Venture beyond your comfort zone with spices.

Rice pudding without cinnamon, Indian curry sans cumin, and bean chili minus chili pepper—unimaginable. Lior Lev Sercarz, owner of La Boîte and author of “The Spice Companion” and “The Art of Blending,” agrees. “Adding spices to food is like going from 2-D to 3-D,” he says.

In addition to improving flavor, Sercarz says that seasoning makes food “more interesting,” enabling smaller portions to be more satisfying. Spices can also taste sweet or salty, allowing cooks to reduce the quantities of sugar, salt and fat in recipes.

They’re also naturally healthful. According to WebMD, many help curb inflammation (which can lead to heart disease and cancer). Cinnamon has been associated with reduced inflammation and blood glucose concentrations in diabetics, while capsaicin in chili peppers has been linked to lowering blood pressure.

When trying out a new spice, Sercarz recommends adding a small amount to a tiny portion of a dish first. He also suggests seasoning before, during and after cooking to build layers of flavor. “You want a balance of sweet, hot, salty, acidic and bitter flavors,” he remarks. Read on for a Q&A with Sercarz on how to spice up your cooking—and life— and for three recipes showcasing the power of spices.

Which five commonly available spices do you use most often?

  • Salt enhances flavors and allows cooks to use less sugar. I add it to baked goods and season fruit with it. For instance, I’ll sprinkle coarse salt on mango, pineapple or apple. It makes eating fruit a more interesting experience.
  • For pepper, I use peppercorns and chili peppers in nearly everything, both sweet and savory. There are hundreds of varieties of both peppercorns and chili peppers. I’ll add them to chai tea, hot chocolate, eggs, salad, yogurt, juice and smoothies—even for my kids!
  • Paprika (especially the smoked variety) has a terrific smoky-acidic scent and flavor, which mimics grilled meat. So even a vegetable cooked with it will remind you of barbecue. The spice also thickens sauces, which is helpful if you are trying to avoid cornstarch, flour or butter.
  • Cumin has a gamy, savory flavor. It also contains sodium, so you can reduce the salt in a dish. Try sprinkling toasted cumin seeds on salads.
  • Cinnamon has a natural sweetness and floral notes—I’m very emotional about it! Use it in savory dishes to make them sweeter and in sweet preparations to make them more savory and cut the sugar. Try adding it to tomato sauces and seafood and meat dishes.

Which five less common spices do you use most often?

  • Urfa chilies have deep, chocolate-wine-smoke notes and balanced heat. Try using this in place of black pepper.
  • Cardamom has floral flavors and enhances baked goods, coffee and tea, and vegetables. Try tossing beets, carrots, turnips and brussels sprouts with ground cardamom, garlic, salt and olive oil and then roasting.
  • Cubeb possesses a grapefruit-like quality and a slight sweet, pleasant bitterness. Sprinkle it on sliced oranges and grapefruits, and use it in seafood dishes.
  • Asafetida has hard-core onion-garlic notes, enhancing vegetable and cheese dishes. If you have onion and garlic allergies, it will be your new best friend! My favorite recipe I learned to make in Pakistan is to sauté baby spinach in butter or olive oil and add salt, chili flakes and asafetida. Stir in yogurt at the end for a light, quick, satisfying version of creamed spinach.
  • Licorice has a sweet taste and anise notes. Add it to tea, oatmeal, cereal and poultry dishes. Or use it to make flavored water. Bring a large amount of water to a simmer, and add licorice, cinnamon sticks, cubeb and cardamom. Let it sit overnight and then strain and chill.

Which spices are naturally salty, allowing for the reduction of salt in recipes?

Cumin, celery seed, caraway and fennel. That said, make sure the flavors of the spices work in the recipes you’re making. So don’t add celery seeds to a yogurt-and-granola parfait, for example.

Which spices are naturally sweet, allowing for the reduction of sugar in recipes?

Cinnamon, pink peppercorns, nutmeg, cloves and licorice.

Which spices are naturally tart or acidic?

While fresh citrus will fade in flavor over time, tart dried spices will retain their acidity. Try sumac, dried lemon or orange peel, dried limes, and dried mango powder (amchoor).

What’s the advantage of dried over fresh herbs and spices?

The shelf life of fresh herbs is limited because of their water and oil content. Dried spices will keep for much longer. Also, some herbs will get bitter if cooked at a high temperature. If you have fresh herbs that start going limp or losing their color, dry them yourself. You can also dry and grind citrus peel.

3 Easy and Healthy Recipes With Spices

These three delicious recipes exhibit how adding a small handful of spices adds interest to even the most elemental dishes.

Spicy Moroccan roasted carrots: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Spray a half-sheet pan with olive oil cooking spray. On the sheet pan, toss 1 pound of baby carrots with ¼ teaspoon each of salt, ground black pepper, cardamom, coriander and cumin and teaspoon each of ground cayenne and ginger. Spray carrots with cooking spray. Roast, shaking halfway through, until tender and golden brown, about 45 minutes. Squeeze 1 tablespoon of fresh orange juice over the carrots. If you have fresh cilantro, finely chop 1 tablespoon of the leaves and sprinkle over.

Smoky Spanish brussels sprouts: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Spray a half-sheet pan with olive oil cooking spray. On the sheet pan, toss 1 pound of large brussels sprouts (trimmed and halved, all leaves kept) with ½ teaspoon of smoked paprika, ¼ teaspoon each of salt and garlic powder, and teaspoon of ground black pepper. Spray with cooking spray. Roast, shaking halfway through, until crispy and golden brown, about 30 minutes. If you have fresh parsley, finely chop 1 tablespoon of the leaves and sprinkle over.

Mustard-herb turkey burgers: In a large bowl, add 1 pound of ground white-meat turkey, ¼ cup of light mayo, 2 teaspoons each of Dijon mustard and Worcestershire sauce, 1 teaspoon of dried thyme, ½ teaspoon of salt, and ¼ teaspoon of ground black pepper. Knead gently a few times to mix (but do not overwork). Shape into four 1-inch-thick equal-size patties. Spray a 10-inch nonstick skillet with olive oil cooking spray, and heat over medium-high. When hot, add patties. Cook until opaque in the center and golden brown on both sides, flipping over halfway through, about 10 minutes total. Let the burgers rest for five minutes before serving to allow their juices to redistribute.

Photo credit: Thomas Schauer