Getting to Know: Baking Spices

From Cook's Country | October/November 2011

To make the most of your baking spices, follow our tips: Preground spices are convenient, but their flavors fade fast. Label them with the purchase date and then store them in a cool, dry place and use within 12 months. Otherwise, buy whole spices and grind them yourself in a coffee grinder devoted solely to this purpose. (P.S.: Many of these baking spices are good in savory foods, too.)

Cinnamon

Cinnamon

Americans love cinnamon and use it freely in favorites like apple crisp, sticky buns, and pumpkin pie. Most cinnamon sold in this country is actually cassia, not true Ceylon cinnamon (pictured and also known as canela). Both are the dried bark of tropical evergreen trees, but the bolder, spicier cassia is cheaper to process. Our favorite mail-order brand of ground cinnamon is Penzeys; at the supermarket, buy Adams (both are cassia).

Nutmeg

Nutmeg

Heady and powerful, nutmeg is a hard, brown seed from a tropical tree. It’s often used in dairy-based savory dishes, like quiche and creamed spinach, or for sweets such as spice cake. We compared fresh with preground and found that in dishes in which nutmeg is the sole spice, grinding it yourself (we like to use a rasp-style grater) is important. But in foods with lots of spices, preground nutmeg is fine.

Mace

Mace

Ground mace tastes like a more pungent nutmeg (and that’s saying something), and for good reason: It’s made from the lacy membrane, or aril, that surrounds the nutmeg seed inside the fruit. Dried, whole mace comes in “blades,” but the ground form is more common. We pitted mace against nutmeg and found that you can substitute one for the other by using half as much of the more potent mace as you would nutmeg, or twice as much nutmeg in recipes that call for mace.

Allspice

Allspice

Allspice tastes like a combination of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg, hence its name. Ground allspice is used in sweets such as mincemeat pie and gingerbread, and it’s a hallmark of Caribbean cooking and jerk seasoning. In the test kitchen, we sometimes cook (or “bloom”) ground allspice in butter and then add the spiced butter to dough or batter; the technique brings out the flavor of the spice.

Cloves

Cloves

Pungent, peppery cloves are the dried, unopened buds of an Indonesian tree. They resemble nails—in fact, the word “clove” comes from the Latin word for nail, clavus. Ground cloves are potent, so the test kitchen uses them sparingly in baked goods. Add whole cloves to the poaching liquid for fruit or, on the savory side, employ them to flavor stocks and to stud holiday hams.

Star Anise

Star Anise

As the name suggests, these pods are star-shaped and they taste like anise. The warm, licorice-like flavor of star anise works well in foods both sweet and savory (Asian marinades, custards). It’s an essential element of five-spice powder. Try flavoring sugar syrup with whole pods and drizzling the syrup over citrus fruits.

Cardamom

Cardamom

Fragrant cardamom comes in pods, either green or black, each holding many tiny seeds. Seeds from the more common green pods are used in many Scandinavian baked goods, Indian sweets, and chai tea. Although the whole pod can be toasted and ground or steeped, most of the highly aromatic flavors live in the seeds. The flavor doesn’t stick around, so buy whole pods and then remove and grind the seeds, as needed.

Ground Ginger

Ground Ginger

Yes, ground ginger comes from the dried fresh root, but don’t substitute one for the other. They taste different (fresh is more floral, dry is spicier), work differently in baking (fresh is moister), plus fresh is less potent. We do, however, sometimes reinforce ground ginger with fresh grated in the test kitchen, for instance to make gingerbread.

Vanilla Beans

Vanilla Beans

These fragrant beans are the dried, fermented pods of orchids. They need to be hand-harvested, which accounts for their high price. Freshness is the key to good flavor, so look for pods that are plump, shiny, and moist. Enlist whole, split beans to flavor poaching liquids. Scrape out the seeds with a paring knife to use them in ice cream and pudding. Fresh beans versus extract? In our tasting of custard, the bean swept the field.

Mahleb

Mahleb

This one’s probably not in your pantry. Made from the dried, ground seed kernels found inside the pits of sour black cherries, mahleb tastes like bitter almonds with a hint of cherry. It’s used to flavor many sweets in the Middle East and Greece. To add it to your repertoire, try introducing 2 to 4 teaspoons to sugar cookies or pound cake. Our tasters found it “herbal” and “floral” and compared it to vanilla and even anise.

Lavender

Lavender

Don’t relegate lavender to soaps and perfumes. It’s actually a relative of mint, and the dried buds give sweets an exotic floral quality. (It’s also a component in the spice blend herbes de Provence, often used to flavor fish and poultry.) Try the buds infused into ice cream, custards, and syrups. Or pair lavender with chocolate—you’ll be happily surprised. Remember that a little lavender goes a long way.

Black Pepper

Black Pepper

What’s pepper doing here? Actually, black pepper is more versatile than you may know: It makes an intriguing addition to many spiced baked goods. Don’t be tempted to buy preground, though. The flavor doesn’t compare with fresh ground. The test kitchen’s favorite supermarket peppercorns are from Morton & Bassett. Try a pinch or two in caramel sauce, gingerbread, or spice cookies.

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