If you are looking for ways to enhance your restaurant menu look no further than using everyday spices and herbs. We all know that seasonings add ‘the spice of life’ to cooking and baking and can transform any dish from bland and boring to flavor-filled, fabulous, and unforgettable. They are also a great way to make food taste better without the addition of fat, salt, or sugar, and are compatible with almost every type of diet (vegetarian, vegan, Paleo, Keto, gluten-free, dairy-free, salt-free, and more).
Spice and Herb Basics
Let’s take a walk down Spice-and-Herb Lane to learn about the standouts, their health benefits, their cooking and baking characteristics, and how you can add them to your customers’ favorite dishes for maximum and delicious effect.
If chefs are extraordinary artists who create delectable masterpieces, then spices are among their favorite paints, allowing them to create, transform, and infuse new life into almost any food or dish. At the same time, some of the most commonly called for spices in recipes have been around for millennium, making them comforting ingredients that can be relied on in a pinch. If you work in foodservice, use them to satisfy the cravings of all your customers: from the adventurous Millenials and GenZ’ers, to the nostalgia-loving Baby Boomers.
Here’s what spices can do for you:
- Add flavor (from fiery and hot to sweet, savory, sour, pungent, tart, nutty, and everything in between)
- Add aromas that whet the appetite and entice diners to ask for more
- Add fragrance and character to dishes and dessert
- Bring out the natural flavors of foods
- Add color, making foods more interesting and appealing
How to Use Spices to Offer a Global Cuisine
And there’s more: spices allow you to offer a global cuisine that is synonymous with specific cultures or that allows consumers to indulge in local flavors. In fact, providing your customers’ taste buds with the opportunity to travel the world while they eat is yet another recipe success.
Recommended Spices for Creating a Global Restaurant Menu
Here are some recommended ways to use spices and herbs to take your customers where they want to go:
- For a Mediterranean flavor, add saffron, sumac, cumin, coriander, cloves, black pepper, fennel, garlic, paprika, and/or turmeric
- For an African diet, try your choice of annatto, chilies, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, nutmeg, and fenugreek
- To create Latin American dishes, include spices such as chili peppers, cumin, and garlic
- To capture Asian flavors, experiment with chilies, coriander, cloves, garlic, ginger, galangal, and star anise
Herbs and Spices: What’s the Difference?
As a foodservice professional, it’s paramount that you know your ingredients. Here’s the official dish: Both herbs and spices come from plants. Herbs are derived from the leaf of a plant, i.e. basil, dill, mint, and parsley. Spices are derived from plant roots, stems, barks, flowers, pods, or seeds. Examples include coriander, paprika, turmeric, and cinnamon. In general, spices tend to be stronger in flavor than herbs.
Common Spices, Herbs, and their Health Benefits
Did you know that throughout the ages, spices and herbs have also been used for medicinal purposes? Natural immune-boosters, they are chock-full of compounds that protect from acute and chronic diseases and may help keep the doctor away. In the words of Monica Moreno, Dietitian and Adjunct Professor of Nutrition at the University of Miami: “Herbs and spices fight inflammation and reduce damage to your body’s cells. That’s because each one is rich in phytochemicals, which are healthful plant chemicals.”
More specifically, there is ample evidence that herbs and spices are endowed with anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic, and antioxidant properties, as well as cholesterol- and glucose-reducing activities.
Here is the dish on some chefs’ favorites:
- Chili Peppers: Dried or powdered, chilies add a spicy kick to dishes. Thanks to their capsaicin content, they help boost metabolism and keep the blood vessels healthy. Cayenne peppers, in particular, have been shown to help curb appetite and are a common ingredient in many weight loss supplements.
- Cumin: Adding a warm, nutty, and earthy flavor to dishes, high-in-iron cumin is a key ingredient in many international dishes, including Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Indian, and Asian. It is popularly added to chili powders, curries, and barbeque spice blends. For a deeper flavor, prepare cumin powder from scratch by toasting whole cumin seeds in a dry pan and grinding them. Here are some more tasty tips: For a standout sauce, combine cumin with olive oil. To create a savory salsa, blend cumin with roasted tomatoes or other vegetables.
- Coriander Seeds: Coriander seeds come from the same plant as their sister herb, cilantro. Their taste is described as a combination of sage, caraway, and lemon, and the spice is commonly used in soups, curries, and mulled wine.
- Curry Powder: Did you know that curry powder is actually a blend of several powdered spices? These can include cardamom, coriander, cumin, chilies, mustard, fenugreek, ginger, turmeric, and black pepper. Hot and spicy, curry powder is often added to curries, gravies, and marinades. It can also be used as a dry rub.
- Cardamom: Boasting a sweet, pungent flavor and strong aroma, you will find cardamom featured in baking recipes for puddings, pastries, and pumpkin desserts. In cooking, its slightly citrusy flavor is often added to roasted vegetables and found in Moroccan dishes such as couscous. As for its health benefits, Moreno says: “Of all spices, cardamom is especially high in minerals like magnesium and zinc.” It is also used to soothe upset stomachs and help fight inflammation.
- Sumac: Offering a tangy, sour flavor, sumac is a key ingredient in the Middle Eastern za’atar seasoning, which is a mixture of dry herbs, toasted sesame seeds, salt, and sumac. It can serve as a lemon juice substitute and chefs use it to add a touch of tartness to hummus and salad dressings, as a way to add some ‘zing’ to roasted and baked potatoes, and as a topping sprinkled on pita bread brushed with olive oil. Adding icing to the cake, sumac is also included in dessert recipes. For example, to satisfy your customers’ sweet cravings, experiment with drizzling sumac mixed with honey on ice cream. You can also brush pastry dough or filo dough with sumac-infused honey before baking, creating memorable tasty treats.
- Paprika: One of the most prolific spices in the world, paprika is made from dried and ground orange and red peppers. It can be mild or hot, depending on the variety, and is often added to rice, cooked vegetables, egg dishes, sweet potatoes, and sauces.
- Turmeric: A staple in Caribbean and Indian cuisines, turmeric is known for its warm and earthy flavor, and especially for giving curry its bright yellow color. Containing curcumin, a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, turmeric boosts the body’s ability to ward off chronic diseases and infection. Medical research further indicates that turmeric may help improve brain function and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Garlic: Fresh, ground, or powdered, garlic’s ability to sharpen the flavor of a wide range of recipes is second-to-none. A compound called allicin gives garlic its distinct smell, as well as its medicinal properties. These include combating the common cold, reducing cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and its beneficial effects on heart health.
- Ginger: Enhancing the flavor of both sweet and savory recipes, ginger’s multiple health benefits include its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, as well as its ability to calm the lining of the digestive system and ease stomach upsets and nausea. Ginger is a featured ingredient in baked goods such as gingerbread and spice cookies, in beverages such as ginger ale and ginger beer, in fruit compotes, and in a variety of curries and sauces.
- Cinnamon: Derived from the tree bark and boasting a sweet, woody, fruity flavor, cinnamon is not only popular in baking recipes, but you can also add it to curries, soups, stews, coffee, and tea. It is sugar-free, low in calories, easy to obtain, and inexpensive. Containing the compound cinnamaldehyde, cinnamon provides potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity and is best known for effectively lowering blood sugar levels.
Tips for Cooking and Baking with Spices
For some more chef’s tricks to add to your restaurant repertoire, follow these tips:
- In most recipes, you can freely interchange fresh and dry spices
- When adding spices to dishes that are not cooked (i.e. dips), use their dry, finely-ground versions, which are more likely to blend with the other ingredients
- For maximum aroma and flavor, purchases spices in small quantities and use them up quickly
- For enhanced flavor, buy spices whole and grind them using a mortar-and-pestle or an electric coffee grinder
- Store whole and ground spices for six months to one year in an airtight container in a cool, dark place
Featured Spice Recipe for Your Restaurant Menu
Finally, enjoy the following recipe that uses spices to turn any can of plain beans into a delicious meal or snack.
- Rinse beans and pat dry (If you are using dried beans, soak first and pat dry)
- Toss with olive oil, salt, and your choice of seasoning
- Suggestions: Add allspice and chili powder to kidney beans; add chili powder, cayenne, and cumin to black beans
- Bake for 25–30 minutes at 425 degrees