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When spice blends are good, they’re game-changers, providing big, complex flavor so that you don’t have to toast and grind a potpourri of spices to make a weeknight meal. But if you’re picking up a random blend from the grocery store, you probably don’t know exactly what you’re getting: Spice blends can be unpredictable and confining, tethering you to a flavor combination that you might not love. Some also contain added salt, which throws off your seasoning. And, unless you’re getting it from a trusted source, it might be on the stale side.
By replacing your jars of amorphous, aging spice blends (curry powder, taco seasoning, steak rub, your time is up) with the constituent spices themselves (like cumin, coriander, and turmeric, for example), you’ll have more options for customizing to your liking.
All that being said, there are some spice mixes that we lean on because they’re tricky to make or specific enough that they’re fairly reliable. Here’s our shortlist:
- Vadouvan: thought to be born out of the French colonial rule of Pondicherry, India, the base of this sweet and slightly smoky masala (i.e. spice mix) is granulated shallots, onion, and garlic, with fenugreek being a common addition; try it in yogurt dip or as part of a dry rub for roast chicken
- Za’atar: bright, herbaceous, and toasty, it varies across the Middle East but is often a combo of dried oregano, thyme, and/or marjoram with sumac and toasted sesame seeds
- Old Bay: a proprietary blend of celery salt, paprika, and pepper, it goes hand in hand with shellfish
- Chaat masala: made up of dry mango powder, cumin, coriander, black salt, asafetida, and chile powder, it adds an umami funk to everything from sliced fruit to boiled potatoes
- Five-spice powder: the eponymous number refers not to the components (which can include star anise, cinnamon, cloves, Sichuan peppercorns, and fennel seeds, among others), but to its harmonious blend of the five traditional Chinese elements and flavors; try it in these glazey pork ribs