May 27, 2016
Vol. VIII No. 11
Are Spices Worth the Splurge?
Most non-Western diets use a wide variety of spices for flavor, and the Mediterranean diet is no exception. When our Scientific Advisory Committee updated our Mediterranean Diet Pyramid in 2008, they added herbs and spices to the pyramid for cultural, taste and health reasons. Herbs and spices contribute to the national identities of various Mediterranean cuisines - cumin, cinnamon, and ginger in the Eastern Mediterranean and dried oregano, thyme, and saffron in Southern Europe, for example - and they reduce the need to add salt and fat when cooking. 

Despite the best intentions to broaden the flavors of their palate, many home cooks experience sticker shock in the spice aisle at the grocery store. A $5 bottle of cumin is an investment if you are not sure you will like the flavor or if you will ever cook with it again (or use it up within a year, when most spices lose their pungency). Saffron, used in dishes like Spanish paella and Italian risotto, is one of the most expensive spices in the world at around $20 for a fraction of an ounce. 

Yet, spices and dried herbs can make food taste rich and full of flavor without weighing you down like food laden with butter and cream. They give dishes a unique taste and give them life. The combination of spices is part of what distinguishes rice dishes around the Mediterranean from one another. Plus, it's fun to experiment with spices in the kitchen to put your unique spin on recipes. Check out our 12 Great Ways to Use Spices for easy ways to incorporate them into your cooking.

So, are spices worth the splurge? Yes, but there are ways to minimize their dent in your grocery budget:
  • Buy small, then big. Smaller spice jars are more expensive per ounce, but they cost less upfront. Spices have a bigger impact when they are new (less than a year old, or less than 6 months old for dried herbs) so it's better to buy a small amount if you are new to using them, or if you don't think you'll use them that often. Once you find you use a spice frequently, buy the larger jar, or in bulk to save. 
  • Put them to (more than one) use. When you buy a new spice, search for multiple recipes that use it to experience different flavor combinations. Many spices have unexpected uses. Cinnamon, for example, is well-known as a "sweet spice" for desserts, but it's also used in its ground form in the stuffing for dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves. Whole cinnamon sticks are also used to flavor Mediterranean stews and broths, then removed just before eating.
  • Invest in a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. Whole spices, like fennel seeds, cardamom pods, and cumin seeds, are usually more affordable than their ground forms. They also last longer and taste better when they are ground fresh. 
  • Find a source for bulk spices. Many international food stores or health food stores sell spices from large canisters. You can buy as little as a few spoonfuls to try a new spice, without investing in a whole jar. If you find you use a lot of one spice, you might consider ordering online.
Check out the recipes below for ways to use a few of our favorite spices and dried herbs.

Click on a title or photo below to go to the recipe.

Persian rice is made by first cooking rice like pasta - boiling it in a large pot of salted water and draining it- and then steaming the rice in a pot on the stove. During the steaming process, the rice is shaped into a pyramid in the pot to leave room for the rice to expand. In this recipe, the rice is flavored with saffron, cinnamon, cardamom, and orange. 

Recipe and photo courtesy of Al Wadi Al Akhdar

Switch up your breakfast routine with this Mediterranean-inspired breakfast bowl. It makes use of leftover cooked brown rice (or any leftover cooked whole grain of your choice), and combines it with dried oregano, fresh basil, and crumbled feta cheese for Mediterranean flavors.

Recipe courtesy of Serena Ball, MS, RD for the Egg Nutrition Center. Photo courtesy of the Egg Nutrition Center

This delicious, not-too-sweet cake is perfect for snacking or a light dessert. It's loaded with spices - cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and fennel seeds - and other rich Mediterranean flavors like olive oil, pomegranate molasses and Greek yogurt. 

An Oldways recipe.

Saffron and Sunshine
by Ana Sortun
Chef Ana Sortun reveals in Spice how the artful use of spices and herbs, rather than fat and cream, is the key to the full, rich, and satisfying flavors of Eastern Mediterranean cuisine.

by Elisabeth Luard
Saffron is the most expensive of all spices, but has the power to color ten thousand times its own volume. In Saffron & Sunshine, Elisabeth Luard includes recipes that use this magical spice along with many others that are no less delicious. 

by Samantha Seneviratne
Filled with fascinating histories, origin stories, and innovative uses for the world's most enticing spices, including vanilla, cinnamon, peppercorns, and cardamom, The New Sugar & Spice guarantees that dessert will be the most talked-about part of your meal.

Fresh Fridays is a bi-weekly celebration of Mediterranean eating and living. We hope our Friday recipes will remind you just how easy and delicious eating the Mediterranean way can be.   

To find even more delicious Mediterranean recipes please visit: