Simple Recipes for Cooking with Spices

This week I’ve been writing about spices – what spices to buy, how to store them, and today, how to cook with them.

Of the 11 versatile herbs, spices and seasonings I consider essential, they can basically be broken down into three main categories: Mexican spices, Italian spices and sweet spices.

Before we get to the recipes, a comment on measurements. I never measure herbs or spices when I’m cooking savory dishes for dinner. My general principle is “season to coat, and then go from there.” If I’m making a sauce, I’ll season and taste, season and taste. It’s a good skill to learn how to season by eye. Sure, I’ve under- and over-seasoned plenty of dishes, but now I feel comfortable wielding a spice jar.

If I’m making a quick dinner with Mexican flavors, like taquitos or a salad, I’ll use a combination of equal parts cumin and chili powder, plus hot sauce, salt and pepper. The combination of the chili powder and cumin provides smoky flavor, while the hot sauce provides the heat. You can use cayenne pepper instead of hot sauce, too.

My go-to way of preparing chicken is to make a dry rub of poultry seasoning, Italian seasoning or herbs de Provence, garlic powder and a few red pepper flakes. I’ve found poultry seasoning by itself doesn’t impart nearly enough flavor, especially when cooking flavorless chicken breasts. Shake on the spices one at a time, then rub them in and let the chicken sit for a few minutes.

Why garlic powder instead of garlic salt? Because most poultry seasonings already have salt in them, and shaking on even more will give you very salty meat. When I’m seasoning meat I like to keep the garlic powder and salt separate, so I can control each application.

Spices commonly used in cooking sweets include cinnamon, ginger and cloves. I used these three spices, plus cardamon, when baking my honey almond spice cookies.

Finally, everyone should have a jar of cinnamon and sugar in his or her pantry – and this definitely isn’t something to buy at the store. Simply save an old spice jar, fill it most of the way with sugar, then top it off with a tablespoon of cinnamon. shake on top of buttered toast, warm applesauce or, my personal favorite, a warm and buttered flour tortilla.

  • Lydia

    Would you say that in general you use more spices than are called for in a typical recipe?

    • Mark Evitt

      That’s a good question. It depends on the recipe. I’ll usually try it as written once, but I do find I frequently increase the amount of spice – mostly in sweet dishes, like cookies or cakes. I almost always add more cinnamon than is called for in an initial recipe.

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