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Spicy Secrets of Healthy Food
Take your food from bland to grand!


When I talk about eating healthy, a lot of people assume it means bland food. They picture an endless progression of egg whites, skinless chicken breast and steamed vegetables. Now while those are healthy options, what kind of life would it be if you were forced to eat the same boring things day after day? A quick way to turn good for you foods into great tasting foods are spices.

Of course, using spices properly can be tricky. Pour on too much and your dish is overwhelmed. Add too little and it's a plain disappointment. Get it just right and spices can make food pop without burying it in unhealthy sugar or heart-damaging salt. Deciding which one to use and how much is one of the key differences between a cook following a recipe and a chef creating a meal.

In my first few years of cooking, I slavishly followed the spice combinations listed in the original recipes. I didn't understand enough about what each spice tasted like or how it was best used.

Fifteen years later I've learned a thing or two and I'm going to share those secrets with you. Here's a list of 16 spices, what they taste like and how you can use them to liven up healthy meals.

Basil Basil has a sweet and strong taste. Unfortunately, the flavor dissipates quickly when cooked, so it should be added at the end when the food is nearly ready. Basil is typically used with fish and lean meats, but also goes well with sauces, fruit jams and even over top of fresh fruit to give it a little more punch.'

Cardamom Cardamom is an intensely aromatic spice that smells both sweet and minty-orange. Swedes and Norwegians often use it in sweet baked breads, while in India it's used as a flavoring in coffee or tea. Cardamom is strong, so very little is required in most recipes.

Celery Seed Celery Seed tastes very much like the celery plant, with a touch of naturally occurring sodium. It’s good in beef recipes like beef stew, lightly sprinkled on fish and mixed into potato salads.

Chives Chives are part of the onion family and taste like mild onions. They're an excellent addition to recipes where onions would be good, but might be a little overpowering. Enjoy it in dips, mixed with vegetables or sprinkled on sandwiches.

Cinnamon Cinnamon is fragrant and tangy. When combined with sweet foods it's amazing. But it's also surprisingly good in small amounts mixed with soups, stews and meat sauces. Sprinkle it on oatmeal or bread for a treat first thing in the morning.

Coriander Coriander seeds give off a little bit of orange and soapy aroma. Because cooking quickly destroys the flavor, it's often used in cold dishes like salsa, guacamole or chutneys. It's a nice compliment when something is spicy.

Cumin Cumin gives off a smoky flavor with a mixture of sweet and spicy. It's used heavily in curries and foods from India and the Middle East. You'll also find it used often in Tex-Mex dishes and tacos. It's a good choice when you want to give something a little heat, without adding hot peppers.

Curry Curry isn't a single spice, but rather a combination of things like coriander, cumin, fenugreek, turmeric and red pepper. The main ingredient is turmeric (giving it the yellow hue) but the taste can range from mild and mustardy to spicy hot and earthy. Curry is used extensively in Indian cooking and is a great way to liven up more traditional soups, lean meats or vegetables.

Dill Weed Dill smells a little like pickles and fresh-cut grass. Typically used on fish, it's also great in sauces or as a topping on fresh-cut vegetables like cucumbers.

Ginger Root Ginger root is a combination of peppery and sweet tastes with a bite at the end. Western cooks often pair it with sweet dishes where it's the predominant spice. However, it also tastes delicious as a base for meat dishes when mixed with garlic and onions.

Marjoram Marjoram has a pine and sweet citrus scent. It's from the same plant family as oregano, but it doesn't have as strong a flavor. Use it to enhance the savory tastes of lamb, sausage or shrimp.

Nutmeg Nutmeg gives off a bright orange and sweet aroma. Use it to top fresh vegetables or mixed into soups and stew. It's also a great additive to breads and protein bars.

Oregano Oregano is part of the mint family and has a flavor that is both earthy and slightly minty. It's often used in tomato-based sauces, vegetable stews, grilled meats and herb breads.

Paprika Paprika is made by grinding dried bell peppers or chili peppers. The flavor ranges from sweet, smoky and mild to spicy hot. It's a great way to season and color rice, soups and stews.

Rosemary Rosemary has a slightly bitter, astringent taste that holds up well in hearty dishes like beans, meatloaf and potatoes.

Sage Sage tastes a little like evergreen or camphor. It's often used in poultry stuffings and with lean meats. It's also a nice way to enhance plain tasting vegetables such as eggplant or potatoes.

Thyme Thyme tastes like a combination of light lemon and pepper. Some people call it an "earthy" taste. It goes well with meats (particularly lamb), stews and eggs. Thyme is slow to release it's flavor, so it's often added early in the cooking process.

Turmeric Turmeric tastes a little like mustard, slightly sweet and slightly bitter. It's good mixed into fruit salad dressings, stews and fruit smoothies.

When experimenting with spices, start with a small amount, you can always add more later. Eating healthy when food tastes good is much easier than dreading the bland and boring. Be brave and try something new, add some spice to your healthy meals.

Update 2/23/2021 - 12 Spices Everyone Should Have

The magazine Real Simple had a great article about the 12 essential spices every cook should have. They are:

Black pepper
Cayenne pepper
Chili powder
Cinnamon ground
Cumin ground
Curry powder
Ginger ground
Kosher salt
Nutmeg whole
Oregano dried
Red Pepper crushed
Sea salt

You can read the original article here:

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Updated 1/14/2018
Updated 2/23/2021