This issue: Essential Spices and Spice Blends

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Essential Spices and Spice Blends

By Julia Rogers and Mario Fiorucci


What sets a great cook apart from an ordinary one is a sure hand with seasoning. When the right spices are employed, even the simplest food becomes a memorable dish. The few key spices we present below will boost flavor to any dish, spark your kitchen creativity, and allow you to experience a world of ethnic cuisine.


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VOLUME 40 ... Essential Spices and Spice Blends

By Julia Rogers and Mario Fiorucci



While we often speak of herbs and spices as one and the same, they are actually quite distinct. Herbs are fresh green leaves of plants, typically from temperate climates. Some herbs withstand drying, becoming more pungent and durable, but they still have a limited shelf life. Spices are dried aromatic seeds, roots, flowers and fruits, of tropical origin. They make an intense and lasting impression. Because herbs grow prolifically, they were historically accessible to all classes. From the Roman era onward, Europe’s peasantry seasoned their food with chives, borage, parsley, leeks, and other greenery foraged from ditches and byways. In contrast, spices held the cachet of scarcity, and the mystique of obscure provenance. They became status symbols at the tables of the elite.

Our gastronomic love affair with spices has been a long and passionate one, fueled by curiosity, desire and greed. Once literally worth their weight in gold, spices established the fortune of trading nations and enriched the cuisines of all corners of the globe. Luckily for modern cooks, stocking an extensive spice cupboard requires neither high-seas adventuring nor special wealth.

The Healthy Butcher's 12 Essential Spices

Pepper Cinnamon
Chili (many types to choose from, our biggest go to is Cayenne) Nutmeg
Paprika Cloves
Cumin Vanilla
Coriander Ginger



Native to rainforests of South and South-east Asia, the pepper vine (Piper nigrum) produces berries, which are picked unripe and dried to become black peppercorns – the most common form.


White peppercorns result from rubbing off the wrinkly dark skin leaving only the heart of the fruit, resulting in a less aromatic but hotter and sharper taste. Green peppercorns are the fresh, brine-preserved version that will yield a more subtle flavour than black or white. Pink peppercorns are the fully ripe fruits of the pepper vine, and yield an almost sweet, berry-like fruity flavour with a hint of heat (but don’t confuse these pink peppercorns with pink peppercorns coming from the pink Schinus tree or Baies Rose Plant, a completely different species).


Pepper was the Romans’ favourite spice, and the backbone of the Medieval and Renaissance spice trade, during which time it was a form of currency so valuable it was measured corn by corn. Before the Columbian exchange, black pepper was the main source of piquancy in cuisines now dominated by capsicum, or chili “peppers”. For example, the earliest Thai recipes get their heat from a paste of garlic, coriander root and black pepper. In Western cuisine, pepper traditionally had a preservative as well as a flavouring role. It is a component of pickling spice, and the main player in quatre épices, the charcutier’s foundation seasoning for terrines and sausages.

Freshly milled black pepper is the final touch most every savoury dish receives. Less appreciated is how well pepper contributes to sweet foods such as gingerbread, pfeffernusse, chai, and simple sliced strawberries.

We need to add a final note to discuss two variations of pepper we offer at The Healthy Butcher.  Bali Long or simply Long pepper come from a different plant, but close relative (Piper longum).

Long Pepper
Ironically, although Long pepper is seen as exotic today, it once was the common type of pepper found in Europe and is the pepper used in early 14th century French cookbooks.  Long peppers have a very fragrant and sweet aroma; but don’t be fooled, they have more heat than regular peppercorns.


Finally, Cubeb pepper which are called Comet Tail Peppercorns at The Healthy Butcher, are berries of yet another plant (Piper cubeba). They look like regular black peppercorns, except for an unmistakable stalk protruding from one end.

Cubeb Pepper

The flavour of Cubeb is similar to black pepper, with a beautiful aroma likened to allspice. If you’re a pepper fan, definitely have both whole Long and Cubeb peppers on hand, and use a mortar and pestle or microplane zester to grind before using.



Cinnamon  A number of related trees of South East Asian origin (genus: Cinnamomum) contribute their bark to the spice we call cinnamon. Sticks or “quills” are the dried rolled inner layer of bark. Ground fragments are cinnamon powder.

Prized by the Greeks and Romans for its powerful fragrance, cinnamon was burned as tribute and funerary offering, and is a component of many perfumes. It has amorous associations in both Indian lore and in the Bible, where it is mentioned as a spice with which to scent the bedclothes of lovers.

Cinnamon is used broadly in the sweet kitchen, complementing the flavours of apples and pears, and appearing in traditional breads, puddings and custards from regions as widespread as Scandinavia, Morocco and Mexico. It adds surprising dimension to savoury dishes as well: in stifado, a Greek beef stew, and with star anise and soy sauce in China’s popular “red-cooked” braises of chicken or meat. Keep whole quills on hand for mulling in cider, or simmering on the stove along with cloves and rosemary to infuse the air with a festive smell, or cover up odours from deep-frying. As the quills are challenging to break down, it’s wise to also buy small amounts of ground cinnamon for convenience.


Aromatic, woodsy, camphor-like nutmeg is the seed kernel of the fruit of a tropical evergreen native to the Moluccas – Indonesia’s famed Spice Islands. Nutmeg was brought to Western Europe during medieval times by Arab spice traders, who portrayed it as a fumigant against the toxins of the Black Death. 


This, along with its culinary virtues, made nutmeg a valuable commodity. Wealthy persons carried locking pocket box-graters, with which they could store and prepare their personal kernel when traveling.

Nutmeg is so potent – indeed it is poisonous in large amounts – that a single seed preserves its scent and flavour indefinitely, releasing an evocative bittersweet bouquet at the moment of grating. Instead of using nutmeg only with eggnog, try adding a fresh flourish of the spice to béchamel, cream and onion sauces, to spinach and ricotta pasta filling and to delicate veal and pork meatballs.


Cloves  Also hailing from the Moluccas, cloves are hand-harvested and dried immature flower buds of a tropical tree, Eugenia aromatica. Like nutmeg, clove is powerfully scented and flavoured – packed with essential oils.

With such an overt personality, it is no wonder that this spice has been extensively appreciated for thousands of years. It is praised variously as a breath freshener and dental painkiller, an additive to tobacco cigarettes, and a sweetly pungent component of myriad baked goods as well as rubs for cured meat.

In classic French cuisine, clove has a key role in court bouillon, either studding the onion or floating freely. It is also critical to quatre épices, and takes a major role in black sausages and civets (blood enriched stews). Clove is best purchased whole, used sparingly, and ground as needed in an electric spice grinder.


Unlike tomatoes and chilies, allspice was a New World import immediately embraced in the Old. Tasting like an amalgam of the nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and pepper that had originally inspired Iberian trans-Atlantic voyages, allspice went some way toward mitigating the disappointment of failing to discover the sea route to farthest Asia.


Pimenta dioica is a large evergreen tree indigenous to the Caribbean and Central America. Its tiny fruits are hand-harvested when under-ripe, then left to dry in the sun. Mayans used it as an embalming aid, and indeed allspice does have a preservative effect, hence its use in pickling (Swedish herring, sweet and sour beets, sauerkraut), potted meats (especially hare) and jerk seasoning. Allspice is a must in treats such as pumpkin pie and Moravian spice cookies. Whole berries are easy to powder with a mortar and pestle, so there’s no need to buy ground spice. Serious allspice fans will enjoy mixing 1 part allspice with 3 parts each white and black peppercorns in a pepper mill, and using to season cream soups, pork and poultry dishes at the table.



Vanilla  The seedpods of a tropical orchid, vanilla “beans” are native to Mexico, and now grow in a select few equatorial regions. In their fresh state, the green pods are aroma-less. They must be cured by a lengthy and elaborate process of alternate sweating and drying, after which the pods become oily, dark, and incredibly fragrant.

The Aztecs used vanilla to season their cacao beverage, and this combination endures: most chocolate is flavoured with vanilla. A staple of the sweet kitchen, vanilla extract appears in many North American recipes, while vanilla-infused sugar, or the tiny black seeds themselves are more common in European baking. Artificial vanilla extract (vanillin, or less frequently the mildly toxic coumarin) is often substituted, but there is no disputing the quality of the real item.

Store your whole dried pods in the sugar canister, or make your own vanilla extract by slitting a few pods lengthwise and submerging in vodka or bourbon for several months. Top up with alcohol every time you use some. (Try to avoid drinking this straight from the jar!) For a surprising combination, serve lobster or scallops with beurre blanc speckled with black vanilla seeds. Still more daring are the sensual uses Diane Ackerman suggests in her fascinating, beautifully written book, A Natural History of the Senses.

Chili and Paprika

Whether you call it chili, chile, chilli, or chilly, they all refer to the same thing. Five main species of shrub-like perennials from the Capsicum family yield elongated berries which are used fresh, dried, toasted, crumbled, powdered, infused or puréed to provide varying degrees of heat, tang and smokiness in foods the world over.

Bird's Eye Chili

Christopher Columbus misidentified chili as black pepper from India, and the name “chili pepper” has stuck ever since (he also referred to the people he found as “Indians”, so he was fairly clueless as to where he was and what he found).

Fresh chilies are green until they ripen, after which they turn yellow, red, purple, brown or black. Most produce at least a mild warming sensation; many are strong enough to induce sweating (which is actually a way to stay cool in the tropics). “Chili Powder” can refer to any variety or combination of varieties that are dried and ground. Similarly, “red pepper flakes” are usually a combination of various chili that are dried and crushed (not ground). Several popular brands of chili powder also include other ingredients such as garlic powder, oregano, and cumin. Chili powders made solely from select chilies can be found in ethnic markets and are usually labeled by the type of chili.

The most common varieties of chili are (with heat level on a scale of 1 to 10 in brackets, 10 being the hottest):

  • Poblano (4) – Blackish green to dark red in colour, mild fruity flavor, called Ancho when dried;

  • Jalapeño (5) – Green in colour, red after ripening. Used extensively in Mexican cooking. Called Chipotle when smoked;

  • Serrano (6) – Another Mexican citizen, commonly used in salsa.

  • Cayenne (8) - Long and slender, it is mostly red in color. Cayenne originated from French Guiana, and is also called bird pepper. The most common use of cayenne is in the form of dried powder. Interesting side note: Cayenne has been used for therapeutic purposes since ancient times, and is still widely used in many disciplines including traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. It is high in vitamins A, B, and C, and rich in carotenoids, calcium and potassium. It’s also known to improve heart health and digestion. (Google “Cayenne Master Cleanse” for further reading)

  • Bird’s Eye (9+) – Depicted above - small and deadly, use them to add ‘pure heat’ without much pepper flavour.

  • Habanero (9+) – Regarded by many (including us) as the king of chilies, it is not only devishly hot, but wildly fragrant as well. It comes in a variety of colours – green, red, orange, white and even pink.

  • Naga Jolokia (50, yes our scale goes up to 10 and this one is 50) – By no means is this a popular variety of chili, but we include it here because Guinness crowned it the world’s hottest chili in 2006. It is also known as Bhut Jolokia, ghost pepper or king cobra pepper, and it is grown in the Assam region of India.


Paprika is the name commonly used for a range of red powders that come from the same family of plants as chili. Generally speaking, paprika gives a warm, distinct vegetal, and subtle smokey note that complements countless dishes. Hungary and Spain are the best known sources of Paprika, and each of these countries has a grading system that determines the quality and heat level of the powder.



Mustard  Mustard was likely the earliest cultivated spice, with evidence suggesting a history extending back to Neolithic times. The mustard plant (Brassica alba/juncea/nigra) is a self-seeding annual that grows like a weed, and is tolerant of climates far from its Asian and African origins.

When Spanish padres established their California missions, they sprinkled mustard seeds as they went, so the bright yellow mustard flowers would mark the path for those that followed. These mustard trails are still visible around the crumbling 18th century churches.

There are two main types of mustard: First, the relatively mild white mustard which produces pale yellow to gold seeds and is used mostly for prepared ballpark, shall we say “American style” mustard (the bright yellow colour of ballpark mustard comes from added turmeric). And second, brown mustard which has a more pungent flavour and is the mustard used in Dijon mustards.

Mustard contains in its name the word “must” – unfermented wine – as the small yellow, brown or black seeds were commonly ground and mixed with this liquid to serve as a condiment. From this ancient beginning, prepared mustard has become the world’s most popular condiment, with over 320 million kilograms consumed annually, and over 90% of the global seed crop coming from Canada!

Whole mustard seeds are less pungent than prepared condiments, and contribute slight bitterness, as well as an attractive appearance and texture to chutneys, curries, and crusty coatings for roast lamb and pan-seared salmon. Add a pinch of mustard powder to vinaigrettes or mix it with paprika to season beef.

We proudly sell the many varieties of prepared mustards made by Anton Kozlik's Canadian Mustard; if you haven’t tried at least half a dozen of them, you’re truly missing out.


It is only recently that fresh ginger has become ubiquitous in urban markets with Chinese communities or cosmopolitan culinary cultures, but in dried form, this rhizome has a long and widespread tradition of use. Even a small-town Ontario homemaker of the 1800’s likely had a mysteriously shaped rock-hard chunk of gingerroot clanking away in a metal tin.


When grated, this gave intense pungent lift to cookies and cakes. Whole dried roots were simmered in the preserving pot (relishes, jams) and brewing kettle (ginger beer), then rinsed and dried for re-use. Ground ginger provides incomparable aroma and tongue prickling interest to all manner of confections, but it does lose potency in the cupboard. If your holiday baking includes gingerbread, brandy snaps and spice breads, it’s wise to purchase a new supply of powdered ginger, or to use a Microplane nutmeg grater on a whole dried root to prepare your own fresh, high-octane batch.



Cumin  Like caraway and coriander, cumin is a seed from the Umbilliferae family of plants – those with umbrella shaped flower heads. It has a powerful fragrance and a bitter, earthy flavour, which make it an interesting accent when used sparingly.

Long prized as a digestive aid, it features in medicinal spirits such as akvavit and kümmel, and in gripe water for colicky babies. The similar but milder caraway is common in Northern European cuisine where it flavours breads, cheeses such as Munster and Gouda, and cabbage dishes. Cumin is important in Mexican chile con carne, and in Indian curries and tarkaris (dry-fried pulse or vegetable dishes). Ground cumin is a table condiment in Morocco, where it sits in a pinch pot next to salt, for seasoning kebabs and mechoui (spit-roasted baby lamb). In Egypt, this custom is more elaborate, with cumin joined by a handful of other toasted spices, nuts and seeds to become dukkah, a dry dip for flatbreads (and one of our favourite Spice Blends, see below).



Coriander is the seed of the plant that produces the herb cilantro. Coriander hails from the Middle East, but as a tolerant, easy to grow plant, spread rapidly to China and India, as well as West with the expanding Roman Empire. Its roots and leaves are used fresh as herbs, and the seeds, with their gentle sweetly spicy citrus flavour are dried for use whole or ground in a wide range of foods.


Coriander is dominant in Indian curry powders (with cumin in a supporting role), where the spice is either dry-toasted or fried in oil before use. Many Arab dishes are finished with taklia, a sauté of crushed garlic and coriander, added last minute for a delightful aroma. Coriander makes its way into mortadella and blood puddings, and has a general affinity for pork. Along with juniper, it is one of the major botanicals that flavour gin, a spirit originally taken as a tonic against the plague and other illnesses.





Our Favourite Part

It’s rare that a single spice defines a cuisine. It is in combination, as iconic, geographically specific blends that spices come to represent local, regional and national culinary identities. If you’re a purist, you blend your own.


If you’re a normal person always lacking enough time, you buy quality spice blends to quickly and easily bring global flavours to your kitchen.

Crousset Spices  We searched high and low for the best spice blends. We decided that some combinations simply didn’t exist made of quality, organic spices so we created our own. For others, we brought in Crousset spice blends from Quebec; Crousset is a small, family run business that produces beautiful blends of impeccable quality.

All The Healthy Butcher’s spice blends are $5.99. All of Crousset’s spice blends are $7.99. How can you go wrong?


“HB” stands for The Healthy Butcher in-house spice blend.







Garam masala


black pepper, fennel, cinnamon, caraway, cloves

Indian all-purpose combo finishing spice; some would say it is the core of a diverse range of dishes including curries and butter chicken.

Crousset’s Garam Masala ($7.99) is purposely blended milder than a classic garam masala, and is a wonderful addition to meat, poultry, soups, rice, vegetables, leguminous and sweet dishes.

HB’s Tandoori Spice

paprika, cumin, black pepper, coriander, ginger, cinnamon, cayenne.

Any meat or fish(it’s just that good!) Extra Tasty when Grilled!


All of The Healthy Butcher’s stores ($5.99)o:p>

EEastern Mediterranean



Paprika, black pepper, cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg

Used widely in Arabic and Iraqi cooking, it is added to almost anything in much the same way Indians use garam masala.  Use on lamb, fish, chicken, beef, soups and more.

Crousset’s Baharat ($7.99) is exotically aromatic and a wonderful addition to a kitchen.


Five Chinese Spice

Star anise, fennel, cassia, Szechwan pepper or black pepper, cloves

Used in many Asian recipes, and its sweet tangy profile suits fattier meats like pork shoulder or duck. 

Crousset’s Five Chinese Spice ($7.99).  The most fragrant version we’ve ever come across.

HB’s Peking Spiceo:p>

black pepper, mace, celery salt, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, cayenne.

Chicken, Pork, Duck, white-fleshed Fish & Sweet Root Vegetables


All of The Healthy Butcher’s stores ($5.99) o:p>



Sesame seeds, pistachio, hazelnuts, coriander, cumin, pepper

Not strictly a spice blend, but rather a blend of roasted nuts seasoned with spices. Dip crusty bread in olive oil, then in the Dukkah… mmm; sprinkle on fish or chicken before pan frying; sprinkle over salads.

Crousset’s Dukkah ($7.99).  Truly delicious.



Allspice, chili, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper.

FFabulous rub for pork, chicken or any barbeque dish.

Crousset’s Dukkah ($7.99).  So easy… pat this on your meat and 'Everything Be Irie Mon!'


HB’s Port of Spain Rub

ginger, nutmeg, dried orange zest, cloves, black pepper

Use on fish, chicken, pork, shrimp & duck “trini style!”

All of The Healthy Butcher’s stores ($5.99)


HB’s Morroccan Spice

Cumin, coriander, garam masala, oregano, cloves, cinnamon, thyme, all spice, star anise

Ideal for fish, beef, pork, chicken, roasted vegetables, cous cous and quinoa


All of The Healthy Butcher’s stores ($5.99)o:p>


HB’s Toronto Steak Spice

pepper, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, coriander, fennel, chili, cane sugar


Ideal for steak, chicken, grilled asparagus… or grilled anything


All of The Healthy Butcher’s stores ($5.99)

((You didn’t think we would leave Canada out of our equation, did you?)


HB’s Cajun Blend

paprika, white pepper, black pepper, cayenne, chili, garlic powder, organic oregano


Ideal for fish, beef, rice and shelfish

All of The Healthy Butcher’s stores ($5.99)



HB’S Malaysian Blend

mustard, cumin, coriander, fennel, chili, cardamon, star anise


Beef, Chicken, Pork, Vegetable Stirfry


All of The Healthy Butcher’s stores ($5.99)o:p>



Concluding Remarks


What other ingredient can provide, in a tiny pinch, the impact, variety and transport?


We hope you have gained a better understanding of the world of spices.


Now it’s up to you to spice up your life.




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