These aromatic seeds, roots and pods have been used since 3000BC in everything from love potions to medicine. Explore the history, flavour and health benefits of spicing up your dough.
Caraway dates back to 3000BC, making it one of the oldest spices in the world. It has a two-year cycle and once it produces seeds, it dies off.
Cooking with Caraway Seeds
Overcooking can turn the flavour bitter, so it’s best to add the seeds, roots and pods at the end of baking or once baked. A lovely autumn aroma similar to fennel, it has a sweet warm flavour. Featured heavily in German, Austrian and Scandinavian cuisines, including being the crucial taste in sauerkraut and rye bread, it is used in a variety of smoked cheeses, cakes and cookies.
Health Benefits of Caraway
Caraway seeds are said to be great for digestion when chewed after a heavy meal. A light sedative, it can be used to settle an upset stomach.
Part of the ginger family, the cardamom plant resembles a tulip with its flowers producing plump seedpods that house the pungent seeds. Cardamom seeds have a eucalyptus, lemony flavour that are picked once the pods turn green. Picked by hand and dried in the sun, they can be treated with sulphur dioxide (a preservative) that turns them white and softens the flavours.
Black cardamom has a smoked and peppery flavour due to a different drying process over open flames. Used in heavier Asian and Indian dishes, black cardamom has more pronounced eucalyptus and camphor tones.
Cooking with Cardamom
The pods can be split and used when cooked in Indian meals. Otherwise, the seeds, roots and pods can be bruised and fried before adding main ingredients to the pan or pounded with other spices as required. Keep the pods whole until use. The pod itself is neutral in flavour and not generally used, imparting an unpleasant bitter flavour when left in dishes. It features in curries, is essential in rice dishes and gives character to pulse dishes. Cardamom is often included in sweeter Indian dishes and drinks. Partially because of its high price, it is seen as a ‘festive’ spice.
Health Benefits of Cardamom
A stimulant and digestive, cardamom is not used in Western medicine for its own properties but forms a flavouring and basis for medicinal preparations. Used as a digestive since ancient times, it has also been believed to have aphrodisiac qualities, and the ancient Indians regarded it as a cure for obesity.
Cinnamon comes from the bark of Asian evergreen trees, traditionally harvested from trees older than 25 years and still damp from seasonal rains. The traditional technique has been passed down though generations utilising special tools to carefully strip away the inner bark.
Cooking with Cinnamon
Commonly used in desserts and sweet baked goods, such as cakes and donuts, cinnamon pairs beautifully with stone fruits.
Mexico is the largest importer of cinnamon, where it’s enjoyed in hot drinks such as coffee, chocolate and tea. Cinnamon is featured in many spice blends and is the key ingredient in pumpkin pie spice.
Health Benefits of Cinnamon
Studies have shown cinnamon can reduce blood sugar levels and reduce cholesterol. More traditional remedies are created to relieve nausea and vomiting.
Native to China and India, ginger has featured heavily in Chinese medicine as far back as the writings of Confucius in 500BC.
Used in Europe since the 9th century, ginger became a staple and was placed on the table alongside salt and pepper.
During the 19th century, English pubs would have grated ginger on the bar where patrons would sprinkle some in their beer – this is the origin of ginger ale.
Cooking with ginger
Dried ginger is an excellent addition to cakes and biscuits, and the key flavour in its namesake, seeds, roots and pods, gingerbread. Ginger is also used in puddings, jams and drinks such as tea.
Health benefits of ginger
Ginger raises body temperature, therefore increasing perspiration. During the London plague, it is said King Henry VIII instructed the use of ginger as medicine thanks to its diaphoretic properties.
These days, ginger is commonly known as a digestive aid. Ginger can help relieve stomach pains, indigestion, diarrhoea and nausea.
Native to the Spice Islands, the nutmeg tree is a large evergreen now commercially grown in the West Indies. The tree produces two spices: mace and nutmeg.
In medieval times, nutmegs were worn as amulets to protect against danger and evil. During the 18th century, people wore mini graters made of silver with a compartment for both nutmeg and mace.
Nutmeg gets its name from its looks and nutty taste, however is not classed as a nut or poses a risk to people with nut allergies – although an allergy to nutmeg can occur.
The nutmeg seed is encased within a yellow, edible fruit and bright red strings covering the seeds, roots and pods; known as aril. Aril is collected and dried to become the spice mace.
Cooking with Nutmeg
Whole nuts are preferable to ground nutmeg – as the sweet nutty flavour deteriorates – while whole nuts will keep indefinitely and can be grated when required. Nutmeg in large amounts is actually poisonous, although a pinch or two is considered safe.
Nutmeg is regularly used in pies, puddings, custards, tarts, biscuits and cakes. It complements egg and cheese dishes and is commonly used in soufflé.
Health Benefits of Nutmeg
Nutmeg has been known to improve the appetite and treat nausea. Nutmeg contains a poisonous sedative called myristicin that has been known to cause hallucinations, vomiting, epileptic type symptoms and death. However, even with generous culinary usage, these effects should not occur.
Saffron is the most expensive spice by weight in the world. These orange-red stigmas of a crocus flower are hand-picked, with each flower only producing three stigmas – hence the hefty price tag. It takes approximately 70,000 flowers to yield just one pound of saffron.
Cooking with Saffron
Saffron can easily overpower other ingredients and should be used sparingly in baking. While commonly crushed into a fine powder, it will go further if steeped in hot water, enhancing flavour and colour.
Saffron is commonly used in Cornish saffron buns – a yeast-leavened sweet bun flavoured with saffron, cinnamon or nutmeg and currants.
Health Benefits of Saffron
Saffron oils are used throughout traditional medicine as antiseptics, antidepressants, antioxidants and digestives.
Sumac is produced from the berries of wild bushes that favour the Mediterranean weather of Sicily and Italy. The sumac berries are dried and ground or macerated in hot water before being mashed to release their juice.
Cooking with Sumac
Sumac is featured in cuisines throughout Turkey, Arabia and Lebanon, mainly used for its sour flavour that is preferred over lemon and vinegar. Sumac in powdered form is a great citrusy addition to baked goods, either in the dough or simply sprinkled on top when serving.
Health Benefits of Sumac
The berries have diuretic properties, aid in reducing fever and can relieve stomach complaints.
Tamarind translates to ‘date of India’ in Hindu and is found throughout India, South East Asia and the West Indies, although it is thought to have originated in Africa.
Tamarind trees produce brown bean pods and the pulp holds one to 10 black seeds inside. The pulp is used for its fruity aroma and sour flavour. It is sold as a pressed fibrous slab or in a bottled concentrate like jam.
Cooking with Tamarind
Tamarind contains naturally occurring pectin, which is used in commercially produced jams, so tamarind often found in jams and is also essential for Worcestershire sauce. In India, the seeds are ground and used in baked goods, while a syrup form is made into a popular Middle-Eastern drink.
Health Benefits of tamarind
With its antiseptic properties, tamarind mixed with water can be gargled to help allieviate a sore throat or ulcers. Its high acidity level means it has a cooling effect and can be used to treat respiratory illnesses and fevers.
Spice Blend – Chai
Chai spice has a slight heat and is usually a blend of cardamon, clove, cinnamon and black pepper – perfect added to muffins, banana bread and oat-BASED biscuits.
Spice Blend – Curry Powder
Curry powder is a blend of up to 18 different herbs and spices, including: cardamom, chillies, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, mace, nutmeg, pepper, saffron, tamarind and turmeric. Turmeric (pictured) gives curry its characteristic golden colour.