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Flavor Characteristics of Spices

Spices give aroma, color, flavor, and sometimes even texture to food. Each spice, chile, or herb has specific, unique chemical compounds that create these sensual qualities. Even casual cooks are probably able to identify the four most well-known flavor profiles- bitter, salty, sour, and sweet. In the last decade or so, a fifth taste profile known as “umami” has emerged in the collective social consciousness in America. This Japanese word translates loosely to “pleasant savory taste” and is usually associated with the flavor of things like mushrooms or Nori. The best description of umami is that it falls somewhere between savory and salty, though there is no English word to accurately describe that flavor.


When talking about spices, a true spice aficionado simply cannot be limited to just four or five. For these people, there are many more equally identifiable flavor characteristics- cooling, earthy, floral, fruity, herbaceous, hot, nutty, piney, pungent, spicy, sulfury, and woody.

Spices usually do not have a single flavor profile. For example, the popular spice cumin falls into a few of the flavor profiles as it is both earthy and spicy. Thyme is bitter, floral, herbaceous, and piney. Americans tend to consider themselves the center of many universes, and the culinary world is not exempt to this phenomenon. Americans taste buds do not necessarily align with the taste buds of people around the world; for example, there are many cultures that consume much spicier cuisine than the typical American. This would mean that the focus would be on other specific flavor profiles, not on spicy flavors.

In our page descriptions of spices, chiles, and herbs, we provide a flavor profile for each, as well as other spices that partner well with each particular spice, chile, or herb. For these profiles, we try to be as encompassing as possible, though we are American and the American palette is really all we know. Bear with us!


The Sensory Characteristics of Spices

Below you will find the 15 most commonly used sensory characteristics when describing the flavors and aroma profiles of spices. Saltiness is not included simply because the salty flavor does not come from an individual spice in any capacity.


Bitter

Bitterness alone is not a good flavor for humans, who are especially sensitive to it. Bitter flavors are usually considered an acquired taste, and they are present in coffee, chocolates, and beer. Most vegetables contain at least a little bit of bitterness, especially when they are consumed raw.

Some spices that are considered bitter are: Ajwain, Bay Leaf, Celery, Clove, Cumin Seed, Epazote, Fenugreek Seeds, Horseradish, Juniper, Lavender, Mace, Marjoram, Oregano, Summer Savory, Sichuan Peppercorns, Star Anise, Turmeric, Thyme


Cooling

Cooling spices are those that give the mouth a refreshed sensation. If your first thought was tasting mint in a tall glass of chilled water on a sweaty summer day, that is exactly the feeling your mouth gets from cooling spices. 

Some cooling spices include: Spearmint, Dill, AniseFennel, Sweet Basil


Earthy

Earthy spices are those which taste closely resembles where they come from. This is the flavor profile used to describe potatoes or beets, foods that are intimately tied to the earth. Some people will say this flavor is dirty and undesirable. This flavor comes from the presence of geosmin.

Some earthy spices include: Achiote, Cumin, Saffron


Floral

These spices are those that give us the nice flavor experience of the spring. You would more than likely associate this flavor with teas.

Some floral spices include: Coriander, Lemongrass, Rose Petals, Saffron, Sweet Basil, Thyme, Lavender


Fruity

Herbs and spices with this flavor profile taste exactly how you would expect them to. They are sweeter and give off a nice fruity scent.

Some fruity spices include: Anise, Fennel, Nigella, Summer Savory, Star Anise, Tamarind


Herbaceous

Herbaceous flavors are those which are herbal in nature. This seems like an obvious thing to say, but there is really no other language to describe this flavor.

Some herbaceous spices include: Dill Weed, Lavender, Oregano, Parsley, Rosemary, Sage, Summer Savory, Tarragon, Thyme


Hot

The hot flavor profile comes from the most exciting part of the flavor range. This flavor is characterized by its ability to heat up your mouth quickly, sometimes making food unbearable enough to leave you coughing. If your chile is the right level of hot, you may find yourself crying as well.

Some hot spices include: Black Pepper, Chiles, Horseradish, Mustard, Wasabi, White Pepper


Nutty

Some people associate this flavor with almonds. Foods that are also associated with this flavor are cashews, peanuts, and walnuts. There is almost something buttery about the nutty flavor.

Some nutty spices include: Ajwain, Black Cardamom, Coriander Seed, Cumin Seed, Fenugreek Seed, Mustard Seed, Poppy Seed, Sesame Seed


Piney

If you have smelled a pine tree before, you have a vague idea of what the pine flavor tastes like. It’s a bitey flavor that one must become accustomed to.

Some piney spices include: Bay Leaf, Rosemary, Thyme


Pungent

Spices that fall under the pungent classification are strongly flavored and have strong aromatics as well.

Some pungent spices include: Allspice, Epazote, Garlic, Ginger, Grains of Paradise, Horseradish, Marjoram, Mustard, Onion, Paprika, Spearmint, Star Anise, Wasabi, Dill Seeds


Sour

Sour flavors make your mouth pucker. You will find that sour flavors may make you salivate more than usual, and they can be find complimenting sweet foods quite nicely.

Some sour spices include: Amchur, Sumac, Tamarind


Spicy

Foods and spices thought to be spicy give a nice burst of strong flavor. Spicy food is often intense, though short lived.

Some spicy spices include: Bay Leaf, Cassia Cinnamon, Cloves, Coriander, Cumin, Curry Leaf, Ginger, Marjoram, Nutmeg


Sulfury

This flavor profile is hard to describe. Some would say it has an almost egg like taste to it, but that’s not quite it. The sulfury flavor profile is arguably the most associated with scent over taste, which makes sense because your sense of taste and smell are intimately linked.

Some sulfury spices include: Asafoetida, Chives, Garlic, Onion


Sweet

This flavor is defined by how much sugar our tongue can discern in a food. Usually sweet foods are paired with sour or salty foods. The contrasting flavors are pleasing to the human tongue and gives our brain a pleasing chemical reaction.

Some sweet spices include: Allspice, Anise, Caraway, Cassia Cinnamon, Chervil, Cloves, Dill Seed, Fennel, Green Cardamom, Nutmeg, Poppy Seed, Sesame Seed, Star Anise, Granulated Honey, Granulated Molasses


Woody

Woody flavors are those that taste vaguely like wood. Sometimes you will find coffee being described as woody, especially if the coffee beans are especially aged.

Some woody spices include: Cardamom, Ceylon Cinnamon, Cloves, Juniper, Lavender, Rosemary, Sichuan Peppercorns

Spices also have secondary functions, like in medicine and preservatives, though our focus has always been exclusively about their culinary uses. These flavor profiles as well as the accompanying examples of spices have hopefully been able to give you a little bit more of an understanding about the food you eat. The human palette is an amazing thing, with its ability to taste some flavors at one part per billion, so get out there and enjoy that.


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