The Spicy Season

It's time to update the spice rack for the holidays ahead

Focus On Cooking

November 02, 2003|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

Something tasty is in the air.

Nothing reminds us of the winter holidays like those familiar scents of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cocoa and sage. And what better way to perk up a holiday meal? Or flavor those Christmas cookies or spice up a turkey dressing?

"They can evoke memories of celebrations, and our family and friends," says Steve Logan, a culinary chef for Maryland-based McCormick spice company. "They are intense but inviting."

Now is a good time to stock up on those top-10 holiday flavors. Spices purchased this year should be good for next year's celebrations, too, if they're stored correctly -- in an airtight container in a dark, cool, dry place. Unfortunately, too many cooks keep them beside the stove where it's both moist and hot.

"Most ground spices have only a two- to three-year shelf life," he says. "If you want them to last longer, buy whole and grind it yourself. Whole spices will last three or four years."


Sweet and lemony, aromatic but pungent, ginger puts the kick in holiday baking and in savory dishes, too. Its popularity in the United States has nearly doubled since 1990.

Ginger comes from the rhizome of the ginger plant, and is available fresh in many supermarkets. The Chinese have farmed it since the sixth century B.C.

Tip: Try using ginger to add some zest to seasonal vegetables like carrots, squash and sweet potatoes.


The flavor most closely associated with Christmas is also one of the oldest spices known to man and was used by the Egyptian pharaohs.

There are several varieties, all harvested from the bark of a tropical evergreen. Cinnamon sticks can last about four years in an airtight container kept in a cool, dry place. Ground cinnamon should probably be checked for potency after a year or two (taste it if you're in doubt).

Tip: If you want some extra zip in your cinnamon creations, grind the whole sticks yourself to make powder. It better preserves the aromatic oils.

Poultry seasoning

Recipes vary, but this combination of herbs and other seasonings generally includes sage, thyme, marjoram, pepper and celery seed.

The seasoning is so closely associated with turkey dressing that it was recently voted the third most essential for the holidays (behind only vanilla and cinnamon) in a survey by McCormick.

Tip: In a pinch, you can always blend your own poultry seasoning by combining 3/4 teaspoon of dried sage with 1/4 teaspoon thyme and 1/4 teaspoon marjoram.


A flavor that is sometimes mistaken for cloves, allspice tastes a bit like a combination of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. It actually comes from just one source -- the pea-size reddish brown berry from a small evergreen tree grown in Jamaica, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

Allspice blends well with other seasonings and is used widely -- in everything from German sauerbraten to ketchup.

Tip: Outside the United States, allspice is often referred to as pimento because it so closely resembles peppercorns.


Among the most dependable seasonings, vanilla beans and extract last a long time -- the shelf life probably won't be an issue even when the extract shows signs of sediment.

Vanilla beans come from orchids; the majority are grown in Madagascar. Prices are up this year because of civil unrest in that country.

Tip: Be sure to use pure vanilla extract rather than artificial seasoning. It's made from beans that have been chopped up and percolated (like coffee) and aged.

Orange peel

The dehydrated rind of the fresh fruit is a useful seasoning to give a subtle citrus flavor when fresh orange is unavailable.

Orange peel is another seasoning that can lose its potency with age. Check color and flavor if it has been in your cabinet more than one year.

Tip: It can substitute as an equal amount (or slightly less) of freshly grated orange zest in a recipe.


The unopened, dried, nail-shaped flower buds of a tree grown chiefly in Indonesia, cloves have a strong, sweet but penetrating flavor.

Used both whole and ground, cloves work well with ham, pork, pickled fruit, pumpkin pie, gingerbread, ketchup and many other foods.

Tip: Don't use too much. Cloves can overpower other flavors.


The pit of a fruit grown on trees in Indonesia and Grenada, nutmeg presents a flavor that is both sweet and bitter and perfect when sprinkled on eggnog.

Like cinnamon, it's a long-used spice with centuries of tradition and is as useful on savory dishes like spinach or sausage as it is on sweets. The flavor seems amplified when nutmeg is freshly ground.

Tip: The outer covering of the nutmeg seed produces mace, an Indian spice with a similar but more delicate flavor.


Few flavors are more welcomed by children around the holidays than chocolate, baked into sweets or served as a hot beverage.

Cocoa powder is derived from the paste produced from South and Central American cacao beans after they've been fermented, roasted and ground.

Tip: Cocoa has a shelf life of about three years (less if not kept in an airtight container away from heat and humidity).


This distinctive herb comes from a hardy evergreen shrub grown in the Mediterranean and has long been considered a memory enhancer.

Around the holidays, sage is often used to flavor pork sausage and turkey stuffing, imparting a pine-like flavor. It's one of the chief components of poultry seasoning.

Tip: If you use whole leaves, be sure to rub them first. It helps release the natural oils and aromas.

Sources: McCormick & Co., Vanns Spices of Baltimore, Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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