Spices and Flavor Pairings

This is part of an ongoing series of aromatics and their culinary use. Other articles in this series include A Guide to Spice Blending, An Abridged List of Aromatics and A Quick Guide to Herbs.

Many of you have followed up with me in curiosity about why I haven’t tackled spice flavor pairings, having already done the more complex work of building a spice blending paradigm and classifying every aromatic I’ve ever worked with into categories to make that paradigm useful in a general sense. I recommend that you read those articles, if you haven’t yet, before proceeding with this one. Now, in a similar exercise to how I approached herbs previously, I’m covering spices in the specific sense.

As a matter of brief background, spice blending breaks down into the flavor interactions between categories of spices, what I refer to as delicate, savory, sweet and pungent spices. The following chart best illustrates these interactions:

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I’ll be addressing two commonly used spices in each of these categories including each of their botanical backgrounds, tips for their usage, my subjective sense for their flavor pairings and some suggested recipes from this site. The spices I’ll be covering within each category are:

Article 25 - Flavor Pairing Spices

Chili Pepper

Chili peppers come from the nightshade plant family and originate from Central and South America. To the uninitiated, chilies are something to be feared, offering little more than the perception of blistering heat. We actually “feel” this heat rather than “taste” it. The heat, called picante by epicures and attributable to the chemical capsaicin and related chemicals called capsaicinoids, was the evolutionary response by pepper plants to seed-grinding mammalian molars. When capsaicin comes into contact with any mammalian tissues, it produces a sensation of burning that we perceive in the mouth through chemesthesis (as opposed to taste).

Once you eat enough chilies, though, you grow increasingly desensitized to the picante sensation and begin to taste the delicious diversity in flavor of the actual chili fruit, from plum-like ancho chilies to the bold smokiness of pico de pajaro and the more complex cocoa and tobacco notes of a chilhuacle negro. Chilis come in both fresh and dried, from green to red. Fresh peppers have a brighter taste, but often don’t have the deep burgeoning complexity of dried chilies. Generally, green chilies are unripened and carry a very fresh flavor while the fully ripened red chilies tend to be sweeter and more complex.

I particularly love blending a variety of dried and fresh peppers in stews, layering on the complexity and beauty. Cooking with chilies is simple. If you want more picante, saute them in oil first. Capsaicin is a fat soluble, non-polar molecule and will infuse the oil very quickly. As a general rule, use dry peppers earlier in cooking and fresh ones as a finishing ingredient. However, some dried peppers, such as Thai bird chilies, have delicate flavors even when dried. For such chilies, you can also use them to finish a dish.

The highest quality fresh green peppers are even in color, firm to the touch and very waxy looking, never dull. Red peppers are similar except a bit less firm. Dried peppers should never be brittle and flaky, but rather have decent pliability with bright and deep colors, never bleached out or faded.

Ideal pairings: Other chili peppers of different varietals both fresh and dried, black and pinto beans, cilantro, coconut milk, sweet corn, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, lime, onions, rice, tomato, sherry vinegar
Additional pairings: Avocado, basil, bay leaf, chocolate, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, eggplant, lentils, mustard seeds, oregano, parsley, seafood, soy sauce, thyme

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Suggested recipes: Vietnamese-Inspired Soups, Thai Curries, Seasonal Tacos

Coriander

Coriander is the name often used in the West to distinguish between the seeds of coriandrum sativum plant, from the parsley family, and the stems and leaves (which are commonly referred to as cilantro). With a bright and delicate lemon zest flavor, coriander has found a place in the cuisines of Mexico and Central America to Europe through Africa and across South and East Asia. While the European variety originates in the Baltic regions, an indigenous, creamy version also originates from India. Both work equally well across the board, but the creamy Indian version tends to do better in seafood and regional paneer dishes. Coriander seeds do not have the aldehyde chemicals which make the cilantro leaves and stems so unpalatable to some. Given its delicate flavor, I use coriander almost exclusively as a finishing spice in the final stages of cooking. Capturing its brightness is always foremost on my mind when I use it.

Good coriander has a deep yellow color, coupled with vibrant brown in the case of European varieties and a vibrant green tint in the case of Indian varieties. They should never looked dull and always be even in color across the seed and among the various seeds within the lot. Tasting a seed is always the best way to judge, however, crushing it in your mouth you should get a burst of lemon zesty flavor. One seed alone should be striking.

Ideal pairings: Citrus juice and zest, citrus leaves, crab, cumin, whitefish, garlic, ginger, lentils, mint, black pepper, pork, shellfish, fresh green chili peppers, cilantro
Additional pairings: Basil, cardamom, carrots, dried chili peppers, cloves, cinnamon, sweet corn, maize, lamb, mint, nutmeg, onion, potatoes, seafood, spinach, poultry

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Suggested recipesThai Curries, Chicken Summer Stew

Black Pepper

A lot of things go by the name of “pepper” but there is only one true pepper, that of the pepper plant family, originally hailing from India but now cultivated from South America to Indonesia. Black pepper is the most ubiquitous spice the world over, on virtually every single cafe table alongside salt. Unfortunately, most pepper is just a waste of time and space. Real black pepper, one with a punchy, complex front that eases into a pit of bright picante and a slow lingering finish, is only found on the Southwest coast of India, in the Tellicherry and Malabar districts of the state of Kerala. Here, pepper is given its due attention. Black pepper is actually a fruit, harvested from bushy-looking vines that embrace both tree and trellis, stretching upwards of three meters high. When nearly ripe and a green-gold color, the fruit is picked and laid out in the sun to lightly ferment, oxidize and dry, turning into the deep brown to jet black color we are familiar with.

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Green and white pepper comes from the same fruit, but harvested and processed differently. Green pepper is from the entirely unripened fruit which is then freeze dried. White pepper comes from the fully ripened fruit, bright red, which is then soaked in water to remove the fruit flesh, leaving only the white seed, which is then sun dried. Green pepper had all of the initial punch of black pepper but none of the long finish. White pepper has none of the initial punch, but all of the long finish. Black pepper has both. These work beautifully together if you want to highlight the initial punch of black pepper with some green pepper or draw out the finish with white pepper. Never combine all three, however. It’s worth noting that pink pepper is from an entirely different and unrelated Peruvian plant. This delicate, fruity pepper should never be combined with black pepper as the former is entirely overwhelmed.

In cooking, black pepper can be used early in cooking to provide its earthiness and bright picante to a dish and finished with it to provide a complex peppery note. It’s extremely versatile. The highest quality peppercorns are large, about three millimeters in diameter, dark and very even in color. When freshly ground the aroma should be overwhelming. Whole black peppercorns, even under vacuum seal, only last six months with ideal flavor.

Ideal pairings: Beef, corn, eggs, game meat, lemon, lime, poultry, potatoes, strawberries, tomato
Additional pairings: Basil, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cumin, fresh fruit, garlic, ginger, lamb, lentils, nutmeg, olive oil, parsley, pork, thyme

 

Suggested recipes: French Country Stew

Cumin

Originating in Egypt and from the parsley botanical family, cumin is used extensively in the cuisines of Northern African and the Eastern Mediterranean, in the curries and masalas of India, in Europe in everything from cheese making to bread baking and in the new world as a key seasoning in Mexican cuisines. The whole seeds are a green-tinted brown when fresh but turn dull brown when old. Be sure to get the good stuff, which can be tested for aroma by rubbing the seeds into your hands, giving rise to a cilantro-evoking release.

There is a wide debate between toasted versus raw cumin. The short answer is that some cultures toast and others use raw. The difference is raw cumin has a sharper, fresh green, pungent note up front while toasted cumin loses the freshness while gaining a nuttier, roasty characteristic. I like to use a combination of both, toasted cumin initially to infuse a dish and finishing with a small portion of raw cumin for a fresh note. I rarely use raw cumin alone though.

Ideal pairings: Black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, coriander, cilantro, couscous, eggplant, garlic, ginger, lamb, lentils, pork, potatoes, rice, tomatoes
Additional pairings: Bay leaf, caramel, cardamom, carrots, chili pepper, cinnamon, cloves, eggs, honey, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, seafood, squash, thyme

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Suggested recipesChicken Summer Stew, Braised Beef Brisket Tacos

True Cinnamon

Ceylon cinnamon, or true cinnamon, is the classic, most glorious and complex of the many cinnamon varietals. Accept no substitutes. True cinnamon is cultivated in the misty valleys of Sri Lanka during the late monsoon season. It’s the branches of a tree from the laurel family whose inner bark yield the spice, which must be delicately carved away from the wood with great skill. Although individual Sri Lankan farms have a bizarre and nonstandardized grading scale, the best way to judge the quality of cinnamon is close inspection. Look for sticks (or quills as they are called within the industry) with the fewest blemishes and an overall, consistent light brown color. Any dark spots in the quills introduce off flavors and are to be avoided. The smell should be of intense cinnamon with hints of orange and woodiness.

True cinnamon should not be confused with cassia-cinnamon of China and Indonesia, the latter of which is known for its high aromatic oil content and the heft of the stick but lacks the complexity and subtle nuance of true cinnamon. Using both in cooking yields good results. I often start with cassia-cinnamon to provide a baseline and finish with true cinnamon for a perfumey complexity.

Ideal pairings: Apples, bananas, blueberries, butter, caramel, chicken, chocolate, lime, nutmeg, orange, pears, pecans, pork, rice, squash, brown sugar, vanilla
Additional pairings: Allspice, beef, bell peppers, cardamom, chili peppers, coriander, cilantro, cumin, eggplant, garlic, honey, nuts, plums, poultry, star anise

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Suggested recipesBraised Beef Brisket Tacos

Nutmeg

Although grown extensively throughout Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and even Grenada, nutmeg was first discovered on the tiny, discrete volcanic islands of Banta, part of modern day Indonesia. Up until approximately the 1850s, Banda was the sole source of nutmeg for the entire world. The flowering evergreen nutmeg tree, called myristica fragrans, produces a fruit that looks similar to a peach except that its flesh is slightly toxic. Inside the fruit rests a pit and within that pit rests an inner nut that we call nutmeg. Surrounding the nut like lace is another, similar tasting but more delicate spice called mace. Although whole nutmeg lasts longer than your average spice (well over a year with proper storage), the oils are quite volatile. As a result, preground nutmeg holds its flavor for just hours. The freshest nutmeg is pale brown and the highest quality nuts tend to be very evenly toned. Dark spots and an overall darkening to deep brown are signs of age.

Nutmeg is used the world over in preparations that range from sweet to savory, from hot beverages to cool cured meats. In cooking, I’ve found nutmeg to be best when grated from the whole nut directly into a sauce or stew early in cooking and then finished with additional fresh grated nut as a garnish. Mace, the lacey covering found around nutmeg, can also be combined with nutmeg to deepen and enhance its flavor.

Ideal pairings: Apples, ricotta cheese, poultry, cinnamon, cloves, cream, ginger, lamb, mace, wild mushrooms, potatoes, squash, rice, brown sugar, sweet potatoes, spinach
Additional pairings: Allspice, beef, broccoli, butter, cardamom, carrots, cauliflower, chickpeas, chocolate, coriander, cumin, honey, lemon, pork, seafood, thyme

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Suggested recipesFrench Country Stew

Green Cardamom

Green cardamom, or true cardamom, is the camphorus pod native to Southwestern India. Growing on a shrub from the ginger family, green cardamom tastes like a mentholated version of clove, black pepper, sassafras and allspice all at once. To call this spice pungent is an understatement. Tasting the freshest batches naked momentarily overwhelms the mind. The first time I tasted fresh green cardamom seeds, black and resin coated, in the spice fields of Kerala, I momentarily forgot I had a body, my mind retreated into my mouth, the outer universe ceasing to exist. It was transcendent.

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Serving as the spice backbone to everything from robust Turkish coffee to the creamy South Indian kormas to delicate Scandinavian pastries, cooking with cardamom is simple: Add it early and cook with it for the long haul. Just don’t add too much because there is no going back. Cardamom holds its full flavor for the duration of even extended slow cooking but, like all pungent spices, can easily overwhelm a dish. Two other common cardamom varietals exist, one in Thailand with less complexity and of a more camphorus mint character, and another in North India with a black tone and a sexy, peppery and smokey flavor. Each does better in their native dishes but green cardamom can be substituted to reasonable affect.

Ideal pairings: Chocolate, cinnamon, coffee, coriander, cream, dates, ginger, lamb, lentils, mint, orange, rice, yogurt
Additional pairings: Apples, carrots, chickpeas, chili pepper, cloves, cumin, seafood, honey, pork, winter squash, sweet potatoes

 

Suggested recipes: Turkish “Dark Side” Chickpeas, Thai Green Curry

Cloves

Clove, a pungent deep brown spice, is actually the dried pink flower from a plant in the delicious myrtaceae family, which also includes guava, allspice and eucalyptus, among others. Clove tastes similar to a peppery hot, more edgy version of allspice crossed with mint. Clove originated in the famous Molucca Islands in current day Indonesia but is produced today as far East as Madagascar and Zanzibar. The best clove is found in Southern India and Sri Lanka today. The highest quality are marked by being slightly pliable (as opposed to brittle), deep and vibrant in color and have an obviously sharp clove aroma when simply broken in half. In cooking, cloves are often used in baked goods and sweet, mulled wines in the West. In Asia, however, cloves are a staple of in meat seasonings, curries and pickles. Cloves are excellent to enhance other spices, like cinnamon and cumin, or to provide complexity to game meats and hearty vegetables. Like cardamom, use it early in cooking being careful not to overuse it as there is no going back.

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Ideal pairings: Apples, beef, carrots, chocolate, cinnamon, game meats, ginger, lemon, lamb, orange, pork, winter squash
Additional pairings: Allspice, bay leaf, cardamom, chili peppers, coriander, cumin, mace, nutmeg, star anise, sweet potatoes, tomatoes

Suggested recipes: Braised Beef Brisket Tacos

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