How To Spice Things Up Right This Fall & Winter

by Bernadette Machard de Garmont


Ever wonder why pumpkin spice is so big during the cooler months? It’s all thanks to the comforting blend of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and clove that trigger major nostalgia and the sudden need to snuggle under a blanket. If you love the warm flavors of fall, read on to learn all about how best to use, buy, and store these special spices all season long.

Nutmeg is the seed of the evergreen Myristica fragrans tree. Intense and highly aromatic, this warm and slightly sweet spice compliments both savory and sweet dishes. Historically used in Eastern medicine to treat gastrointestinal issues, a study in the Journal of Proteome Research suggests that a compound in nutmeg may also provide some protection against liver damage.

Nutmeg goes extremely well with pureed or roasted squash, is wonderful in baked goods, and gives depth to classic bechamel and Bolognese sauces. To get the most out of this spice, buy nutmeg whole and use a microplane to grate just enough for your recipe, as ground nutmeg loses its potency pretty quickly.

Ginger is the spicy, pungent root of a plant indigenous to China. Sweet and spicy at the same time, this root offers a bit of heat too (but not the lingering kind that chilis might bring). Studies have shown that ginger has anti-inflammatory effects and antioxidant properties, and has been used to treat nausea, muscle soreness, and help in lowering blood sugar.

Fresh ginger is used most often in Asian cooking, like in this recipe for Sesame Ginger Chicken, offering a delicious interplay between salty and sweet flavors. When buying fresh ginger, look for roots that are firm without soft, dry spots, and store in the refrigerator or freezer. Dried ground ginger is good to have on hand for use in baking or in place of fresh ginger in a pinch.

Cinnamon is the bark of a species of laurel tree that has been used in the Middle East for over 2,000 years as a perfume, spice, and for food preservation. A study has suggested that consuming cinnamon could aid in controlling blood sugar and improving insulin response in those with Type 2 diabetes.

Warm, floral, and slightly sweet, this spice is classically paired with apples, chocolate, and pumpkin, and can also add dimension to savory dishes like Moroccan chicken stew or Mexican mole. Cinnamon sticks can be simmered in liquid to extract their flavor (as in a curry or tagine), but they are difficult to grind. So make sure to also stock ground cinnamon for your pantry  to use in baking (like this recipe for Snickerdoodles) or to sprinkle on coffee or a smoothie.

Turmeric in its fresh, whole state is a root native to Southeast Asia with a bright orange interior and a texture similar to ginger root. It has a musky, pungent aroma and a somewhat bitter flavor, and it’s often added to dishes for additional color and a touch of earthiness. Turmeric contains curcumin, which is said to have powerful anti-inflammatory properties and aids in digestion.

Add this spice in powder form to curries as a seasoning for chicken, or blend into a smoothie or  latte. Coax the flavor out of fresh turmeric for curries and soups by sauteing lightly in oil, or use slices to brew  into a tea. If you’re buying fresh turmeric look for firm rhizomes that don’t appear dried out, and store in the refrigerator or freezer.

Cardamom is a spice made from the seed pods of several plants in the ginger family of Zingiberaceae, which is native to India and Indonesia. Dramatically fragrant with notes of mint and citrus, this spice has also been used for thousands of years to aid in digestion and for maintaining oral health.

Cardamom is a perfect companion to sweet flavors, like this Honey Cardamom Custard,  but also in savory curries and stews. Whole pods can be simmered and discarded before serving, and ground cardamom can be added into a dish. But be careful not to use too much, as this pungent spice can quickly overpower a dish.

Star anise is the seed pod of an evergreen tree native to Vietnam and China. Star anise can be a polarizing spice, as it has a flavor and aroma that is almost identical to that of black licorice. Regardless, star anise has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years to help aid digestion and improve appetite. It’s reported to have antimicrobial properties, and is one of the main ingredients in Tamiflu.

Today, star anise is used often in Asian cooking, as in Vietnamese pho or as part of the blend known as Chinese five-spice. Buy whole to use as you would a bay leaf (simmer for flavor, and toss before serving).  Grind using a spice grinder or mortar, and pestle before using, as pre-ground star anise can lose its flavor rapidly.

Clove is a powerful and distinct spice with a strong, somewhat bitter flavor that also leans a little toward sweet. Like many of the spices on this list, cloves are also attributed with antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties and promoting digestive health. Once used in medieval Europe as a preservative or to mask the smell of meat that had gone off, this spice is used quite sparingly in American kitchens, thanks to its tendency to overpower other flavors.

You may find clove as part of savory recipes like a holiday ham, or used in sweet recipes like gingerbread, red wine-poached pears, or a seasonally appropriate cocktail like this Warm Caramel Spice Martini. Purchase whole cloves for longer shelf life, and use a spice mill to grind the amount you need per recipe.

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