With the help of the right spices, you can elevate a dish from ordinary to outstanding. We share how to get the most from your spice shelf, as well as the spices that chefs and the BBC Good Food can't live without.


We also have our guide on how to use up storecupboard spices. Be sure to check out our spice grinder review to make the most of your spices, too.

How to get the most from your spices

“Spices are the ultimate shortcut to flavour. They pack a punch even in small doses, and using them is both an art and science. Altering the levels of a collective of spices can completely transform a recipe. So, how can you get the very best out of them?

"As a rule, it’s a good idea to source the highest quality spices you can get and afford. Organic ensures they are pesticide-, chemical- and additive-free, and often come with the impact on farm workers and the local community considered. With single origin, there are strong direct relationships with farms and producers, with specific characteristics from the region included as standard.

"Where these aren’t guaranteed, the ethos of the brand or retailer matters. Many value provenance, and will follow crops and markets around the world to source the very best sustainably, in a way that makes a positive difference to communities. Ultimately, it’s about the love and passion that goes into producing, packaging and selling the aromatic wonders.

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"Once they’re home, don’t leave them on shelves to collect dust: spices get their flavour from the essential oils inside them, so stored in a cool, dark place, they won’t spoil, but will weaken over time. You can warm or toast them, then grind from whole to rejuvenate the flavour. Buy small quantities and put them to regular use.

Look for family-owned brands and choose packaging that you can easily stack and fit measuring spoons into for ease.”

Mallika Basu is a food writer, cultural commentator and communications consultant who has published two cookbooks. She’s also host of the BBC Good Food podcast.

What’s the one spice you couldn’t live without?

1. Nutmeg

Fliss Freeborn, cookbook author and food journalist

Custard tart with nutmeg pastry on a white plate with a large slice cut out

“Nutmeg is easily my favourite spice. It’s warm and woody, but still intensely floral, adding depth and interest to loads of dishes beyond béchamel and Christmas cakes. I grate fresh nutmeg over buttered, steamed green vegetables and use it instead of cinnamon on porridge.”

Flavour your pastry with warming nutmeg in this custard tart with nutmeg pastry, then find out more about this spice here.

2. Cumin

Cassie Best, food director for BBC Good Food

Spinach, sweet potato and lentil dhal on a plate topped with spring onions and coriander

“Mine would have to be cumin for its rich earthy notes. I like to sizzle the whole seeds in oil to release their aromatic flavours before drizzling over hummus or dhal. The ground powder also comes in very handy for building savoury base notes in curries, roasts, stews and so much more. Definitely my most used and most loved spice.”

Use ground cumin in this warming spinach, sweet potato & lentil dhal.

3. Smoked paprika

Riaz Phillips, writer and author of East Winds: Recipes, history and tales from the hidden Caribbean (DK)

Sweetcorn with smoked paprika & lime butter

“Smoked paprika – it manages to capture the sheer essence of peppers, as well as a nuanced note of heat that doesn’t overpower your dish, as opposed to something like chilli powder.”

Try mixing smoked paprika into butter, then smothering over these corn on the cobs.

4. Fennel seeds

Barney Desmazery, skills & shows editor for BBC Good Food

Sausage & fennel seed slices cut into individual slices with a few on a blue plate

I love that pop of aniseed flavour you get from biting into a whole fennel seed. It’s one of the first spices I reach for whenever I’m cooking with pork (especially in a pork or sausage ragu) or duck, quick cooking cabbage or greens, pan-frying potatoes or roasting root vegetables and as well as the fennel flavour it imparts, it’s also meant to be good for the digestion.

We've sprinkled fennel seeds into sausagemeat to make these bite-sized sausage rolls. Find out more about fennel seeds here.

5. Cardamom

Chetna Makan, award-winning cookbook author

A loaf of banana, coconut & cardamom bread, with a single slice cut out and another slice toasted on a plate, topped with banana

“My absolute favourite spice is cardamom – just the aroma of it makes it special for me. Whether you use it for savoury or sweet dishes or drinks, it leaves its unique mark on anything you add it to. I love it so much, I named my first cookbook The Cardamom Trail. Just a little of it goes a long way – not just the seeds, even the skin has so much flavour. If I am using cardamom seeds for the recipe, I often put the skin of the pods in my tin of teabags to add the aroma to my tea.”

Try this gorgeous banana bread, infused with cardamom, for a special brunch or breakfast.

6. Mace

Anna Glover, senior food editor for BBC Good Food and olive magazine

Crushed roots with walnut & mace butter served in a large bowl

I use mace a lot as I love it’s gentle warmth and versatility. It has a peppery spiciness without the heat when used in moderation. I add a pinch to butter along with a dash of honey, and spoon onto raisin bread or croissants. It’s great in savoury dishes like sausagemeat stuffing or nut roasts, and is the perfect pairing for squashes and pumpkins. Add a pinch to simple roasted squash for an extra layer of flavour. It also works in any cream-based dessert like egg tarts or panna cotta for an extra kick of warmth. Try a pinch in hot chocolate, as well!

We've added a teaspoon of mace to flavour butter in this crushed root veg side dish.

7. Chilli flakes

Marni Xuto, recipe developer and founder of thaifoodmadeeasy.com

Sesame, halloumi & courgette fritters with a pot of chilli honey drizzle

“Definitely chilli flakes. Not many other spices can elevate a finished dish to another level like they do. It’s like a knight who hides in my cupboard and saves me from bland monsters. In Thai cuisine, chilli flakes can be added to sweet treats, too. One Thai sweet dipping sauce, nam pla wan, has a sweet, salty, spicy flavour, with a hint of umami. Thai people serve this luscious caramel condiment with fiercely sour fruits, such as green mango and star fruits – I even tried it with Bramley apple.”

Use chilli flakes to make a punchy chilli honey drizzle to accompany these courgette fritters, or experiment with chilli in one of our chilli recipes.

8. Celery salt

Ailsa Burt, food editor for BBC Good Food and olive magazine

Slaw in bowl

“I use it in much more than just a bloody mary. I find it gives soups, ragus and stews a bit more oomph and depth. I’ll sprinkle or stir it into most things, and it’s great paired with some mustard powder in cheese sauces or rubbed over a whole chicken with some black pepper for roasting. A pinch in salad dressings helps give it a savoury lift.”

We've whisked celery salt together with mayo, lemon juice, vinegar and mustard in this tangy cabbage slaw.

9. Cinnamon

Samuel Goldsmith, food copy editor for BBC Good Food

Cinnamon twists resting on a cooling rack

“There’s something so warming about cinnamon both because of the flavour and also the memories it evokes. It’s also incredibly versatile – it’s great in puddings and bakes (who can resist a cinnamon roll) as well as in savoury dishes like a tagine or combined with other spices in a flavour-packed curry. I love a dusting of cinnamon in a hot chocolate and a pinch in a chilli con carne adds a beautiful subtle sweetness.”

Cinnamon is the hero ingredient in these fabulous cinnamon rolls. See more in our cinnamon recipe collection.

10. Black pepper

Helena Busiakiewicz, food content creator for BBC Good Food

A bowl of gnocchi

“Black pepper is a spice and it should be treated like one! Too often we think of it as a seasoning, which it does do fabulously, but it shines as a spice. Coarsely ground black pepper features heavily in Sri Lankan, Indian and Indonesian cuisines and has a fabulous warm flavour that can be layered with lots of other spices. Be generous when peppering your eggs, anything with cheese and all meats – you won’t regret it.”


Try black pepper in this gnocchi cacio e pepe then check out more black pepper recipes.

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