How to make your own spice blends at home, from Chinese five spice to Middle Eastern zaatar

A harmonious spice blend can deepen and round out the flavours of almost any dish

Spices of life (clockwise from left): five spice, garam masala, sweet baking spice, baharat and zaatar. Photograph: David Malosh/New York Times

Spices of life (clockwise from left): five spice, garam masala, sweet baking spice, baharat and zaatar. Photograph: David Malosh/New York Times

 

Savvy cooks across the globe know that one of the easiest ways to add verve to their cooking is to keep a selection of aromatic spice blends at the ready. From Chinese five spice to Cajun seasoning, from Indian masalas to Chilean merken, spice blends are the cornerstones of so many cuisines, with very good reason.

Used by the pinch or by the cupful, a harmonious spice blend can deepen and round out the flavours of almost any dish, instantly adding colour, perfume and, sometimes, a stinging kick. And unlike individual spices, the beauty of a blend is in its efficiency. With all the spices carefully measured and mixed ahead of time, cooks don’t need to stop and wing it when the chicken’s in the pan.

Of course, you can buy high-quality spice blends, but you may get even better flavours if you make them yourself. A good place to begin is with any of these five versatile, beloved blends: garam masala, baharat, zaatar, five spice and a sweet baking blend. Many of them are elemental to the cuisines they come from, and you probably already have some, or all, in your spice cabinet. Whether you use them in traditional contexts or otherwise, these seasoning mixes will make whatever you cook shine.

Once you get into the groove of toasting, grinding and mixing, creating your own blends can be its own meditative reward and highly gratifying to the senses

Once you get into the groove of toasting, grinding and mixing, creating your own blends can be its own meditative reward and highly gratifying to the senses.

Once ground, spices blends (and single spices) will last for six months to a year when properly stored away from light and heat – ideally not in a drawer or cabinet right next to your stove. Just make sure to date everything, then steel yourself to throw out spices once their time is up. It may feel wantonly wasteful, but you’re not doing your cooking any favours by stirring in spices that have lost their oomph.

After gathering the best whole spices you can find, you’ll need a small skillet or baking pan for toasting them, and a mortar and pestle or an electric spice grinder for pulverising. A coffee grinder will also work, preferably one you’ve reserved for spices, so your baharat doesn’t take on espresso undertones. 

Once you have a few blends tucked away, use them liberally and often – and not just in traditional dishes.

Five spice

Chinese five spice. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews. Photograph: David Malosh/The New York Times
Chinese five spice. Photograph: David Malosh/New York Times

At once musky and sweet, with a pronounced kick, five spice is traditionally made from equal parts cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, star anise and peppercorns (usually Sichuan or white). But it’s not uncommon to find cooks sneaking in a little tangerine peel or ginger, depending on where they live and what they’re planning to prepare, says Kian Lam Kho, author of Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking.

His version hews to the traditional five ingredients and uses Sichuan peppercorns to give the mix a characteristically numbing, tingly sensation on the tongue known as mala.

Once the spices are toasted and mixed, the blend can be used both whole (simmered into stews, braises and soups) and ground (added to roasted meats like duck, lamb and pork belly, vegetables and seafood). Ground five spice is also often served mixed with salt and used as a piquant condiment to accompany barbecue dishes.

Ingredients
5cm cassia bark or cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
1½tsp fennel seeds
5 whole star anise pods
3½tsp Sichuan peppercorns
2tsp whole cloves

Method
1
Place a small frying pan over medium heat. Add spices and toast, stirring, until fragrant, two to four minutes. Pour into a small bowl and set aside to cool.

2 To make the spices into a powder, use a spice grinder, clean coffee grinder, or mortar and pestle to grind the spices until fine. If you like, you can strain the mix through a fine-mesh strainer to remove any coarse bits, but this is optional. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to one year.

Adapted from Kian Lam Kho

Baharat

Baharat spice blend. Grind these five versatile, beloved mixes ahead of time, then keep them on hand for cooking thatÕs full of verve and depth. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews. Photograph: David Malosh/The New York Times
Baharat spice blend. Photograph: David Malosh/New York Times

In Arabic, the term “baharat” simply means “spices” and can refer to any number of different blends, each tailored to a specific dish or ingredients.

“There’s a baharat for everything, and it varies a lot in different regions,” says Freda Nokaly of Spice Tree Organics, a spice-blending company.

Their blend (called buharat, an alternate spelling) reflects their Egyptian ancestry, highlighting a combination of musky cumin and floral, citrusy coriander that’s been sweetened with cinnamon, cardamom and clove, and spiked with black pepper and bay leaf.

Unlike some other baharat mixes, Nokaly and Elkady’s version doesn’t call for toasting the spices first, which gives their blend a subtle but distinct brightness. Use it in meatballs and pilafs, in marinade and sauces for grilled meats and fish, and in the traditional layered rice dish called maqluba.

Ingredients
4tsp cumin seeds
1tbsp coriander seeds
1tsp black peppercorns
5cm cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
2½tsp green cardamom pods
1½tsp whole allspice berries
1tsp whole cloves
1 whole nutmeg
4 bay leaves

Method
1
Place all the ingredients in a spice grinder, clean coffee grinder, or mortar and pestle, and grind until fine. If you like, you can strain the mix through a fine-mesh strainer to remove any coarse bits, but this is optional. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to one year.

Adapted from Doaa Eelkady and Freda Nokaly, Spice Tree Organics

Garam masala

Garam masala. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews. Photograph: David Malosh/The New York Times
Garam masala. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews. Photograph: David Malosh/New York Times

In India just about every home has its own recipe for garam masala, which is the most common spice blend in the country and a cornerstone of cuisines all over South Asia, where it’s used in curries, rice dishes and dals, and with vegetables, meats and fish. This version is adapted from Floyd Cardoz, the pioneering Indian chef who opened Tabla and Bombay Bread Bar in New York City, and who died of coronavirus in March 2020.

His wife, Barkha Cardoz, says that Cardoz’s blend was intentionally on the minimalist and sweeter side compared with other traditional mixes, making it very versatile. “My grandmother would use 15 spices and grind enough for the whole the family,” she says. “Then Floyd became the grandmother. He started making garam masala for everyone with just a few spices so you can use it everywhere, in curries of course, and I’ve used it to make apple pie and Christmas cake.”

Ingredients
10 green cardamom pods 
4 black cardamom pods
6 whole cloves 
5cm cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
3 whole mace blades/arils, see tip below
3 whole star anise pods
3 bay leaves, preferably Indian

Method
1
Heat oven to 150 degrees. Spread spices on a small rimmed baking pan and toast until fragrant, five to seven minutes. Transfer pan to a rack and let the spices cool.

2 Using a spice grinder, clean coffee grinder, or mortar and pestle, grind the spices until fine. If you like, you can strain the mix through a fine-mesh strainer to remove any coarse bits, but this is optional. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to one year.

Tip: Whole mace is available at spice shops and online.

Adapted From Floyd Cardoz

Zaatar

Zaatar spice blend. Photograph: David Malosh/New York Times

Zaatar is the name for both a traditional Middle Eastern seasoning blend and the pungent green herb that gives the blend its intense, savoury character. The hardy herb, which grows wild, tastes like a combination of oregano, marjoram, summer savoury and thyme – all of which can be used as substitutes if dried zaatar isn’t available. As with all spice blends, recipes vary widely depending on the region and the cook, but most include ground sumac berries for acidity; toasted sesame seeds for their rich, earthy notes; and a little salt.

This version plays it fairly classic, but don’t let that stop you from experimenting, perhaps by adding nigella seeds or rosemary.

Zaatar can be used in marinades for grilled or roasted poultry or meats, mixed into dips, salads and egg dishes, or set on the table to be added on as a bright, herbaceous condiment.

Ingredients
1tbsp sesame seeds, preferably unhulled
3tbsp dried zaatar (see tip below)
1tbsp crushed or ground sumac
¼tsp fine sea salt

Method
1
Place a small frying pan over a medium heat. Add the sesame seeds and toast, stirring, until fragrant, two to four minutes. Pour into a small bowl and set aside to cool.

2 Using a spice grinder, clean coffee grinder, or mortar and pestle, ground the zaatar leaves with the sumac and salt. Add to the bowl with toasted sesame and mix well. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to one year.

Tip: If you don’t have dried zaatar, use a combination of 2tbsp dried marjoram, 1tbsp dried thyme and 2tbsp dried oregano.

Adapted from Lior Lev Sercarz

Sweet baking spice

Sweet baking spice blend. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews. Photograph: David Malosh/The New York Times
Sweet baking spice blend. Photograph: David Malosh/New York Times

Whether it’s mixed spice, a pumpkin-pie spice or a German lebkuchengewurz, a sweet baking spice blend predominantly flavoured with warming, fragrant notes of cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg or mace is a staple in European and American culinary culture.

This version adds a jolt of white pepper for heat, along with the deep perfume of cardamom. You can use a teaspoon or two in pies (apple, pumpkin and beyond), fruit and nut cakes and tortes, and all manner of cookies (especially shortbread). Or knead some into sweet breads like challah and brioche. Smaller amounts are wonderful on hot chocolate and rice pudding, and the blend will add depth to homemade ice cream when steeped in the custard before freezing.

Ingredients
5cm cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
1tbsp green cardamom pods
1 whole nutmeg
¾tsp whole allspice berries
½tsp white peppercorns

Method
1
Place a small skillet over medium heat. Add the spices and toast, stirring, until fragrant, two to four minutes. Pour into a small bowl and set aside to cool.

2 Using a spice grinder, clean coffee grinder, or mortar and pestle, grind the cooled spices until fine. If you like, you can strain the mix through a fine-mesh strainer to remove any coarse bits, but this is optional. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to one year.

Roasted fish with spice butter and tomatoes

Serves 4
Total time: 25 minutes

Ingredients
350g cherry tomatoes (halved or quartered, if they are large)
Sea salt
6tbsp unsalted butter, melted
3 garlic cloves, finely grated or minced
1tsp finely grated lemon or lime zest
1-2 tsp spice blend of choice
4 (170g) mild white fish fillets (such as cod or hake)
2 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
Fresh lemon or lime juice, for serving
Torn fresh herbs, such as mint, dill, coriander or parsley, for serving

Method
1
Heat oven to 230 degrees. Place tomatoes on a rimmed baking sheet, sprinkle lightly with salt, and roast for 10 minutes as you prepare the fish.

2 In a small bowl, stir together butter, garlic, zest, spice blend and a pinch of salt.

3 Season fish lightly with salt. Pull pan from the oven, and nestle fillets among the cherry tomatoes. Pour spice butter over fish and tomatoes, tossing the tomatoes to coat them. Sprinkle scallions on top of everything.

4 Roast until fish is flaky and cooked through, about five to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets. Top with a squeeze of citrus juice and fresh herbs, and serve.

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