Six Spices to Splurge On
Better-quality ingredients improve the flavor of any recipe. But if your budget for stocking the pantry is limited, here’s where to get the best return on your spice investment.
Our chefs agree: better is best. “If the spice is the star of a recipe, then you want to be sure the flavor is bold and fresh,” says Dan Kish, head chef at Panera Bread®.
That said, most people don’t live on unlimited budgets. So when making choices about what spices to purchase, keep in mind these six for which a higher price can pay off significantly in flavor.
Pepper is used to season almost every savory dish that comes out of the kitchen, so it makes sense to buy the best you can afford in whole form along with a grinder. You may have noticed that peppercorns come in a variety of colors, including pink, red, white, and green, and each has a unique flavor profile. “I stick with black pepper for most recipes but also keep a jar of white peppercorns on hand,” says Dan.
Indonesian cinnamon is earthy and primitive, while cinnamon from Vietnam has the flavor intensity of Red Hots candy. Tom Gumpel, head baker at Panera Bread, likes to use a mix of the two varieties to create a unique flavor. “At Panera, we use a blend of cinnamon in our Cinnamon Crunch Scone and Cinnamon Crunch Bagel. You can do the same thing at home. And remember: freshness rules.”
This spice adds vibrant color and rich flavor to a wide range of dishes. “When you select a good-quality paprika, you can use it to add smoked flavor to recipes,” says Dan. “The nice thing about this spice is that it will blossom in the dish. The flavor builds over time.”
This may be one of the most expensive seasonings you can buy, but you need only a small amount to transform a recipe. Sold as long, thin strands (saffron is actually harvested stamens from the crocus plant) or a powder, saffron is often used in rice, paella, and other traditional Spanish dishes. “To me, it speaks to sunshine and exotic locations. It’s more than a simple ingredient; it’s a flavoring that sparks my imagination,” says Dan.
If you’re using ground nutmeg in your recipes, you may want to make the switch. “Whole nutmeg is easy to grind at home (use a microplane) and delivers a subtle, yet flavorful, finish to whatever you are cooking or baking,” says Dan. This spice is meant to be a supporting flavor. Use it to enhance—not overpower—a dish.
Whole star anise
While this spice may not be familiar to everyone, it is commonly used in Asian recipes and is often described as having a licorice flavor. Dan uses a small amount to spice rice pilaf or to perfume the water when steaming vegetables. It also pairs well with fruit and is often mixed with cinnamon and cloves.