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Sarina's Spice Guide

When I cook, one of the most important things is to have a good stock of fresh spices. I love imported spices, the kind you get from a barrel, not the kind you buy in the supermarket in a tin can.

And then there is the problem of figuring out what amounts to put in a recipe. For example, did you know that a tad is ¼ tsp; a dash is 1/3 tsp, a pinch is 1/16 tsp and a smidgen is 1/22 tsp.

All spices are not equal, some are premium pure spices and others are blends. Look at the labels! Most people think that spices are just to flavor foods, but they also have nutritional value and have nutrients, vitamins and minerals. In general, spices have an 18 month shelf life and should be stored in dry cool places.

Here is a brief overview


Salts need to be stored in a dry spot at room temperature. There are seasoning salts and finishing salts. Many varieties have come on the market and they have different strengths and tastes.

Kosher salt is a large grain coarse salt used for meats and in cooking. Its quick dissolving and the flakes give cooks better control when sprinkling.

Fine sea salt is a substitute for typical iodized table salt. The difference is it lacks the bitterness of table salt.

Sea salt is flaky and gives food a nice look and crunchy finish.

Iodized salt is a superfine table salt, processed and refined.

Himalayan salt is pink in color due to its mineral content. Harvested in the Himalayan mountains, it is sold in blocks. Costco sells a delicious Himalayan salt that tastes beautiful.


Chili powder is made from a mixture of ground dried chilies, cloves, allspice, oregano, cumin, coriander, salt and garlic.

The jalapeno is the most popular type of green chili. Oils from the chilis can burn the skin, so wear gloves when handling.

Peppers and spices made from peppers help lower heart disease. Red peppers are rich in vitamin C, and paprika, also made from pepper, is high in antioxidants.

Black Peppercorns – are dried to an intense fruity pungency.

Paprika is ground from red peppers and is primarily used to color food. Some varieties, such as Hungarian paprika, tend to be hot.  

White Peppercorns are good when they are cream-colored and pungent, not superhot.

Red peppercorns are pricey because they take the longest to mature and have sweet heat.


Anise has a distinctive licorice flavor typically used in sweets of liqueurs, such as arak and ouzo. The seeds are smaller and more potent than fennel seeds.

Black and White Sesame Seeds are derived from an oilseed crop and is found in almost every ethnic cuisine. Black and white seeds taste similar.

Caraway Seeds are fragrant and used in East European food in pickles, rye and pumpernickel. However it is also in Middle Eastern cuisine in baked goods and Syrian twist cheese.

Cumin adds an earthy flavor to Middle East foods and is usually used ground.

Poppy is a seed commonly used as a bread topping or for bagels. It's also a base when used in paste for east European strudel and hamentashen.


Cardamom has a citrusy flavor that most people associate with Indian cuisine. It goes well with vanilla, almonds and coffee.

Cinnamon hits the sweet spot and is most often used in baking. I also use it in spaghetti (yes, no mistake), and in butternut squash soup. Smelling cinnamon stimulates brain activity, it enhances the flavor!

Cloves are aromatic and used in pumpkin pie, but also as a spice in rice pilaf. Stick cloves into an orange and its aroma fills the air.  Clove packs were often used to pack a toothache because it has anti-inflammatory properties.

Ginger is a very zesty root and works well in pepper steak, Asian food, and on carrots and sweet potatoes. When you buy it fresh, freeze it and grate it as needed in cooking. It adds punch to cookies and even to humus. Ground ginger is not a substitute for fresh.

Mahlab is made from the dried extract kernel of a sour cherry. Typically its ground and its used in making ka’ak, a round Syrian cracker. Nutty and sour, it tastes like a combination of bitter almonds and sour cherries.

Nutmeg is earthy and sweet and just a dash is all you need in eggnog or apple pie filling. Add it to creamed spinach or mashed potatoes.

Moroccan tagine spice (Ras el Hanout) is a mixture of 2 tsp each ground ginger, cardamom, and mace; 1 tsp each ground cinnamon, allspice, coriander, nutmeg and turmeric; and ½ tsp each of ground black, white, red, and cayenne pepper, ground anise seeds and cloves. Use to season meat, poultry and fish cooked in tagines.


Basil is an herb between a clove and licorice. Dried basil is milder than fresh.

Chives are a member of the onion family and have a mild flavor.

Dill is a fine thin leaf.

Mint has a heady flavor and there are several varieties, including spearmint. Dried mint is more intense in flavor than fresh.

Oregano is a member of the mint family and has small green leaves commonly used in Middle Eastern recipes and pasta sauces.

Parsley- there are different types, but the most common are flat leaf and curly parsley.

Rosemary- a woody herb that has a robust flavor. A little fresh rosemary can go a long way. Best used in seasoning roasted potatoes or basting steak.