How to use baking spices such as cinnamon, ginger and allspice in savory dishes for complex flavors

As we enter what some call pumpkin spice season, baking spices — such as cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, star anise, cardamom and nutmeg — are front of mind. Often associated with desserts in the United States and Europe — and sometimes overly perfumed edible and nonedible products hawked by corporations this time of year — these spices can do so much more. While they are integral to the iconic baked goods of fall, they are also capable of adding flavor and complexity to savory dishes.

Harking back to my classical French culinary training, I remember being told to add a pinch of nutmeg to dark leafy greens and bechamel sauce, which sometimes also includes cloves. You can also regularly find these spices in American barbecue (I love including cinnamon in my spice rubs), holiday ham or the regional classic Cincinnati chili, but that’s about the extent of it in Western cuisines.

A homemade pumpkin spice recipe to remind us what the season should really taste like

“Nowadays I feel like you see these warm spices everywhere in the world except in Western cuisine,” chef and television host Sohla El-Waylly said on a call. “But in the past that wasn’t the case, because when you look at ancient recipes in Europe, they were putting cinnamon and saffron in meat exactly like the Persians were doing. It’s interesting that we’ve gone away from that.”

In chatting with chef Jon Kung, he brought up a study on the principles of food pairing. While recipes from Western cuisines tend to contain ingredients that have similar flavors that build on top of each other, East Asian cuisines tend to “deal in opposites and conflicting characteristics in flavor,” Kung said, which is achieved in part by the use of warmings spices in savory dishes. (In addition to East Asian cuisines, warming spices in savory dishes can also be found in the cuisines of the Middle East and North Africa.)

Recipe: Lemon and Apricot Cinnamon Chicken

El-Waylly has been enjoying baking spices in savory dishes since she was a child. “One of the things my mom always did was whenever she did red meat braises and stews, it would always have black cardamom, which adds this nice, sweet, smoky note that really goes well with that heavy, rich, meaty taste,” she said, adding that star anise was usually included too. “I feel like you often find the warm spices used with rich, hearty, meaty dishes because it goes really well with that fattiness, like in a mole or in a chili or in a korma. I feel like because these warmer spices have this kind of sweetness to them, they work well with heavier things to round them out, kind of cut that richness.”

When it comes to the balance of flavors, heat is another lever to consider using when working with these spices. “It is nice to have the balance of a little bit of spice so it doesn’t go too far into the sweet zone,” El-Waylly said. “I think that’s why it works so well in mole, mole poblano in particular, because you have all these chiles.”

Black cardamom and star anise would also show up in the her mother’s kebabs, which El-Waylly now associates with grilled meats in South Asia and the Middle East. More broadly, it connects to grilling globally, such as with American barbecue or the use of allspice in Jamaican jerk chicken. For Kung, it comes down to the char achieved with these cooking methods. “Warming spices uplift the innately sweet notes that are already present in savory food,” Kung said. “This would mean anything that is charred. It really does a great job of accentuating the sweetness of char.”

Fall for these sweet and savory recipes full of warming spices to welcome the season

Star anise is particularly great with beef because when combined with onions, it makes the dish taste meatier. “There is a compound in star anise that when it is cooked with onions, it releases a compound that tastes very much like beef,” Kung said. “In Chinese cuisine you have a lot of star anise and onions in beef dishes because it makes beef taste even more like beef. But if you use it in a stir fry with oyster mushrooms or something like that, it does a really good job adding that meaty depth to vegan and plant-based dishes.”

Before adding a bunch of cloves to your dishes willy-nilly, keep in mind that these spices can be fairly potent — so use them judiciously. El-Waylly recommends using whole spices to dampen their power. “You get a little nice background of this warmth without being too overpowering,” she said. “It’s a more delicate approach if you want to add it to seafood or a vegetable stew.” Whole cinnamon sticks are easy enough to fish out of finished dishes, and smaller items can go in a sachet of cheesecloth for easy removal. (Plus, whole spices last longer. “So if you don’t use it as much, it’ll be okay,” she said.)

Another route for dipping one’s toe into the world of warming spices in savory applications is with spice blends, such as garam masala. “It is a really approachable, affordable way to try out these different spices without having to buy six different bottles of stuff,” El-Waylly said.

None of this may be new to you. If it is, I hope to inspire you in broadening your spice horizons so you can cook more deliciously complex dishes at home. Should you need more guidance, simply turn to recipes from the cuisines mentioned above. “The blueprint is already there, right?” Kung said. “The cuisines that have been doing this for thousands of years already exist.”

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