12 appetizing spice blends, demystified and ready for you to explore

Apr 21, 2016 at 7:00 p.m. ET
Image: Flavia Morlachetti/Getty Images

It's time to demystify those little packets and bottles of spice blends you've got languishing in the back of your cabinet. Set the boring poultry spice aside, and refuse to settle for yet another night of lemon-pepper tilapia — these are the spice blends you should give a try.

1. Herbes de Provence

Herbes de Provence is a spice blend that originated in the South of France. It usually contains savory, thyme, marjoram, rosemary and oregano, and in the U.S., culinary lavender is often included too.

You can use herbes de Provence as a rub on roast chicken, added to marinades for grilled meats or to boost the flavor of soups and stews. You can try making your own, or buy a premade mix.

2. Garam masala

You may have a jar of curry powder in your cupboard, but garam masala still remains a mystery to many home cooks.

This spice blend varies from region to region, but a typical version can include peppercorns, mace, black and green cardamom, bay leaf, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, chilies and nutmeg.

You can use garam masala as a spice rub on roasted chicken and slow-cooked meat or as the main spice component in curries and stews made with coconut milk. Mix it yourself, or buy online.

More: 14 hot and fiery ways to spice up your meals that aren't Sriracha

3. Dukkah

Made from toasted nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, dukkah is a popular Egyptian spice blend.

Though the exact ingredients vary, a common combination is crushed hazelnuts, sesame seeds, coriander and cumin, along with dried herbs, pepper flakes, lemon zest and more.

Use dukkah to top flavorful flatbread, mix with oil to create a dipping sauce for bread, or use it to make a flavorful rub or crust for chicken and other meats. Create your own combo, or buy premade dukkah.

4. Ras el Hanout

Popular in Morocco and other North African countries, the exact makeup of ras el Hanout varies widely from region to region.

That said, common ingredients include cumin, clove, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, coriander, fenugreek, turmeric and paprika, along with more exotic spices like chufa, galangal, dried rosebuds and long pepper.

Ras el Hanout is used to flavor grains like couscous and rice, as a rub for meat and seafood and to season stews.

You can try making your own, tweaking the flavor profile as you see fit, or pick up a premade mix here.

5. Shichimi togarashi

Sometimes called Japanese seven-spice, shichimi togarashi is a spicy blend of red chili, dried orange peel, Japanese pepper, black and white sesame seeds, ginger, dried seaweed and hemp seed.

Sprinkle on noodle soups and stir-fries, use to flavor rice, or include in marinades for chicken, beef or seafood.

Buy some shichimi togarashi here.

6. Chinese five-spice powder

Containing cinnamon, cloves, fennel seed, Sichuan pepper and star anise, Chinese five-spice powder is a flavorful addition to any kitchen.

Use it to add some life to fatty meats like braised pork belly, roasted duck or goose. You can also use it to season the breading for fried tofu and chicken, or add to stir-fry sauce and noodles. Pick up some five-spice powder here.

7. Khmeli suneli

A popular Georgian spice blend (as in Georgia the country, not the state), khmeli suneli varies from region to region, but it often contains coriander, fenugreek, paprika, turmeric, black pepper, dill, basil, marjoram, marigold petals and more.

Khmeli suneli's unique blend of flavors makes it a great option for flavoring rich stews and braised meats, and it adds a depth of flavor to vegetable and bean dishes too.

You can make your own blend, or try a premade jar of khmeli suneli here.

More: 19 reasons you should have furikake in your pantry

8. Panch phoron

Bengali five-spice powder is made up of seeds — usually black mustard seed, cumin, fennel seed, fenugreek and nigella seed.

Panch phoron is sold as whole seeds, not ground like most spice mixes. To use it, fry in a bit of oil until fragrant (you may hear the seeds pop), then add the rest of your ingredients. Try sautéing with chicken or beef, then adding coconut milk or diced tomatoes to make a curry, or use it as a way to make flavorful vegetarian lentils or beans. Make your own blend, or try some panch phoron here.

9. Jerk spice

Jamaican jerk spice is primarily made up of allspice and dried Scotch bonnet peppers. This spicy mixture is often enhanced by other spices, including cinnamon, cloves, garlic and ginger, and is sometimes sweetened with brown sugar.

Jerk spice was traditionally used to season pork or chicken, though now it's not uncommon to see jerk-spiced seafood and even sausages.

Make or buy a jerk spice blend, then use it as a dry rub or as the primary ingredient in a marinade. It works especially well when combined with citrus.

10. Za'atar

Za'atar is a popular Middle Eastern spice blend comprised mainly of dried herbs and sesame seeds.

The herbs in za'atar can include thyme, oregano, marjoram and sumac, which adds a lemony acidity.

Za'atar is used in many applications. It makes a delicious rub for poultry, pork and beef, can be used to make marinades and, when mixed with olive oil or plain Greek yogurt, makes for a tasty dip for flatbreads.

You can make your own za'atar rather easily, or try out a premade blend.

11. Advieh

Advieh is a Persian spice blend. Its exact makeup varies based on region, but it often includes cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, ginger, turmeric and rose petals, and sometimes saffron, nutmeg, black pepper and sesame.

It can be used in two applications — as a seasoning for rice (similar to Japanese furikake), or a version used in stews and as a rub for meats. Try making a simple advieh blend here, or stock your cupboard with a premade blend.

12. Baharat/Lebanese allspice

This Middle Eastern spice blend is finely ground. It's sometimes called Lebanese seven-spice, though different variations may contain more or fewer than seven different spices.

Typical ingredients include black pepper, allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, red chilies, cloves, coriander seeds, cumin and nutmeg. Turkish baharat includes mint; Tunisian baharat is just a blend of rosebuds, cinnamon and pepper; and Persian baharat is additionally seasoned with black lime and saffron.

Baharat can be used as a rub for meats or included in a marinade, used to season soups and stews or used to make a dipping condiment for breads and meats.

Try mixing your own, or buy some baharat here.

With these spice blends in tow, you'll never have to sit through a boring meal of plain baked chicken or flavorless beef stew again.

More: 6 ways I travel the world through food — and you can too