When my “go to” dishes get boring, I love to experiment with spices. But not just one spice at a time. Instead, I typically head to my favorite types of spice blends.
When I first learned that some of what I thought of as spices are really blends, I was shocked. But no more. And now I’m glad to know how to make many of the blends myself. Others, I still buy. But either way, I’m more aware of the fact that spice blends are part of every cuisine I enjoy.
Here’s a partial list of ones I know and love.
Examples of Spice Blends
- Adobo. While adobo refers to both a marinade and a spice blend, the Caribbean and Puerto Rican versions are dry spice blends that may include onion, garlic, paprika, cumin and oregano. The Carribean version is yellow, with lots of garlic powder, oregano and onion powder. As explained in this article, the Puerto Rican version is a white adobo, with more salt (at least in the recipes I saw) than the Mexican and Carribean versions. See the Food & Wine article explaining adobo in depth.
- Advieh. A Persian spice blend that has several versions. Some compare it to garam masala (see below.) Typical spices in advieh include black pepper, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, nutmeg, and turmeric. Some recipes also call for dried rose petals. I particularly like Najmieh Batmanglij‘s recipe
- Baharat. A Middle Eastern spice blend that is different from Za’atar, the more widely known Middle Eastern blend. Baharat is sweet and smoky, while Za’atar is more woody and herbaceous. the word baharat simply means “spices” in Arabic. However the blend traditionally includes cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg and paprika. This article does a good job comparing baharat to several other spice blends.
- Chili. The popular stew called chili always includes a spice blend usually called chili powder. But that blend can vary from a mild to a very spicy combination of various ground peppers. It can include cayenne, ancho chili powder or various other ground pepper powders, as well as garlic and onion powder, cumin, oregano, paprika, and salt. This Food Network Kitchen explanation of how the blend differs from straight cayenne pepper powder is useful.
- Curry. Although many of us think (or thought) of curry powder as Indian, it is actually a British invention. There are many versions of the blend, ranging from mild to fiery. And although we may think of it in connection with Indian food, it is also used in stir fries like this stir fried beef and even curried quinoa.
- Dukkah. I first learned about dukkah from Hetty McKinnon. I made a big batch using her recipe in Tenderheart for Roasted Broccoli and Crispy Chickpeas with Sichuan Dukkah. Her recipe uses coriander, Sichuan peppercorns, cashews, black and toasted white sesame seeds and flaked sea salt. I’ve seen recipes that use fennel seeds and other nuts besides cashews. Although both dukkah and za’atar originated in the Middle East, their base ingredients are different. Dukkah is a seed and nut-based blend, whereas za’atar is a blend of ground herbs.
- Garam Masala. I have too many jars of garam masala in my pantry. (Forgetting that I have it, too frequently I buy yet another container.) But every one of them smells and tastes different. Why? Because just like other spice blends, no two recipes for garam masala are the same. Unlike curry, which is a British-created blend, garam masala is actually Southeast Asian, from the Indian subcontinent. Examples of typical spices in garam masala are: fennel (saunf), IIndian bay leaves or malabathrum (tej patta), black and white peppercorns (kali/safed mirch), cloves (laung),cinnamon or cassia bark (dālacace), mace (outer covering of nutmeg) (javitri), black and green cardamom pods (ilaici), cumin (jīra), coriander seeds (dhania), and, red chili powder (lāl mirch.) Some recipes add onion, nuts, or garlic, while others use asafoetida and even chilis.
- Herbes de Provence. Traditionally, the dried herbs and spices grown in southern France became ingredients in herbes de Provence. They include basil, bay leaf, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, savory, tarragon, thyme, and savory. The blend is quintessentially French, but also goes well with other Mediterranean cuisines.
- Jerk. A Caribbean blend that goes heavily into chili powder (cayenne or habanero are typical), jerk also contains a variety of other powders and spices such as black pepper, garlic and onion (often in powdered form), smoked paprika, ginger, allspice, thyme, cinnamon and nutmeg. It also includes some form of sugar and may include fresh or dried parsley. Some versions of jerk are liquid while others are kept in dry form and used to sprinkle or baste.
- Ras al Hanout. The name is Arabic, meaning “head of the shop” or the best spices. The blend, which is native to Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria, usually consists of many ground spices, such as cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, dry ginger, chili peppers, coriander seed, peppercorn, sweet and hot paprika, fenugreek, and dry turmeric. It can also include spices more exotic to our Western palate, such as ash berries, chufa, grains of paradise, orris root, monk’s pepper, cubebs, dried rosebud, fennel seed or aniseed, galangal, and long pepper. .
- Za’atar. Last but definitely not least, is one of my favorites. Za’atar is, like all the other blends, not a prescribed recipe, but a type of spice blend. I’ve seen it described as a combination of woodsy and floral, tangy and acidic, nutty and rich. How’s that for getting just about every type of aroma in one mix? I use it sprinkled on lots of different dishes. Often simply on toast or a bagel with avocado and tomato.
Tips for Making Your Own Blends of Spices
- Start with recipes, but then get creative. There are plenty of good recipes around for all of the spice blends mentioned above. And many others too. But follow Hetty McKInnon’s lead. she took dukkah, of Middle Eastern origin, and gave it a Sichuan twist.
- Use Fragrant Spices. Smell or taste a spice before adding it. If it still has zip, use it. If not, pitch it and get a fresher batch.
- Texture Matters. Sometimes, you’ll want to grind the spices to a uniform texture. Other times, you may not care about individual spice textures. In fact, you may be more pleased by the final result if it combines several textures. Whatever direction you go, make sure you have made a conscious decision about the texture.
- Consider Roasting Spices. Dry roasting spices deepens their aroma. Try it before or after grinding.
Tips for Using Spice Blends
- The Big Picture. What is your ultimate dish supposed to taste like? Before adding a spice blend to your dish, decide what you want the dish to taste like and then decide what spices or blend will yield that taste.
- Decide on the flavor profile. Look at various versions of the spice blend you want to use. Before you make or buy a particular spice blend, figure out what the main variations for that blend are and decide how you prefer your spice blend.
- Putting the spice blend into the dish. If you want the spice blend to merge into the dish, you may want to add it to a liquid before putting it in the dish. Or perhaps you can marinate your main ingredient in the spice blend before cooking it. Will you serve some of the blend on the side, as Hetty McKinnon does with her dukkah, or will it all be in the dish you present? And of course, consider how the dish with the spice blend will fit into your meal.
So, now that you have information and you’re in the mood, which spice blend will you start with and what will you make with it?