Uncommon uses for Common Spices and Seasonings

Jan 11, 2021 | Cooking Tips

We’ve all got them. They may be in a neat and tidy spice rack or jammed into an overstuffed cupboard that avalanches out every time we open it. Either way, spices and seasonings are our gateway to flavour and our ticket to travel the world without ever leaving our kitchens. Today we will root around in the cupboard, find some very common spices and seasonings and look at how we can use them in uncommon ways to create incredible flavours. We’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s get to it. After you read this, be sure to check out my post, 5 Cooking Principles for Success, to learn some real tips to improve your cooking.




Thyme is one of my all-time favourite herbs and one that I use more than almost any others. It can be used either fresh or dried, though I much prefer to use it fresh. Thyme is commonly used with pork though it is also fantastic with chicken, beef and fish. It can be added to soups, stews and chowders (especially clam chowder), sauces, roasted vegetables, and even bread. Thyme can also work well in sweet applications such as lemon and thyme muffins, blueberry crumble, or even apple crumble. This is an herb that I always have in the fridge and ready to go because it works with pretty much everything.



Rosemary can be used fresh or dried, but like thyme, I prefer to use it fresh. In fact, assume unless I say otherwise that all the herbs on this list are used fresh. It will save us all a lot of time. Rosemary has a strong initial flavour, but it can break down fairly quickly when cooked for long periods of time. For this reason, it is better to add rosemary around the middle of cooking rather than at the start. Rosemary works incredibly well with red meat and chicken, pork and even halibut, cod, and mackerel. It is great with beans, grilled or roasted vegetables and pairs well with lemon and garlic. I love to use it when braising beef or lamb in tomato sauce with a little red wine. Mushrooms and rosemary are good friends and go very well together in pasta with sausage and white sauce or risotto. Rosemary and tomato, either fresh or as sauce goes very well together too.


Parsley should always be used fresh. Dried parsley has little to no flavour and lacks the bright green colour of fresh parsley. You can buy either flat-leaf (Italian parsley) or curly parsley. If you have a choice go with the flat-leaf, it has a better flavour. If you don’t have a choice, either will do. I use parsley mostly as a finishing herb. Not that I sprinkle it over the plate for garnish. I mean, if I’m making pasta, I’ll toss the pasta and the sauce together and finish it with a handful of parmesan, a handful of chopped parsley, and a nub of butter. The parsley adds a fresh, vibrant flavour that doesn’t overpower the rest of the dish. It also adds a bit of colour. Parsley can also be added to soups and chowders. Because of its neutral, fresh flavour, parsley pairs well with just about anything.


Basil obviously can be used to make pesto and pairs incredibly well with tomato in any form. But, did you know that it can be used just as easily with strawberries (especially in strawberry shortcakes), blueberries, peaches and white chocolate? It is also fantastic with white fish, especially when served with white beans. Dried basil can be used in sauces, but fresh is the way to go for other applications. For a surprisingly delicious combination, throw a small handful of fresh basil into your next coconut curry.



Tarragon is most commonly paired with deep flavours like mushrooms and beef. However, a little bit of tarragon in a seafood chowder is a thing of true beauty. It goes very well with chicken, especially with a little lemon as well as beets, and fish. In general, it is best to not use tarragon in combination with other herbs, as they have a tendency to clash.



Sage goes well with beef, chicken, turkey, pork, rabbit, squash, and mushrooms. It can be used in stews and stuffings. It also goes very well with pasta combined with cream sauce, or brown butter, especially with ravioli stuffed with mushrooms, sausage, or squash. Sage can also be used with seafood, especially in Spanish paella.



Margoram is like a milder version of oregano and it can be used in all of the same places. See oregano below for uses.



When most people think of oregano, they probably think of Italian food, especially pasta and pizza sauce, they’re not wrong, but that’s only part of the story. Oregano is common throughout the Mediterranian and in Mexican cuisine as well. There are many oregano varieties, but the oregano in your cupboard can be used for all purposes. I love to marinate lamb, chicken, or pork for Mediterranian flavours in a combination of garlic, red wine vinegar, oregano, and lemon juice. I’ll sometimes add a bit of mint in there too. If I’m going for Mexican flavours, I’ll marinated pork or chicken with oregano, chillies, a touch of cinnamon, orange and lime juice, annatto, onion and garlic. When roasted, pulled, and quickly fried, this will make some of the best tacos you’ve ever had.



Most people don’t cook with mint. That’s unfortunate becasue it can add such great flavour to so many dishes. I love to add it to homemade tzatziki sauce along with a bit of dill. And I use it in my Greek Salad dressing. It is also a secret ingredient in my butter chicken and many Indian curries I make. Once cooked, I finish butter chicken with a small handful each of mint and cilantro. It is incredible.



You either love cilantro, or you hate it. I absolutely love it. One of my favourites uses for it is also probably the simplest. I cut it up, mix it with an equal amount of minced onion and put it on top of tacos (real tacos, not old el Paso tacos). Cilantro is just as common in Indian and Thai cuisines as it is in Mexican. I love to add it to pineapple or mango salsa, salads, and chutneys. Like parsley, Cilantro is a finishing herb and should be added to dishes at the end of cooking. Otherwise, it will lose its flavour and may turn bitter. When making any curry, I throw a handful of cilantro in at the end.

I actually used to be one of those people that hated cilantro because I thought it tasted like soap. But at a restaurant I worked, we had smoked chicken poutine that was finished with a little sour cream and a handful of cilantro. It was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. I still think about it often and occasionally make it. That poutine completely changed my view and taste of cilantro.

Bay Leaf

Bay Leaf

Bay leaf is commonly added to soups and stews, which is good. It is also an ingredient in Garam Masala. I use it a lot, in combination with star anise and occasionally other spices to flavour rice. It is a straightforward way to add some flavour to plain white rice. I add the bay leaf and other spices right in the beginning when I combine the water and rice. Once cooked and rested, the bay leaf and other spices sit right on top of the rice and can be picked out. Again, this is an effortless way to add flavour to rice with little to no effort.




Fenugreek may not actually be that common in North America, but I’ve seen it in enough spice cupboards to know that lots of people have it and have no idea what to do with it. It comes as either a powder, seeds (which are very hard) or a leaf more commonly known as methi (The Indian name). I prefer to use either the powder or the leaf because the seeds are just way too hard. Fenugreek is a common ingredient in Indian food and is one of the main flavours of butter chicken. Root vegetables tossed with olive oil, fenugreek and salt and pepper, then roasted are delicious. Fenugreek mixed with yogurt can make a fantastic marinade for chicken, lamb, pork, or even a salad dressing.



Cumin is most commonly used in Indian, Mexican and Moroccan cuisines. It is a key ingredient in Garam Masala, as well as hummus. I like to add a few toasted cumin seeds to rice along with a bay leaf at the start of cooking to add a lot of flavour. I use powdered cumin in barbecue sauce, baked beans, and marinades. Honestly, cumin is one of the most used spices in my kitchen. I love it! For something special, mix a little powdered cumin with yogurt and a splash of lemon juice, thinly slice a cucumber and toss it with the cumin yogurt. This makes a great and simple side salad for curry, lamb, or just about anything.



I most commonly use coriander in tandem with cumin. I love the two of them together. Having said that, coriander is fantastic on its own as well. Coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant though it doesn’t really taste much like cilantro. If you want to make homemade taco bell or old el Paso tacos, cumin and coriander are your secret (or not so secret) ingredients.



Turmeric is often an ingredient in an ingredient, meaning you’ll find it in Curry powder, mustard, Ras el Hanout, etc. It has a slight, but not unpleasant, bitter flavour that awakens that palate and makes you salivate. A little bit of turmeric added to rice will turn the whole pot yellow, adding a nice colour element to your meal. Potatoes tossed in olive oil, salt, pepper, and turmeric, then roasted, are very delicious and come out a nice golden yellow colour.

Mustard Seeds

mustard seed

Mustard seeds are obviously the main ingredient in mustard. However, they have lots of other uses, whether whole or ground. Mustard acts as a binder when making vinaigrettes. It is also very commonly used in baked beans, barbecue sauce, and rubs. I add a spoon of mustard seeds to the pot when making boiled dinner or corned beef and cabbage because the mustard seeds help take away any foul smells produced from the cabbage and help you digest the meal. I also like to add a small spoon full of mustard seeds to rice when cooking it on their own or along with a bay leaf and cumin seeds. They add a nice flavour and, again, help with digestion.

Fennel Seeds

fennel seeds

Fennel seeds have a mild anise flavour that goes very well with pork (especially in sausages), duck and chicken. They are one of the five ingredients in Chinese Five Spice. You will also find it in Garam Masala, Herbes de Provence, and Ras el Hanout. One of my favourite uses for fennel seeds is to toast them and add them to pizza sauce. They add an incredible flavour that is hard for people to pin down. You will often find fennel seeds in Eastern European baked goods and even sauerkraut.

Star Anise

star anise

Star anise is not only the most photogenic of all the spices; it is also one of the most underused. Like fennel seeds, star anise is one of the five ingredients in Chinese Five Spice. I love star anise with anything pork. I often braise pork belly or ribs in a combination of soy sauce, honey, star anise, and pepper. The anise flavour pulls something really magical out of the pork. Star anise is another ingredient that I love to throw in rice. It can be used along with the other ingredients I mentioned, on its own, or just with a bay leaf. Either way, it will be some of the best rice you’ve ever tasted.



Cinnamon is generally considered a sweet spice, commonly used in desserts, but that’s not even half the story. It is the third of five ingredients in Chinese Five Spice and a main ingredient in Garam Masala and Ras el Hanout. It is also widespread in Indian, Mexican and Middle Eastern foods. Cinnamon pairs very well with beef, lamb and goat, root vegetables and squash. One of my favourite uses of cinnamon is to add a little bit of it to a pot of Chili. It really brings out all of the other flavours. I think that cinnamon is one of the most underused and underrated spices in North America.



The most obvious use for nutmeg is in pumpkin pie and pumpkin-spiced things. But, there is so much more to that little nut than pairing it with pumpkin. I like to add a tiny bit of nutmeg to cream sauces and even mashed potatoes. I add it to spinach and cottage (or ricotta) cheese when making lasagna or ravioli. It is fantastic with braised beef, lamb and fish. When making braised collard greens or swiss chard, I add nutmeg to boost the flavour. I also use it a lot when making Cuban food, especially red beans, and Jamaican food like jerk spice.


There is a world of possibilities held within the confines of your spice cupboard. I hope that this post has helped to illuminate that world to you. Obviously, this post is not exhaustive. There could be an entire blog dedicated to just this topic. We’ve only scratched the surface, but that’s better than nothing. The point is that I hope you look at the spices in your cupboard a little differently now. And that you experiment a little more with what they can do and be used for.

Thank you to Sue for suggesting this post. If you have a suggestion for a post, tell me in the comments, email me, or message me on social media.

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