What Are Spices?

A Guide to Buying, Using, and Storing Spices

Assorted spices in pots

The Spruce 

In the culinary arts, the word spice refers to any dried part of a plant, other than the leaves, used for seasoning and flavoring a recipe, but not used as the main ingredient. Why not the leaves? Because the green leafy parts of plants used in this way are considered herbs.

Every other part of the plant, including dried bark, roots, berries, seeds, twigs, or anything else that isn't the green leafy part, is considered a spice. Today, India is the world's largest consumer, producer, and exporter of spices. They even created the Indian Insitute of Spices Research devoted to the study of spices.

Examples of Spices

  • Cinnamon is the bark of a tree.
  • Cardamom is a seed pod.
  • Allspice is a dried berry.
  • Cloves are dried flower buds.

These are all examples of spices. Note too that spices are used in dried form while herbs can be used either fresh or dried.

Bowl of cinnamon powder and two cinnamon sticks
Cinnamon. Westend61 / Getty Images
Directly Above Shot Of Cardamoms In Bowl On Table
Cardamom. Michelle Arnold / EyeEm / Getty Images
Close-Up Of Ground Allspice In Measuring Spoon Wooden Table
Michelle Arnold / EyeEm / Getty Images
Close-Up Of Clove On Table
Clovers. Michelle Arnold / EyeEm / Getty Images

Tips for Cooking With Spices

One thing to keep in mind when cooking with spices is that spices start to lose their flavor when they are ground. So whenever possible, it's best to grind your own spices immediately before using them, rather than using spices that are already ground. You can use a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle for this purpose. If you do decide to use a coffee grinder you might want to use one only for spices and one for coffee beans so as not to accidentally flavor your morning brew!

The Spruce / Lindsay Kreighbaum.

Do Spices Expire?

While spices don't actually spoil or rot, they will lose their flavor over time. As spices are generally added precisely to add flavor, it is best to use them in a certain amount of time. If grinding your own spices isn't possible, try to use the freshest spices you possibly can. As a general rule, ground spices can last for up to three years if stored properly and whole dry spices for four years.

How to Properly Store Spices

Spices last longer when stored in a cool, dry location. So keeping jars of spices right next to your stove will significantly reduce their useful life. An enclosed spice rack or storing them in an opaque container will help your spices keep their flavor longer.

Spices in History

As the majority of the world's spices come from South East Asia, the spice trade helped drive the global economy starting in the Middle Ages. The Silk Road was a dangerous and long trade route that went from China to Europe. Sailing helped to speed up the shipment of spices. In search of a faster root to India, Christopher Columbus chose to sail east, landing in North America instead. It is believed that this mistake in continents is why Indigenous peoples were wrongly named "Indians."

Article Sources
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  1.  Ministry of Commerce and Industry Government of India. Spices industry in India.

  2. Duyff RL.  Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Complete Food & Nutrition Guide, 5th Ed. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2017.