5 Spices You're Probably Not Using But Should Be, According to Professional Chefs

Time to upgrade your spice rack!

Spice Selection
Photo: Sam Barnes/Getty Images

It's time to update your spice cabinet. And not just because your spices are old (you can still use those). You need more variety in your seasoning stash, and we've enlisted a few chefs to help. Build up your basic spice checklist by adding these chef-endorsed spices to your recipes. Your taste buds will be grateful. Here's what to stock up on so you can add a flavorful boost to your everyday cooking.

Mexican Oregano

Not all oregano is created equal. The flowering herb, which belongs to the mint family, grows across the globe, with distinguishable flavors from Central America to the Mediterranean. Chef Oscar Hernandez, Tacombi's Culinary Director and Master Taquero, is an advocate of stocking dry Mexican oregano, which can also be freshly purchased (or grown in home gardens, the plant is from Mexico but can thrive anywhere). "It has lemon flavors and even tones of licorice," Hernandez says. "I use it in everything from salsa, to marinades to dressing, soups and stews." Sub in Mexican oregano for standard oregano in any recipe to become better acquainted with the herb.

Black Pepper

While salt and pepper are standard to most recipes, the pepper you stock in your pantry matters. Firstly, skip the pre-ground stuff, which can resemble flavorless dust more than the tongue-tickling spice it's supposed to be, and go for whole peppercorns. "I use black pepper a lot and in mostly everything," Hernandez says. "Especially seasoning meat, fish, and veggies." Peppercorns can be ground by hand or pounded into a powder using a mortar and pestle, and new electronic (and rechargeable!) pepper grinders grind your pepper to the consistency of your choosing.

"It's simple, but provides that awesome almost pungent flavor that's very aromatic, especially if ground right at the time of use," Hernandez adds. Buy a small quantity of peppercorns, so you always have the freshest pepper on hand. Try toasting them before grinding, and using a thicker grind to finish off dishes. With just one simple spice, all your savory cooking can vastly change.

Cumin

You need more cumin in your life, according to chef Cristian Salazar, culinary director of SOL Mexican Cocina and Solita Tacos & Margaritas "It gives dishes a hearty, earthy flavor, with a touch of citrus," he explains. "It goes well with taco seasonings, moles, rubs, enchilada sauce, and marinades." Cumin is strong, so you'll want to add only a small amount at a time as you adjust to how the flavor works in your recipes.

Consider using cumin to rub meat before roasting or grilling, sprinkling it into stews and chilis and stirring it into pre-made soups or baking sauces for dishes like enchiladas for a flavor boost. Because of its boldness, cumin is a seasoning you'll want to add before cooking, not as a topper. Cumin is typically sold as a powder, which makes it easy for sprinkling into dishes. For a quick and easy cumin boost, try making some toasted cumin oil by toasting ground cumin in a pan until fragrant, decanting into a bowl, and then mixing with a good quality olive oil. Use this as a condiment or base for a dish like sautéed chicken or fish.

Mexican Cinnamon

Spices aren't just savory—warming, sweet spices are essential to any well-rounded spice collection, for baking and adding depth to slow cooking dishes. Chef Manuel Trevino, VP of culinary at Rosa Mexicano, recommends Mexican cinnamon, or canela, as a staple. "It's a more unique, warm space that is truly a Mexican flavor nuance," he says. He recommends the fresh ground version, or the whole canela sticks.

"Long-simmered sauces benefit from cinnamon," Trevino says. "Canela adds an unexpected flavor with a similar profile [as traditional cinnamon]. It's amazing in apple pie, and it lends a warm note to braised or confit meats and vegetables." He'll add canela to a simmering pot of mole, or a pot of slow cooking birria. "It's also great made into a simple cinnamon tea," he says. Just pour boiling water over cinnamon sticks and let steep. It's perfect for soothing your throat, stomach, and more.

Mexican Vanilla

While vanilla extract may be the go-to pantry staple, Trevino is an advocate of using Mexican vanilla pods. Mexican vanilla is pollinated by bees, which gives it a certain je ne sais quoi of sweetness and specialness in its flavor. "Known as some of the best vanilla in the world, Mexican vanilla has a unique floral quality to it," notes Trevino. To use it, he recommends slicing the pod in half and scraping out the seeds.

"Use Mexican vanilla in custards, like traditional Mexican flan," Trevino suggests. "Use it in anything you would use vanilla in, such as cakes, cookies, and whipped cream. Real Mexican vanilla ice cream is also a special treat." And don't throw away that pod! Reserve it to infuse neutral spirits, like vodka, and create a homemade Mexican vanilla extract. It makes a great gift, assuming you don't use it all yourself.

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