial chili powder.

Ginger, from the ginger family, is prepared from the thick, underground rhizomes (often called ginger root) of a large perennial, herbaceous plant, Zingiber officinale, native to islands of the Pacific.

Powdered ginger, from the dried rhizome, is widely used in cookies, gingerbread, and other baked goods. Fresh ginger rhizome is used in many Asian dishes, and sweetened crystallized ginger is used in pickles or is eaten as candy.

Ayurvedic spices
Ayurvedic spices

Mace and nutmeg, from the Myristicaceae family, are two spices that come from the seeds of the nutmeg tree, Myristica fragrans, native to the Moluccas Islands.

The hard seed has a covering of strips of reddish material; dried and ground, that material is called mace. The rest of the seed becomes nutmeg. Both mace and nutmeg are used in cakes, cookies, pies, and puddings.

Mustard, from the mustard family, comes from the dried seeds of herbaceous mustard plants. Brassica sinapis is the most widely used species. Mustard has been used in cooking for a very long time; its native origins are unknown. Ground to a powder, mustard is used in sauces and meat dishes, and whole mustard seeds are used in pickles.

Paprika, from the nightshade family, is a spice prepared from the dried fruits of a sweet pepper, Capsicum annuum, a native of Central America. Paprika is used to flavor a variety of meat, vegetable, egg, and cheese dishes.

Black and white pepper, from the pepper tree family, are both produced from the dried fruits (peppercorns) of Piper nigrum shrubs, native to India. Black pepper is made by picking and drying the unripe fruits. White pepper is prepared from riper fruits that are soaked in water.

After the outer fruit wall is rubbed off, a smooth white seed remains. The dried peppercorns are either ground or shipped whole to be ground at the time of use. Pepper is used in all sorts of meat, cheese, vegetable, and salad dishes.

Red pepper, from the nightshade family, is a spice made by grinding the dried fruits of any of several species of hot peppers or chilies of the genus Capsicum, native to tropical regions of the Americas.

Capsicum frutescens produces cayenne pepper. Ground or crushed, the peppers are used to flavor meat and vegetable dishes characteristic of Mexican, Caribbean, Indian, Chinese, Thai, and many other cuisines.

Raw spices
Raw spices

Saffron, from the iris family, is the most expensive spice, made from the stigmas of the flowers of a crocus plant, Crocus saturis, native to southern Europe and Asia.

On top of the female part of the flower, the stigmas consist of three slender filaments; it takes about seventy-five thousand dried stigmas to make one pound of saffron, and each must be picked by hand.Used intact or ground, saffron adds a deep yellow color and a slightly bitter taste to breads, sauces, soups, meat, and rice dishes.

Turmeric (Ginger family) is prepared from the dried rhizome of a perennial herbaceous plant, Curcuma longa, native to the East Indies. Turmeric gives color and a slightly sweet flavor to pickles, cakes, cookies, salad dressings, sauces and meat dishes.