Flavorful Holiday Dishes: 7 Uncommon Spices You Should Be Using

Do you regularly rely on the same three or four spices when preparing your meals? If so, it’s time to consider branching out! There’s a whole world of spices that is just waiting to be discovered. Many of these tasty seasonings will enhance and improve the flavor of your recipes, bringing smoky, sweet, spicy, hot, warm, and peppery flavors to your favorite foods. Here are seven uncommon spices that should become part of your regular cooking rotation.

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1. Smoked Serrano Chili Powder

This spice will add a bold flavor to your meals and can be used in almost everything, including stews, casseroles, egg dishes, chili, and anything Mexican or Southwestern. WebMD writes that smoked serrano chili powder adds a rich, smoky flavor to dishes, creating a meal that has a lot of depth and heat.

Native to Mexico and the American Southwest, serrano chilies are smoked and ground into a powder that adds a rich and smoky heat to any dish. If you’re starting to grow tired of your classic go-to dinner recipes, this is the perfect spice for you! It’ll add a whole new element to your favorite casseroles.

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2. Turmeric

A relative of ginger, turmeric is a widely respected and widely used spice throughout Asia and the Middle East, according to Dr. Weil. This spice is commonly found in Indian curries and is responsible for giving mustard its bright yellow color. When added to your food, turmeric adds a warm, peppery, and earthy flavor. It’s a great way to breathe new life into rice, sautéed fruits and veggies, yogurt dips, lentils, and salad dressings.

You’re definitely going to reap the health benefits of this spice if you start to use it. It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and can lower your risk for arthritis and joint pain. Dr. Weil writes that it may even help with headaches, depression, and the common cold. It’s definitely a spice you can feel good about using.

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3. Sumac

A Middle Eastern spice, sumac has an unbelievably tasty lemon flavor. The Spice House describes it as a tart spice that is perfect for fish, chicken, salad dressings, rice pilaf, or raw onions. Any dish that you’d squeeze fresh lemon juice on will go wonderfully with sumac. Looking for an idea to get you started using this fruity and tart-flavored spice? Try topping your hummus with a touch of sumac. You’re in for a treat!

In addition to enhancing your food, it also has a few health benefits. Aida Mollenkamp writes that it’s an antioxidant and can help with indigestion. Add a dash of this spice to your morning eggs or your favorite vinaigrette, and you’ll quickly become a sumac fan for life.

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4. Cardamom

The Spice House defines cardamom as “compellingly strong, yet delicate; sweet, yet powerful; with an almost eucalyptus freshness.” It’s also described as having a strong, pungent flavor and aroma, with hints of lemon, mint, and smoke. It is certainly a unique-tasting spice, and it’s guaranteed to add more depth to your food. It’s the easiest way to spice up what might otherwise be a bland recipe.

It’s used for different purposes in different cultures. For example, in the Middle East it’s used to flavor coffee, while Scandinavian communities have been known to use it as a dessert baking spice. India will commonly use it for its curries, per The Spice House. You can also use this flavorful spice to season packed fish, meat loaf, fish stews, and sweet potatoes. 

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5. Star Anise

Star anise is a spice that’s widely used in Asian cuisine. It originates from southern China and has a strong, sweet, and licorice-like flavor, SFGate writes. You can get anise in broken pieces or as a whole star anise. Whole star anise is commonly used to flavor tea, marinades, and soups, and is frequently used in many Chinese and southeast Asian dishes, according to The Spice House. Ground star anise is frequently used in baked goods.

If you’re looking for ways to incorporate star anise into your meals, try adding it to pork, fish, and chicken dishes — it tastes excellent with all of them. For a unique and rich-tasting bowl of homemade ice cream, The Spice House recommends infusing star anise into it. Like many spices, star anise also provides health benefits. It has anti-fungal properties, antibacterial properties, and is loaded with antioxidants.

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6. Mahlab

Mahlab seeds come from cracked cherry pits, which are then dried before being sold as a spice. The Kitchn writes that it has a nutty, slightly sour flavor and can frequently be found in traditional sweet breads throughout the Middle East. If you’re baking a sweet bread, add a teaspoon of mahlab per cup of flour, even if the recipe doesn’t call for it. It will drastically enhance and enrich your bread’s flavor.

Similar to nutmeg and cinnamon, mahlab can also add a lot of depth to a hearty meal. Use the whole seeds as a braise, or try using the ground spice in your rubs and marinades, per The Kitchn. Once you start to use mahlab, it will quickly become your secret ingredient!

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7. Gochugaru

Otherwise known as Korean red pepper powder, this spice is a key ingredient in Korean food. It’s a coarse ground pepper with a texture in between that of a flake and powder. According to The Kitchn, this spice has a hot, sweet, and slightly smoky flavor that is much more flavorful than crushed red pepper. It’s also visually appealing. Gochugaru is a deep, beautiful, and vibrant shade of red.

This spice is perfect for any dish that you’re hoping to add a little kick to, and it can quickly and easily transform a dipping sauce, meats, stews, soups, and vegetables. If you’re unsure of how to incorporate this sweet and savory spice into your daily cooking, try using gochugaru in recipes that call for red chili flakes.

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