The Paleo Table: 8 herbs & spices you should get to know

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12/365: 1/12/09 - Sugar & Spice
Spices. Little bottles on your kitchen shelf. But throughout human history, they have played so many roles, from defining culture and ethnicity to being a status symbol of wealth. Spices were the driving force behind modern trade, the rationale for discovering new worlds, were valuable currency, sometimes the very reason a people would settle in a certain place. Spices are darned important! And dang tasty. Which is what we really care about. Let’s talk spices.

Buying spices

Ever browse the spice aisle at the grocery store and notice the prices? No way am I paying upwards of six bucks for a jar of ground cloves when I only need 1/8 teaspoon for a recipe! Highway robbery! Not to mention that grocery store spices, the kind sold in the little jars, can often be really old. Old spices taste like dust. Not the flavor I’m looking for!

There are two better options when the goal is fresh spices.

  1. Buy the whole spice (cinnamon sticks, whole nutmeg, cumin seeds) and grind them yourself. For grinding seeds, just use a cheap coffee grinder that you reserve only for spices. Use a microplane grater on larger things like cinnamon and nutmeg.
  2. Buy in bulk.

Most cities or small towns are going to have one of the following: a hippie health food store co-op thingy, an Asian or Indian market, or at the very least, a Costco. I buy all my spices in bulk at the Asian or Indian market for a couple reasons: they are cheap and they get a lot of turnover, which means the spices are going to be pretty fresh. My local hippie health food store has a huge aisle of bulk spices where you can fill your own baggies to your heart’s content and I’ve shopped there for staples sometimes (they also sell bulk tea, yummm). I’ve noticed on my forages to the local bulk discounter (Costco or Sam’s Club) that they can be a good source of bulk spices from time to time, however you can bet turnover is not as high here, so they may have been sitting for a while. If none of these options is available to you, my favorite online resource is Penzey’s. They’ve got some great starter kits if you’re just beginning to use spices, and some exotic stuff (Mahlab or Sumac, anyone?) that you won’t find elsewhere.

About this list

This is not a Spices 101 class on the MOST ESSENTIAL spices for any kitchen; these are just spices and herbs I find have a lot of impact and that I find myself reaching for again and again. I am not including here some obvious things that I use in nearly every recipe I make: coarse sea salt or kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. I’m not including mixes like Garam Masala or Old Bay or including aromatics which I consider essential to any Paleo pantry: fresh garlic and onions. In my house, the hiss of onions hitting hot oil always signals the beginning of something mouthwatering and deeply flavored. It’s the sound of anticipation! So, without further ado, here are eight herbs and spices that deserve a place on your Paleo Table.

Cardamom

delicious cardamom Cardamom is definitely, for me, one of those special occasion spices. I use it rarely but when I do, it’s so distinctive. If you’ve ever had Chai tea, you’ve tasted cardamom. It’s an essential spice in Indian cooking and some have called it the vanilla of Indian ice cream. Cardamom in it’s whole state is a pod with an outer shell (not much flavor there) filled with tiny seeds (which are intensely flavorful). Ground cardamom is what you likely want to use, and is commonly found in baking, where the powder provides a concentrated unique, smoky flavor. You also may have tasted cardamom in Indian meat dishes or Swedish meatballs. Yum.

My favorite use for cardamom when I’m not baking is with a sweet-ish vegetable, like carrots or a pea puree. Cardamom Carrots (minus the brown sugar, I think the carrots are sweet enough) would be a good place to start with this spice. Substitute butternut squash or sweet potatoes for the carrots and you’d be happy too.

Chili Powder

Chili PowderOne of my favorite reasons to use any spice is warm-you-up, clear-your-sinuses heat! Chili powder is an easy go-to spice for that. Everyone’s tasted chili powder in… well… a big pot of Chili. Paleo chefs would do well to remember the Texan saying, “If you know beans about chili, you know chili ain’t got no beans!” A big pot of Texas chili is a great way to get your meat in, and pack a ton of delicious spicy, heaty flavor. In my experience, finding grass-fed ground beef is pretty easy, and another go-to use for chili powder in my kitchen is to mix it with a little garlic powder, cumin and salt and add it to ground beef when you’re cooking it. Instant taco meat! Also known as a favorite breakfast of mine. Maybe a strange choice, but delicious nonetheless.

Cinnamon

cinnamon Ahhh, cinnamon. The smell of cinnamon is so reminiscent of a well-kept, welcoming home that many a fragrance company has tried to capture its essence in a candle or even a toilet bowl freshener. The toilet seems an odd place for cinnamon, but is nevertheless testament to the power of this spice. Besides its versatility in sweet and savory foods, cinnamon has been shown to have health benefits ranging from lowering cholesterol and blood sugar to preventing yeast infections. Nice spice! Cinnamon can be used in everything from a savory spice rub for slow-cooked meats to being a major player in Apple Crumble.

Try sprinkling cinnamon on your coffee, tea or baked sweet potato. Use a whole cinnamon stick as a straw for sipping hot cocoa. Make some apple cinnamon pancakes. Mix it with any root vegetable or winter squash along with some butter or coconut oil. With all its’ uses, you can easily see why cinnamon is a daily spice in my house!

Cumin

cumin Cumin is a pale green seed from a plant that’s actually related to parsley; it’s traditionally used in spicy Mexican dishes like chile con carne or hot tamales. It also has a ton of health benefits. You can easily find cumin seeds ground or whole, and there are good uses for both. You can add ground cumin (which is stronger than the whole seeds) to a citrus-based marinade for meat. I also love cumin in chili and spicy meat stews. An easy way to use the seeds is by toasting them in a skillet over medium heat (just add the dry seeds to the skillet, and make sure to keep an eye on them, they can burn quickly). Then add the toasted seeds to some olive oil and drizzle the mixture over roasted veggies. Cumin is great in taco seasoning. It’s easy to make your own, then just add it to ground beef or poultry while browning the meat. Serve in lettuce cups with lots of veggie fixings on the side for a super easy dinner.

Nutmeg

Forms of Nutmeg - 485/365Nutmeg in its whole form is a smooth little nut about the size of a peach pit. Whole nuts are preferable to ground nutmeg, since the flavor of ground nutmeg quickly turns dust-like. Whole ones will keep forever and can be grated easily with a microplane grater. I got a bag of 50 or so from my Indian grocer for about 3 bucks! Nutmeg is usually associated with sweet baked goods, but goes surprisingly well in savory applications too. Back in my mac & cheese days, it was one of my favorite things to add to the sauce. It goes great in soups with tomatoes, chicken, egg dishes, or with green veggies like spinach, broccoli or cabbage. It’s traditionally paired with lamb in Middle Eastern dishes and used in Moroccan cooking frequently. My favorite use for nutmeg is similar to how I use cinnamon: sprinkled on sweet potatoes along with a pat of grass-fed butter.

Paprika

Paprika Crazy!Paprika is a fine powder ground from dried “pimento” peppers (yeah, the same ones used to stuff olives). It is a beautiful red color and although it comes from peppers, is milder than chili or cayenne pepper. You can find it in sweet, smoked, and hot forms (I think smoked tastes best no matter what the spicy factor). Paprika is associated with Hungarian cuisine (paprikash and goulash), but also is used to spice chorizo sausage, and is a natural partner for other spices to create a rub for meats. It imparts a beautiful color to meat when cooked (think of Tandoori chicken). Sprinkled, it can be a fun way to garnish foods (you’ve probably seen deviled eggs topped with it).

You could make a delicious drizzle for vegetables by heating a teaspoon of paprika with a couple cloves of minced garlic and a bay leaf in some olive oil, then adding in a splash of wine vinegar. It also goes great in a vinaigrette and emulsifies well with oil and vinegar. You can just rub it on a plain chicken (inside and out) before roasting for a delicious flavor and color. Experiment with this versatile spice. I haven’t tried it with a dish yet that I didn’t like.

Rosemary

Fiori di rosmarino (Rosemary flowers)Rosemary is a super-fragrant herb with needle-like leaves and a fresh evergreen, almost pine-y scent. Rosemary is super easy to grow and is drought-tolerant. It’s a tough little plant and easy to have on hand year-round since it can be grown in a pot or in the ground. Rosemary is a natural partner to garlic and olive oil and that trio is wonderful on everything from roast potatoes to lamb, pork or chicken. Whenever I make a pork roast, I like to make small incisions in the meat and stuff slivers of garlic with rosemary leaves inside. It imparts a wonderful flavor to the meat. Ditto chicken, just stuff some rosemary under the skin or even place a sprig or two in the cavity of the chicken before you roast it.

Thyme

ThymeThyme, along with rosemary, is a major player in the traditional bouquet garni, a bundle of herbs used in savory soups and stews such as Beef bourguignon or Pot au Feu. Thyme is also so easy to grow, it spread over my whole herb garden, and I hardly watered it at all this summer. It’s a perennial too, so it comes back every spring. Thyme is used to season savory soups and stews, but also goes really well with eggs, tomatoes, and lamb.

I love fresh thyme in an omelet along with some salt and pepper. It’s amazing in a make-your-own marinara sauce (which I love over green beans, spaghetti squash or zucchini). If you’re longing for tomatoes in the dead of winter, plum tomatoes at the grocery store can actually taste great if you roast them along with this versatile herb. Roasting concentrates the flavor and brings life to otherwise icky, pink, out of season tomatoes. Dried thyme will work in this case (bonus: it retains its flavor much better than most other dried herbs). Sprinkle the tomatoes (sliced in half) with thyme, salt and pepper, and drizzle with olive oil. Mix well with your (clean) hands. Roast at 450 degrees for 25-30 minutes until the tomatoes are starting to caramelize. Mmmmm.

Share with us

What are your favorite ways to use some of these herbs and spices? Want a primer or some ideas on any others not mentioned here? Any experiences with spices you’d like to share? Tell us in the comments!

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  1. Diane @ Balanced Bites
    November 29, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    I’m with you on these and I also find myself reaching for garlic powder and black pepper pretty regularly. When I remember to use it, I like onion powder too, but I suppose both onion and garlic powder aren’t even really herbs, they’re more like dried/ground up versions of the bulbs!

    Nice post.
    Diane :)

    • Amber Karnes
      November 29, 2010 at 4:52 pm

      Yeah onion & garlic powder are super yummy and find their way into a lot of my stuff! I also like mustard powder for a kick!

  2. Lillian
    November 29, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    Herbes de Provence is my absolute must-have!

    • Amber Karnes
      November 29, 2010 at 4:53 pm

      Good one!

      • Sarah
        December 9, 2010 at 11:07 pm

        I use a lot of sage in things as well. It’s quite subtle, but I really love the effect it has in things. (It went in with a mess of leeks into chicken soup this week, on top of bone marrow in the oven.)

        Parsley, Cilantro and lemon are up there for me as well.

        I like to get fresh spices from the farmers’ market and use them liberally throughout the week. If it looks like they’re getting tired in the fridge I just dry them on the shelf and use them as I please. Fresh herbs are always more potent in my opinion.

  3. Dan Merk
    November 29, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    I’ll add; allspice with poultry, fenugreek ground with veggies, peppercorns of all 3 colors (red, white, and green), and love tumeric in curries.

    • Amber Karnes
      November 29, 2010 at 4:53 pm

      Turmeric definitely should have made this list! I love it in curries too. I’ll have to try fenugreek with veggies, that’s one I haven’t used much.

  4. Patty
    November 29, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Nice list of some of the best Amber!!

    My favorite way to use a variety of herbs and spices is homemade sausage. With a lot of hungry mouths to feed over the Thanksgiving holiday, I made a big batch with 1 pound each ground lamb, pork and venison. First I added fresh thyme, rosemary and tarragon from the garden and then I starting opening spice bottles and added cinnamon, nutmeg, smoked paprika, mustard, a little cumin, white pepper and oregano. Maybe even a few others. Wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out, but all three pounds were gone in less than three days!

    And one more option for getting fresh herbs like rosemary, basil, thyme, etc. is to grow them yourself. They take up very little space and most of them grow like weeds!

    • Amber Karnes
      November 29, 2010 at 4:55 pm

      Yeah I love growing fresh herbs! I made a little herb garden this year and it wasn’t much harder than sticking some little plants in the ground, throwing on some compost, and mulching it with regular old wood mulch. I barely had to do anything and had herbs all spring, summer and fall!

      I’m looking forward to trying my own homemade sausage next year. The meat grinder attachment for my kitchenaid mixer is on my xmas list!

  5. Squatchy
    November 29, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    A pretty good place to get spices online is http://www.myspicesage.com/
    They have a really good selection and a lot of the time they include some kind of free spice with every order (sometimes its even pricey stuff like saffron).

    • Amber Karnes
      November 29, 2010 at 4:56 pm

      Thanks for that link!

  6. Darrin - Lean, Mean, Virile Machine
    November 29, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Rosemary may very well be my all-time MVP. Throw some sprigs in a chicken along with a lemon. Tastes delicious and makes the entire apartment smell wonderful!

    • Amber Karnes
      November 29, 2010 at 4:57 pm

      Haha best blog name ever! And yeah, rosemary lemon chicken in the oven is what *home* smells like. :)

    • Farley
      December 1, 2010 at 6:17 am

      man, do the same to a trout and bake that bad boy or grill it. great combo of herbs and citrus.

  7. Corin
    November 29, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    Great article and comments – I’m sure to use some of the suggestions. I love rosemary on a nice piece of roast beef for the rub – with salt, pepper and fresh garlic – Simple and delcious is what I love about the paleo recipes. :)

  8. Kevin Costello
    November 29, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    Amber / Robb –

    Re: spices that people with autoimmune / leaky gut / chronic inflammation should avoid:

    I believe the following all contain nightshades:
    Cayenne
    Chili powder
    Curry powder
    Paprika
    Pepper sauce
    Pimento
    Crushed red pepper flakes

    Are there any other common spices that you are aware of that are nightshades and/or known gut irritants?

    Thanks

    • Robb Wolf
      November 29, 2010 at 11:26 pm

      kevin-
      Anything with a pepper as an ingredient. Tomatoes…i’ll think on this. ginger is a good option, antiinflammatory and tasty!

  9. Veena
    November 29, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    I haven’t used thyme much and I love your suggestion to roast tomatoes with it. Will try it out.

    I cook Indian all the time and use a lot of cumin, turmeric, chilis, curry leaves, cilantro and so on. Here’s my list of top spices to have in your pantry for Indian food!
    http://veenasmarket.wordpress.com/2010/02/07/hello-world/

  10. Marcia Tyler
    November 29, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    I have Candida, so I use a lot of Cayenne pepper. It’s my favorite spice because it goes with anything. Cumin is number 2 (along with curry powder). Followed by oregano and basil. Haven’t had Cardamom yet, as it’s hard to find in South Korea. But it’s on my list now!

  11. Veronica
    November 29, 2010 at 11:59 pm

    Check on all you listed, except cardamon. Gonna have to try some of that.

    I like fenugreek tea, tastes like maple.

  12. Kerri
    November 30, 2010 at 5:57 am

    Great list, Robb. I’m a huge fan of Herbes de Provence as well. Thanks for the plug :)

    • Robb Wolf
      November 30, 2010 at 9:04 am

      Hey everyone!
      that is Amber on that post, I can;t take credit for that but I do love Herbs de Provence!

  13. Renee
    November 30, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    I’m surprised that you mentioned Mahlab, Robb. I’m only used to seeing it in Armenian breads and i LOVE its flavor. Any brilliant Paleo uses for it?

    • Amber Karnes
      December 7, 2010 at 11:57 am

      Renee, I’ve never used Mahlab before! I just thought it sounded especially exotic. Next time I place an order online with them, I might have to try some.

  14. Deepa
    November 30, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    Spices are not used only for taste and flavor but they have herbal and medical values some spices like turmeric uses as anti biotic

  15. Farley
    December 1, 2010 at 6:13 am

    This is a great recipe. The baking approach is a nice switch up. (I just remove the bread crumbs and ditch the sauce.) The nutmeg and tumeric really make these bad boys!

    http://www.sporkorfoon.com/spork_or_a_foon/2009/08/belgian-meatballs.html

    • Amber Karnes
      December 7, 2010 at 11:58 am

      Oh man those sound awesome. I love baking meatballs, I just think it helps them to stick together a little better!

  16. McGrok
    December 1, 2010 at 9:39 am

    I love penzey’s spices, and I think that good spices are really the key to tasty, healthy food! I actually use their jars and labels and have a nice set going. I am actually giving it as a gift to a friend who is starting to cook for themselves more. Rosemary and garlic on lamb…home run!

  17. Phocion Timon
    December 2, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    If you can get it, chipotle chile powder is superior to any other chile powder. I use it in my chili and occasionally I will throw a couple of handfuls of macadamia nuts in a skillet, throw in just a bit of butter and heat just until melted then coat the macadamias with the butter and a dusting of the chipotle chili powder and a bit of salt.

    Nutmeg goes well with beef. I occasionally put just a tiny bit on my steak just as I pull it off the grill or add the spice to a beef stew.

    • Amber Karnes
      December 7, 2010 at 11:59 am

      I’ve never looked for chipotle chili powder but I bet it is super yummy. I use chipotle peppers in adobo sauce in a lot of my recipes and I love that smoky flavor.

  18. Steve S
    December 4, 2010 at 10:09 am

    I give Penzey’s a big thumbs-up as well. They’ve got the most flavorful dried spices I’ve ever had. I only wish they had a retail store where I live!

  19. Lark
    December 18, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    To make a deliciously different pot of coffee I like to add a pod or two of cardamom to the beans when I grind them. Adds a lovely citrusy/vanilla dimension to the brew.

  20. Ali
    January 7, 2011 at 10:12 am

    Hi Amber! Love the spices post–curry saved me this morning when my eggs and spinach were not seeming fun.
    You mentioned that you like marinara over green beans–so they are not legumes? What about split peas? But peanuts definitely are, right?
    And while I’m here, how much/often is honey (raw) o.k. so I can feel like I’m not cheating? I am on week 1 and doing well but having a hard time with no treats at all. Was trying to get through the 30 days without any, but am wondering if I can just step off the wagon a little bit….
    Thanks so much!!!

  21. jane
    January 7, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    My Friend forwarded your Post on Friday.Your post was Well written.Pl. keep posting on bulk herbs spices.

  22. Katrina Artist
    May 23, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    This would ascertain that you do not end up attempting someting that is fraught with side effects. With your health at stake, it usually makes sense to study what you might be going to try. Also, a wrong or misleading info could boost the body’s acid levels thereby aggravating the condition. Be careful when trying something new, which has not been tested.

  23. Kevin
    October 6, 2011 at 10:59 am

    This post has been up for awhile but I am reading through the new ebook (Total Transformation) and it mentions Penzeys Spices, which I have used and loved.

    For you readers in the Chicago/Milwaukee area I strongly suggest using The Spice House (I have no affiliation). The Penzey family started the Spice House in Milwaukee in 1957 and Penzeys Spices is a more recent off shoot.

    Sorry, maybe too much history for a blog comment.

  24. Mary
    August 6, 2012 at 8:06 am

    Very good post on spices!

  25. blessing
    May 19, 2013 at 9:42 am

    looking for where to buy cinnamon herbs in belgium

  26. Andrea
    June 9, 2013 at 9:55 am

    Hi Robb,

    I was surprised to see Cardamom listed as your first spice. I will have to try it in my home-made raw & fermented grass-fed milk ice cream (a very rare treat)!

    For the last few months I’ve been heavily into using a plethora of herbs and spices, and lots of them, in my food and drinks. I can make EPIC raw, fermented and dehydrated paleo cookies, crackers, kale chips and grassfed beef jerky. I’ve never been healthier or happier.

    As for sources, I agree that big box stores are a definite NO. I don’t like the bulk bins at any stores either – so not sanitary! I currently get my organic herbs and spices online at http://maisonterre.net/ in small quantities to keep it affordable and fresh. I think it’s better to do that than have large amounts of herbs and spices deteriorating on my pantry shelf!

    Your book was the first one I read on Paleo a year and a half ago, a gift from a dear friend. Going all organic, mostly Raw Paleo this past year has totally changed my looks and my life. Thank you so much for your work in the world!

  27. Jane
    July 8, 2014 at 7:34 am

    What a fantastic read, I’ve never really had thyme (pardon the pun) to have a play around with different herbs and spices, but your post has really influenced me to do so. Thanks for sharing!

  28. Jacquelyn
    October 1, 2014 at 4:43 am

    Smoked Paprika is one of my favorite things, especially since I have two kids who want me to go easy on the spicy spices.

    My go to spice is a pepper-orange spice blend that I put on everything.

    http://www.gooseislandcrossfit.com/crossfit-in-chicago-blog/2014/9/29/pepper-orange-seasoning

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