spices

Six Spices Worth a Splurge

Good-quality spices can take any recipe from so-so to spectacular.

Bold flavor, freshness, and quality—that’s what top chefs look for when they stock their own spices, says Dan Kish, head chef at Panera®. Some spices can be pricy, but we’ve identified six that are worthy of a splurge. We promise, the investment will pay off in flavor…big time.

Whole peppercorns

How many savory recipes call for ground pepper? Just about all of them, right? Elevate those dishes by getting whole peppercorns along with a grinder. It’s fine to stick with black pepper for most recipes, but you can experiment with different colored peppercorns, too. Each variety has it own unique flavor. White peppercorns are black peppercorns that have been soaked to remove the outer casing, giving them a more intense flavor. Green peppercorns are young when they are picked, so they have a milder flavor. And pink peppercorns, which are actually berries and not true peppercorns, have a sweet-sharp flavor.

Cinnamon

All cinnamon is not created equally. Its taste can vary widely depending on where it’s grown. For example, cinnamon from Indonesia has a delicate, sweet flavor, while its Vietnamese cousin will remind you of Red Hots candy. Tom Gumpel, head baker at Panera Bread, shares a cinnamony secret: “We use a blend of Indonesian and Vietnamese cinnamon in our Cinnamon Crunch Scone and Cinnamon Crunch Bagel.” Another pro cinnamon tip: It’s best when it’s fresh, so use up what you buy so it doesn’t linger forever in your spice rack. 

Smoked paprika

You probably have regular paprika sitting in your spice cabinet already, but what about the smoked variety? It’s more expensive than the original, but it adds an unmistakable flavor to a range of dishes, not to mention a rich color. “The nice thing about this spice is that it will blossom in the dish,” Dan says. “The flavor builds over time.”

Saffron

The price of quality saffron may make you gasp—a gram of this stuff can cost more than $12—but you need only a tiny pinch of the delicate, golden spice to totally transform a dish. Saffron is sold in vials as long, thin strands (it’s actually harvested stigmas from the crocus flower). Try adding one single strand to rice, paella, and other traditional Spanish dishes to add a unique flavor and rich color.

Whole nutmeg

Got ground nutmeg in your spice rack? While that’s fine to use most of the time, “freshly ground nutmeg from the whole spice delivers a unique, warm flavor to whatever you’re cooking or baking,” Dan says. Grind a bit—easy to do with a microplane or fine cheese grater—into creamy pastas dishes, pumpkin pie, and more.

Whole star anise

This spice, commonly used in Asian cooking, adds a subtle licorice flavor. Try a pinch in rice pilaf or add some to the water while you steam veggies. Star anise also plays well with fruit and makes a good mix with its sweet-and-savory pals cinnamon and cloves.