Your spice pantry is your kitchen's medicine cabinet—brimming with seasonings that fight inflammation and chronic disease.
Cultures around the world have used culinary spices medicinally for millennia. Researchers today seek to determine spices' full potential as health boosters, as ongoing medical studies explore their effectiveness in battling everything from headaches and indigestion to chronic diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's.
New Year. New Food. Healthy eating starts here with the Cooking Light Diet.
Here we focus on six spices—Aleppo pepper, celery seed, cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, and turmeric. We consulted with both Lipi Roy, MD, MPH, a clinical assistant professor at New York University's School of Medicine and founder of the blog Spices for Life MD, and former instructor at Harvard Medical School, as well as spice specialist Lior Lev Sercarz, chef and owner of La Boite in New York City, and author of The Spice Companion, the modern spice bible for home cooks of all skill levels.
Roy weighs in with the healthful properties of each spice, and Sercarz offers loads of ways to work these health-boosting spices into your cooking.
THE TASTE: Syrian dried chile flakes with mild to moderate heat and subtle fruity notes.
TRY IT: Sprinkle on grilled fish; stir into guacamole; toss with pasta dishes; mix into brownie batter or chocolate chip cookie dough.
"Aleppo peppers are a rich source of vitamin A, which improves vision and bone health, as well as antioxidants, which protect against many chronic diseases. They also strengthen the immune system and improve digestion." —Lipi Roy, MD, MPH
THE TASTE: Like the herby essence of celery, with a touch of natural sodium so you don't need as much added salt.
TRY IT: Mix into potato salad; simmer with beef-barley soup; sprinkle on poached white fish; stir into pickling brines.
"In the Eastern world, celery seed had been used as a cold remedy for thousands of years. Today, it is mostly used as a diuretic. It's also used to treat arthritis, gout, and muscle spasms and to reduce blood pressure." —LR
THE TASTE: Strong and complex, slightly sweet and floral, with pepper and citrus notes.
TRY IT: Stir into iced tea or chicken soup; cook with rice pilaf; mix into applesauce; blend into vanilla or chocolate puddings.
"Fragrant cardamom has been associated with improving high blood pressure and digestion. Its phytonutrient content can help fight cancer and heart disease." —LR
THE TASTE: Earthy with pleasant mustiness, nutty, and slightly peppery.
TRY IT: Stir into yogurt dressing for roasted veggies or raw salads; simmer with lentil stew; season roasted cauliflower; flavor braised or roasted chicken.
"Cumin improves digestion and reduces symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. A rich source of iron, cumin can aid growth in children and prevent anemia due to iron deficiency." —LR
MAKE IT: Cumin Lamb Stir-Fry
THE TASTE: Warm and lightly astringent, with strong, clovelike fragrance.
TRY IT: Season roast lamb; stir into tomato sauce; mix with chicken tagine or other North African meat dishes; rub onto winter squash before roasting.
"Cinnamon has been shown to have antioxidant, antiviral, antidiabetic, and antineurodegenerative health benefits. Cinnamon is also thought to play a role in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease." —LR
MAKE IT: Cinnamon-Laced Chili
THE TASTE: Bright scent, floral notes, sweet, slightly bitter.
TRY IT: Blend into fruit smoothies; add to stock to simmer potatoes; stir into citrus salad dressing; add to batter for blondies.
"Turmeric has been investigated and is remarkably safe. Studies have shown that turmeric has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-cancer properties." —LR
MAKE IT: Creamy Turmeric Cauliflower Soup
Toast and Bloom Spices for Maximum Flavor
TOASTING Spices contain essential oils, the source of their core aroma and taste. Toasting whole or ground spices in a dry pan before blending them into a dish draws out these oils and amps up their fragrance and flavor. Pay close attention as they heat, and toss or stir them often to make sure they don’t scorch. We toast cumin seeds and peppercorns for our Cumin Lamb Stir-Fry. BLOOMING This means heating spices in oil before mixing them in with the recipe. It’s a fundamental technique in Indian cooking and a smart method to boost spice flavor in any cuisine. We put it to use in our Creamy Turmeric Cauliflower Soup.
How to Source and Store Spices
Because spices lose aroma and flavor over time, Sercarz advises buying small quantities— only what you’ll use within a few months. Replace spices after a year. Shop for spices with vibrant color. If they look faded, they may have on the store shelf for a long time. Similarly, whole spices with a lot of powder at the bottom of the jar may indicate advanced age. Keep spices in sealed, airtight containers away from sunlight, heat, and humidity— not near a window or oven or in the refrigerator or freezer. Sercarz recommends finding a dry, cool space for them on the kitchen counter, not tucked away in a cabinet, so you’ll be aware of your inventory and more likely to use them while they’re fresh.