I've heard it said that variety is the spice of life. Given the variety of spices that can be used in food, I can see why.
Spices are different from herbs in that herbs come almost solely from leafy green sources and can be used fresh. Most spices are dried and ground, although there are some exceptions. Ginger, for example, comes from a root and can be used either fresh, or dried.
Freshly ground spices have intense flavor, but they quickly loose their power. Because of this, I prefer buying them in small quantities, not in big bulk containers. This can put you at odds with your long term food storage. If, like me, you're trying to build a year's worth of food storage, buy the whole seeds when you can and then grind them in small quantities to put them in your kitchen. I bought an inexpensive spice grinder just for this. Store your spices, whole or ground, in airtight containers in a cool dark place to help retain their flavor.
If you buy your spice seeds whole, leave them that way until you're ready to use them. The spice seeds can be heated in a dry skillet over high heat for a minute or two to enhance their flavor. Just make sure you keep tossing the seeds around so they don't burn.
Cardamom has a strong flavor and lemony aftertaste. It's used in many Indian and Middle Eastern dishes, especially sweet ones. When bought whole, the seed pods need to be spit open to get to the seeds inside.
Cinnamon has a subtle, spicy-sweet flavor. It is often used ground to flavor poached fruit, as well as in baking pies, cakes, and cookies. Whole sticks are used to infuse flavor into sugar syrups, custards, apple cider and other spiced fruit drinks and desserts.
Cloves are highly aromatic and have a slightly sweet flavor. Whole, they are commonly use to stud onions, oranges, and baked hams, both for flavor and decoration. They are also used whole, or ground, in some pickle recipes. Ground clove is also found in some baked dishes and desserts, it adds complexity, offsetting the sweetness in fruits.
Coriander is highly aromatic, and has a mild citrus-like accent. Whole seeds, or ground, it's found in many Indian dishes. It's great with poultry and other meats. It's also wonderful with cooked carrots and other sweet vegetables.
Cumin has a distinctive, slightly bitter flavor reminiscent of caraway seeds. It is found quite often in Mexican, African, and Indian foods and goes well with chicken or vegetables. I've never found it whole in the supermarket and have been told that it's difficult to crush for use.
Hot, pungent, and warming, ginger is one of my favorite spices. It's often found in baking, pickles, and chutneys. It's also a staple ingredient in Indian and Chinese spice cooking, ground or fresh. Candied ginger is quite a treat.
Nutmeg is another favored spice in my home. It's flavor is sweet, warm, aromatic and surprisingly powerful. It is most pungent when grated fresh and added at the end of cooking. Nutmeg is often used in sweet dishes, savory sauces, and with vegetables. It's the spice that gives Bolognese sauce it's distinctive flavor.
Possibly the most expensive spice, saffron comes from the stamen of the crocus flower and must be hand picked. It's slightly pungent, aromatic, and sometimes slightly bitter. Saffron is used to impart a yellow color to foods, as well as flavor. It's found most often in rice and fish dishes, but can also be used to flavor sweet breads and cookies.
Turmeric has a musky, slightly peppery, flavor. I've never found it sold in anything but ground form, but I'm sure the seeds can be had someplace. It's used quite often in Indian curries and bean dishes to give both flavor, and a deep yellow color. Used sparingly, it can also be an alternative to saffron.
Picture by Daniel Battiston