8 Essential Spices Every Holiday Baker Needs
Spice, spice, baby!
There are certain warm and spicy flavors and aromas that we associate with holiday baking, so much so that we find ourselves reaching for them again and again to make a season's worth of pies, cakes, cookies, and more. Here are the top eight you'll want to stock up on as you launch into your own holiday baking. We'll also share tips for buying and storing spices, plus recipes to use them in.
With a world of spices available literally at our fingertips, it's easy to take them for granted. Consider and the long journeys they've traveled to make their way into our desserts. Imagine a world without spices! What would the holidays be without the cinnamon in apple crisp or the bite of ginger in spicy holiday cookies?
Don't write spices off as just a bunch of musty pots of powder. These little jars may look unassuming, but they have powerful histories. Once upon a time, they were some of the rarest commodities on earth; many wars have been fought in the name of spices. At times, they have been used as currency. At other times, they've been burned for use in religious ceremonies.
Top Tips For Storing Spices
Stay cool. Lots of people keep their spices near the stove for convenience. But if you want your spices to stay flavorful for as long as possible, find a cooler, drier place for them to live; the moisture and heat from the stove will cause them to break down.
Keep away from the light. The rule above also applies to sunlight. Direct light on spices will cause them to degrade. It's best to keep dried spices tucked away in a cool cupboard.
Store in airtight containers. Exposure to air will cause your spices to turn stale, collect dust, and even go moldy. When buying spices in bags, be sure to transfer them to a well-sealed container when you get home with them.
Check your expiration dates. Your great-grandmother's pantry may beg to differ, but spices do expire. They won't make you sick, but they'll lose their flavor and just taste musty. In general, whole spices last about twice as long as their powdered equivalents.
Vanilla is one of the most complex flavors in the world. Originally from Mesoamerica, vanilla pods are a part of an orchid plant, and can only be pollinated by hummingbirds! They are picked while still unripe, cured in hot water and dried for half a year, when they acquire their iconic black and wrinkled look.
The inside of a vanilla pod is filled with hundreds of tiny, fragrant seeds. These are the black specks you see in good quality vanilla ice cream or creme anglaise. The flavor is very powerful, and a small amount of the seeds go a long way.
Vanilla is available in three different forms and at three different price points:
- Whole vanilla pods are the most expensive, but impart the richest flavor and aroma. Many home cooks will perfume their sugar by burying their leftover vanilla pods into the jar to make vanilla sugar.
- Vanilla paste is a concentrated extract that imparts a pure flavor but is shelf-stable and less expensive than vanilla pods.
- Vanilla extract is a staple in baked items from chocolate chip cookies to cheesecake. It's made by soaking vanilla beans in alcohol. Some bakers make their own vanilla extract (it's so easy).
When buying vanilla extract, be sure to check the label. Many products labelled "vanilla flavoring" do not contain anything from the actual vanilla orchid plant at all. Real vanilla will always be labeled as an extract.
Try vanilla in Old Fashioned Coconut Cream Pie.
Cinnamon is a very complex spice.
There are two different forms of cinnamon: Ceylon and cassia. Both come from the bark of the cinnamomum tree, but have different origins. Ceylon cinnamon, the rarer of the two, comes from Sri Lanka and has a mild but lovely aroma and flavor. Cassia cinnamon, what you're most likely to have in your own cupboard, originated in China and has a stronger flavor than its subcontinental cousin.
Since whole and ground cinnamon have different uses, it's a good idea to have both in your spice cabinet. Ground cinnamon will last about 6 month, while the quills keep for about twice that long.
Watch: How to make Soft, moist and Gooey Cinnamon Buns.
Get more recipes using cinnamon.
Nutmeg is actually the pip of Myristica fragrans, the fruit of an evergreen native to the islands of Indonesia. The fruit itself is rare outside of the islands, but its seed has remained in high demand for centuries. It has been a pawn in war. It's been used as incense, medicinally, and in beauty products. Today, it's a recognizable ingredient in everything from chai tea to bechamel sauce. It can be found as an ingredient in countless spice blends, from pumpkin pie to garam masala.
If you're a true fan of the warm and woodsy spice, you might keep whole nutmeg in an airtight jar in your pantry. It's stays fresh for longer and has a more pronounced flavor. Just grate the amount you need for your recipe (using a plane grater or the finest grating surface on your box-style grater), then put the unused nutmeg back in the jar for next time. A little nutmeg goes a long way, so just a couple of nutmegs can last all holiday season.
Use freshly ground nutmeg in Nutmeg Cake.
Get more recipes using nutmeg.
Ginger originated in Southeast Asia, but is now used frequently the world over. It's easy to find both fresh ginger and powdered, but the two are different products entirely.
Powdered ginger is much stronger in flavor than the fresh root. It can be used to provide warmth and spice to any autumn dessert and is an important ingredient to many spice blends. When stored properly, dried ground ginger can keep for up to three years.
Dried ginger shines brightest in its eponymously named product, gingerbread. From crispy cookies to adorable gingerbread houses, this cozy treat is synonymous with cool weather cheer.
Crystallized or candied ginger can be added to almost any baked goods to give them a bright and zippy hit of fall flavor. You can also sprinkle a bit over frostings as a tasty, decorative touch, as in these Pumpkin Ginger Cupcakes.
Watch: Use ground ginger in this recipe for Favorite Old Fashioned Gingerbread.
Get more recipes using ginger.
Clove, a heady, pungent flower bud, is a common flavor during the colder months. Its distinct flavor can be found bubbling away in mulled wine and hot apple cider, and enhancing a number of meat and savory dishes. It is native to the spice islands of Indonesia, where nutmeg and mace also originated.
Ground cloves will go stale much quicker than the whole buds, but it's helpful to have both in the kitchen, as they serve different purposes.
Use ground cloves in this top-rated recipe for Cranberry Pumpkin Bread.
Get more recipes using cloves.
Contrary to popular belief, allspice is not a blend of other spices. It's a berry native to the Antilles, Mexico and parts of Central America. It's used heavily in Caribbean cooking and is commonly found in many baked goods worldwide. It gets its name from its unique flavor, which has been likened to a combination of clove, nutmeg and cinnamon, and is a key component in pumpkin pie spice mix.
Use allspice to flavor this top-rated Allspice Cream Cheese Frosting.
Get more recipes using allspice.
The elusive cardamom pod is used to flavor everything from Thai coffee to Indian-style basmati rice. Originally from India, this fragrant and delicate spice is one of the world's most expensive. Typically, it is stored as whole pods and ground when needed, but powdered cardamom is available to buy as well.
Use ground cardamom in this recipe for Easy Cardamom Bread.
Get more recipes using cardamom.
Mace is also from the Myristica fragrans fruit. One of the lesser-known spices to the modern cook, mace actually comes from the coating of the nutmeg seed and has a similar, albeit stronger, flavor.
Use powdered made in this recipe for Carrot Cheesecake with Crumb Crust.
Get more recipes using mace.