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Flavors That Love Each Other: Spice 101

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Nothing says “I love you” quite like a home-cooked meal. And nothing elevates a home-cooked meal quite like the addition of a few carefully chosen spices. We know the world of spices can be a bit intimidating, so in honor of Valentine’s Day, we wanted to share a fun guide to Spice 101 and some of our favorite flavors that love each other. Your spice rack and Imperfect box are about to embark on a very special  – and delicious – relationship.

Tip: For all the spices below, try using whole seeds instead of pre-ground. They will have more flavor and last longer, so you can enjoy more of their flavor with less waste.

Sweet Spice 101

  • Cinnamon: Perhaps the most iconic sweet spice out there, cinnamon is usually paired with its obligatory sidekick: apples. While apples and cinnamon are great, it’s also delightful with citrus in festive Valentine’s Day cookies. We also love cinnamon alongside stewed, poached, or roasted pears. It’s the ultimate warming winter dessert!

  • Cloves: While cloves can get shoehorned into the pumpkin spice department, we think that pungent cloves are some of the most versatile sweet spices out there. Cloves and oranges pair wonderfully in a hot toddy. If you eat meat, both cloves and citrus are great ingredients along braised pork or roast duck.

  • Star anise: While it has a stellar shape and an undeniable licorice sweetness, star anise isn’t just limited to mulled beverages and desserts. Try throwing a star anise pod in your next batch of caramelized onions or French onion soup! You’ll be amazed by how savory it makes the onions.

Pungent spice 101

  • Black pepper: It’s on most tables already, but black pepper’s true potential is literally hiding in plain sight. Try buying, toasting, and grinding whole peppercorns (use a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle) to see what we mean. Our favorite combo is pairing black pepper’s astringency and heat with the tart and aromatic flavors of lemon in a salad dressing, marinade, or as a way to finish a dish. Freshly ground black pepper and lemon (juice or zest!) is also the ultimate way to make your next batch of roasted veggies pop.

  • Dried chilis: The biggest misconception about dried chilis is that they only add heat to a dish. Good dried chiles add fruity, nutty, and earthy flavors as well. Since they last for months in the pantry when stored properly, they’re a perfect item to stock up on to keep your veggies interesting all year long. We recommend guajillos for earthy complexity, chipotles for smoky excellence, and anchos for sweet heat. We love the combo of fresh lime juice and dried chiles in a marinade, as well as in warming soups.

  • Mustard seeds: Mustard is so much more than that yellow jar in your fridge. Mustard seeds are an excellent spice that’s a great addition to a vinaigrette. They also pair especially well with cucumbers. Try adding a handful of mustard seeds, a bay leaf, and some fresh dill to your next batch of pickles and you’ll know what we mean!

Earthy spice 101

  • Cumin: Cumin provides an earthy base note to Indian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, and North African dishes. We love sauteéing cumin seeds alongside tomatoes as the base of any stew or chili. They also pair well with the other herbs on this list, like coriander and cinnamon.

  • Coriander: Coriander is a great supporting cast spice. It adds a floral, lemony tang that unlocks a new depth of flavor in most vegetables and herbs. While coriander is especially good with cumin in a dressing or marinade, our favorite pairing is coriander seeds and citrus zest in a hearty curry.

  • Juniper berries: Our favorite unknown spice! While juniper berries are the secret flavor behind the magical taste of gin, their potential doesn’t end with cocktail hour. Juniper berries add a zesty, earthy, herbaceous tang that we love with apples in desserts and as the secret ingredient in delicious braised cabbage.

Can’t get enough must-try food pairing ideas? Check out this post about fun pairings to make on Galentine’s or Valentine’s Day!


  • Sara Brookhyser
    February 10, 2019 at 8:17 pm

    More amazing and unexpected flavor pairings:
    Star anise in any tomato based sauce. The licorice flavor almost disappears, but the boost to the tomato is phenomenal.

    Take pizza sauce to a deeper, richer meatiness with . . . Anchovy.
    No fishiness, at all. In fact any tomato sauce benefits from this.

    Finally, truffle salt on the rim of a vodka martini. Heavenly.

    • Imperfect
      February 11, 2019 at 5:08 pm

      Hey Sara,
      What a great suggestion. Star anise in tomato sauce is magical indeed. It has a remarkable way of amplifying other flavors. we love the anchovy and truffle salt recommendations as well. Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your culinary wisdom with us!

  • TanyaRenee Usher
    February 22, 2019 at 3:17 pm

    mustard, honey, and lemon-scented blueberry sauce

    Can someone help me with a recipe for this? Sounds amazing!

    • Imperfect
      February 22, 2019 at 5:25 pm

      Sounds like an interesting combination. Here’s a recipe that incorporates these components that looks fun to us:
      Happy cooking!


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