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

As we enter what is known as pumpkin spice season, baking spices — like cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, star anise, cardamom, and nutmeg — take center stage. Often associated with desserts in the United States and Europe—and sometimes the overly perfumed edible and inedible products peddled by companies at this time of year—these spices can do so much more. While they’re an essential part of fall’s iconic baked goods, they can also add flavor and complexity to savory dishes.

Looking back on my classic French culinary training, I remember adding a sprinkling of nutmeg to dark leafy greens and béchamel sauce, which sometimes includes cloves. You’ll also find these spices regularly in American barbecue (I love including cinnamon in my spice rubs), holiday ham, or the regional classic Cincinnati chili, but that’s about it in Western cooking.

A homemade pumpkin spice recipe that reminds us how the season should really taste

“Today, I feel like you see those warm spices everywhere except in Western cuisine,” chef and TV host Sohla El-Waylly said on a call. “But in the past that wasn’t the case because if you look at the old recipes in Europe, they added cinnamon and saffron to the meat, just like the Persians did. It’s interesting that we’ve moved away from that.”

Speaking to chef Jon Kung, he brought up a study on the principles of food pairing. While Western cuisine recipes tend to feature ingredients with similar flavors that build on each other, East Asian cuisines tend to “deal with opposites and conflicting flavor characteristics,” Kung said, which is accomplished in part through the use of warming spices in savory dishes . (In addition to East Asian cuisine, warming spices are also found in savory dishes in Middle Eastern and North African cuisines.)

Recipe: Lemon Apricot Cinnamon Chicken

Ever since she was a child, El-Waylly has enjoyed baking spices into savory dishes. “One of the things my mom used to do was when she was making red meat casseroles and stews, she always had black cardamom on it, which adds that nice, sweet, smoky note that goes really well with that heavy, rich, meaty Flavor matches,” she said, adding that star anise was usually included as well. “I have a feeling that you often find the warm spices to go with rich, hearty, meaty dishes because they go really well with that greasiness, like in a mole, or in a chili, or in a korma. I feel like because these warmer spices have that kind of sweetness, they pair well with heavier things to top them off and kind of cut off that richness.

When it comes to flavor balance, heat is another lever to consider when working with these spices. “It’s nice to have a little bit of spiciness balanced so it doesn’t go too far into the sweet area,” El-Waylly said. “I think that’s why it works so well in Mole, especially Mole Poblano, because you have all these chilies.”

Black cardamom and star anise also appeared in her mother’s kebabs, which El-Waylly now associates with grilled meats in South Asia and the Middle East. More broadly, it is associated with grilling worldwide, such as American barbecue or the use of allspice in Jamaican jerk chicken. What matters to Kung is the char obtained from these cooking methods. “Warming spices enhance the naturally sweet notes already present in savory foods,” Kung said. “That would mean everything charred. It really does a great job of bringing out the sweetness of char.”

Fall in love with these sweet and savory recipes full of warming spices to welcome the season

Star anise goes particularly well with beef, as the dish tastes meatier when combined with onions. “There’s a compound in star anise that when cooked with onions releases a compound that tastes a lot like beef,” Kung said. “Chinese cuisine uses a lot of star anise and onion in beef dishes because it makes beef taste even more like beef. But when you use it in a pan with oyster mushrooms or something like that, it does a really good job of adding that meaty depth to vegan and plant-based dishes.”

Before you willy-nilly add a few cloves to your dishes, keep this in mind that these spices can be quite powerful – so use them wisely. El-Waylly recommends using whole spices to dull their effects. “You get a little nice background of that warmth without being too overwhelming,” 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 to fish out of finished dishes Smaller items can be stored in a cheesecloth pouch for easy retrieval. (Also, whole spices last longer. “So if you don’t use it that often, it’s fine,” she said.)

Another way to delve into the world of warming spices in savory applications is with spice blends like garam masala. “It’s a really accessible and affordable way to try out these different spices without having to buy six different bottles,” El-Waylly said.

None of this may be new to you. If so, I hope to inspire you to broaden your spice horizons so you can make more delicious and complex dishes at home. Should you need further guidance, simply turn to recipes from the above kitchens. “The blueprint is already there, isn’t it?” Kung said. “The kitchens that have been doing this for thousands of years are already there.”

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Persian style stuffed delicata squash with broccolini and carrots

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