The Best Spice Mixes—and How to Use Them

Rachel Tepper Paley
January 17, 2014

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Don’t turn your nose up at spice mixes. They’re not all like the acrid lemon-pepper stuff only suitable for masking the taste of fishy, two-day-old salmon.

Spice mixes have held a venerable place in global cuisines from Morocco to Thailand since practically the beginning of time. They’re the shortcut you shouldn’t feel guilty about taking.

You don’t hunt your own meat, do you (well, sometimes you do)? Buying a good spice mix follows the same principle; you’re outsourcing a task that someone else definitely does better, but still maintaining control of your dish.

"The home cook is already overwhelmed with cooking, [so] cooking has to be as easy as possible," expert spice blender Lior Lev Sercarz told us. Sercarz owns spice mix cornucopia La Boîte in New York City, and he’s practically a spice mix evangelist. 

"I think that instead of going and purchasing 15 different spices that you might use once and then [let] sit in the dark area of your kitchen called the spice cabinet, you have one or two or three blends that you can use very easily," Sercarz suggested. "Spices take you from 2 to 3D.”

Here are some spices you should really consider making part of your cooking repertoire.

1. Thai curry powder

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"A good curry blend is pretty much a must in your kitchen," Sercarz said. "We have about four different ones, from red to yellow to green." Most are made with a blend of coriander, turmeric, cumin, and chili peppers, but ingredients vary depending on the curry’s country of origin. We suggest using a Thai curry powder in this curried chicken recipe.

2. Garam masala

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Garam masala is ubiquitous in Indian cooking, but a rarity in most American kitchens. A standard garam masala is made with cardamom, pepper, cumin, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg, which together add a rich, piquant layer to any dish. Try it in this sweet potato chana masala.

3. Tandoori masala

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Another vibrant and versatile Indian spice, tandoor masala is usually a bright-orange color. This version owes its hue to paprika, turmeric, red chili powder, and other spices. Try it in this butter chicken recipe from food writer Monica Bhide.

4. Colombo powder

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Halfway around the globe, another curry powder took, hold in the French West Indies. It’s often made with coriander, peppercorns, fenugreek, and turmeric. We suggest using it in this Jamaican chicken curry recipe.

5. Quatre épices

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"Quatre épices" translates to "four spices" in French, although sometimes it’s made with five. This version is the latter, a mix of white peppercorns, nutmeg, whole cloves, cinnamon, and ground ginger. Try it out in duck confit.

6. Berbere

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This Ethiopian spice starts with a base of dried red chiles, then toasted ginger, cardamom, garlic, fenugreek, and cinnamon pile on. Use it to amp up your next steak.

7. Za’atar

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You’re missing out if you don’t have at least one kind of za’atar in your kitchen. There are dozens of versions of the spice, which at its most basic level is a mix of dried herbs, sesame seeds, sumac, and salt. “It’s the different proportions that change. Some are more tangy, some are less,” Sercarz explained. You can add za’atar to pretty much everything; salads, meat dishes, rice dishes, POPCORN!

8. Five-spice powder

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As its name suggests, this Chinese spice mix contains five different spices: most commonly, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, and fennel seeds. Use it to season anything from pork shoulder to shrimp. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, this cranberry-lime tart.

9. Lavender salt

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"[I suggest you] own more than one type of salt," Sercarz said. "You wouldn’t use olive oil to fry your chocolate donut, the same way you wouldn’t use certain salts for certain preparations."

And lest you worry about finding a purpose for something like, say, lavender salt, take a look at this recipe for lamb chops with lavender salt from Food & Wine. Tell us if you don’t swoon.