All About Holiday Spices

Traditional spices provide the flavor and aroma of the holidays. Cooking Light offers ideas to further explore their versatility.

  • Holiday Spices
    Becky Luigart-Stayner

    All About Holiday Spices

    Spices are an essential part of making sure your holidays taste—and smell—delicious.  We've put together a guide to the "must-try" holiday spices, from classic ones like cinnamon and nutmeg, to more exotic spices, such as star anise and saffron.  Discover how to bring out the best in each spice, plus tips for purchasing and storing them.

  • Pear and Ginger Crisp
    Photo: Becky Luigart-Stayner; Styling: Lydia DeGaris-Pursell

    Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

    Ginger's warm, slightly woody flavor makes it one of the world's favorite spices. By and large, fresh ginger is used in savory cooking, while dried or ground ginger is favored for sweet dishes.

    Choose the freshest, youngest-looking ginger you can find—old rhizomes tend to be fibrous, tough, and not so flavorsome. It will keep two to three weeks in the refrigerator. Or store whole fresh ginger in a refrigerated jar of sherry, and use both ginger and sherry in Asian dishes. Ground ginger loses its aroma and flavor quickly, and it should be used within two or three months.

  • Cloves

    Cloves (Syzyium aromaticum)

    Cloves are an ancient spice, used for millennia in China and imported by the Romans. Cloves are the dried flower buds of a tree with an intensely sharp, slightly bitter taste. Use sparingly as they can overpower other flavors. In holiday cooking, cloves traditionally appear ground in gingerbread and fruitcake, and whole in mulled wine or for studding baked and glazed hams.

    Use cloves whole or ground. If you use whole cloves to flavor a dish, make sure to remove them before serving, as in this fresh ham recipe. Cloves don't need toasting before use.

  • Saffron (Crocus sativus)

    Saffron (Crocus sativus)

    Saffron has always been the world's most expensive spice, but you need only a few dried stigmas to color a dish and impart an aromatic and slightly bitter quality. Best known for its use with rice, saffron also combines well with honey, pears, rosemary, garlic, and onions, and ginger and cardamom.

    For most dishes, saffron is best soaked in a few tablespoons of warm liquid to allow the color and flavor to develop fully before adding to the rest of the ingredients. It is easy to use too much, which gives an unpleasant medicinal tang to the dish.

  • Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum)

    Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum)

    Cardamom comes from the same family as ginger and turmeric. The best pods will be pale sage green and have sticky black seeds inside. They are intensely aromatic and have an orangey flavor that works well in sweet and savory dishes.

    Cardamom's essential oils are volatile, so ground cardamom's flavor dissipates quickly. Bruise whole pods before using to allow the flavor to escape—press down on them with the blade of a knife until the pod opens. If the seeds are dry and light brown, they are old and have lost their flavor and aroma. Discard those pods.

  • Star Anise (Illicium verum)

    Star Anise (Illicium verum) 

    Star anise, probably the world's prettiest spice, is used widely in Asian cuisine. It also makes an unusual but delicious flavoring for poached fruits such as pears and plums.

    Buy star anise whole. One or two "stars" usually impart sufficient flavor to infuse an entire dish. To substitute star anise for anise seed in a recipe, reduce the quantity to one-half or one-third of the recipe's recommendation.

  • Rum-Allspice Pound Cake with Ambrosia
    Photo: Howard L. Puckett; Styling: Melanie J. Clarke

    Allspice (Pimenta dioica)

    As the name suggests, allspice's flavor and aroma are a mixture of cinnamon and nutmeg with a touch of clove. Allspice grows primarily in Jamaica, where it is simply called "pepper" and featured prominently in jerk seasoning paste.

    In addition to adding deep, warm flavor to savory dishes, use ground allspice in gingerbread and other cakes and cookies. It's a good idea to buy whole allspice, which stores indefinitely in an airtight container, and grind as needed in a peppermill.

  • Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)

    Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)

    Nutmeg is the kernel of the fruit of a tropical evergreen tree. Each kernel comes wrapped in a lacy covering that we use separately as the spice mace. Nutmeg and mace share a warm, sweet, musky flavor suited to cakes, cookies, and other desserts. Nutmeg has an affinity with dairy, too—it is excellent in milky desserts and drinks.

    Use nutmeg freshly grated or milled. Nutmeg mills pass the spice over a sharp blade, shaving off minute amounts. Except in cakes, add nutmeg toward the end of cooking to retain its evanescent aroma and warm, spicy flavor.

  • Lamb Tagine with Cinnamon, Saffron, and Dried Fruit
    Photo: Becky Luigart-Stayner; Styling: Lydia DeGaris-Pursell

    Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zelanicum)

    Cinnamon comes from the aromatic bark of a tree native to Sri Linka, India, and Burma.  It's a traditional ingredient in gingerbread, mulled wine, and chocolate cakes and desserts. Cinnamon is also good with apples and pears, and tempers savory dishes like this lamb tagine (left).

    You can buy cinnamon as sticks, or ground; however, cinnamon sticks have a sweeter, subtler flavor and a longer shelf life than ground. Whole cinnamon is best ground in a clean coffee mill.

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