Secret Uses for Spices

Confessions from your kitchen cupboard; the best uses for your spices, by Natasha Straker and Emily Patterson…

Nutmeg is hugely underrated. It has an ingenious way of livening up cheesy recipes or giving greens an interesting twist. My one warning is, once you’ve given it a go, nutmeg will be taking up a permanent position in your cupboard. Nutmeg seeds were once found in a tree likely to have been first planted in Grenada as it rarely grows naturally…Apart from enhancing meals with its sweet, warming touch, nutmeg is thought to aid digestion as well as be an anti-depressant and anti-fungal too. It is also known as a mild hallucinogen if four to eight spoonfuls are eaten; pretty mental…It is best grated once you’ve finished cooking to ensure the most fresh and powerful flavour.

Nutmeg secrets…

1. Grate a generous amount into mince when browning it on the hob as well as sprinkling some in before serving with pasta, baked potato or mash.

2. Grate into leeks in white sauce during cooking and before serving.


No smell is as distinctive and no other flavour zaps your taste-buds in quite the same way as the trusty cinnamon stick (or rather, magical cinnamon wand…) Its ability to unearth the deepest meaty flavours and leave your mouth tingling is unparalleled. This stick-like spice (known to the Italians as ‘canella’, meaning ‘little stick’) inherits its dashing looks from the inner bark of the Laurel tree, native to Sri Lanka. It is thought to help with type-two diabetes and even have anti-viral properties; a good one to stock up on this winter to battle those bugs! I will never forget the baffling sight of Indian men chewing enthusiastically on something which smelt to me a lot like cinnamon. With time I learnt that it was actually ‘betel quid’ they were munching on, with bits of cinnamon bark inside. Betel chewing is a common Asian habit supposed to evoke euphoria, cure headaches and have antibacterial properties. It does, however, leave your mouth with a vibrant red stain making it slightly less tempting to spit and chew ourselves. For cooking, though, it’s ideal.

Cinnamon secrets…

1. Sprinkle ground cinnamon into the plum mixture before putting it in a baking dish and topping with crumble (works a treat in brownies too)

2. Make eggy bread pop with a generous amount of ground cinnamon added to the beaten eggs before soaking the bread.

3. Place a stick or two into stew before cooking (but remove before serving)


Caraway is the oldest of all culinary spices, dating back to almost 3,000BC where it was used to enliven many meaty meals. It was not only valued for its fantastic flavour but also used for protective measures, to ward off evil spirits and stop things from being stolen. Mothers would carefully place seeds by their children’s beds to keep them safe at night. (If only mine had done this I might have been a little less scared of monsters under the bed!!) Again this sweet, sharp spice is so much more than a cook’s best friend. It’s been used to cure toothaches, in scented soaps and even to stop your ‘wind blowing free where ever you may be’…It’s full of essential oils and protein, making it a great addition to any dish.

Caraway secrets…

1. Fry thinly sliced fennel or cooked greens in some oil and sprinkle over a generous amount of seeds. Cook for about 5 minutes.

2. Add a few teaspoons to any flavour of soup as it is bubbling away and let it work its magic.

3. Eat as an after dinner mint to help digestion and stop your breath from smelling of lingering food!


Beautiful in shape, fantastic in flavour, star anise might not be something that you use every day but that’s what makes it so damn ‘alternative’ and great. Sourced in China this cheeky spice bears a close resemblance to aniseed or liquorice in flavour and is often used as a cheaper alternative to these, to make Sambuca and Absinthe for example. A recent remedy for Bird Flu, traditionally Star Anise was used in tea as a cure for rheumatism, or else chewed after meals to help with digestion. Though it might be a bit of marmite in terms of popularity, if liquorice tickles your pickle, try these:

Star Anise secrets…

1. Add some to the batter for fish and chips

2. Roasted sweet potatoes with star anise, ginger and lime: a slightly oriental twist on the traditional Sunday Roast

3. Grind the whole star in a coffee grinder and add them to brownies; if it’s good enough for Hugh F-W, it’s good enough for me


If you want to add a little kick to anything, cloves are the one to boot. Versatile little gems, they can be used in drinks, sweet or savoury food. The flavour is penetrating, even to the point of leaving an intense numbing feeling on the tongue. They are the dried flower buds of an evergreen tree native to eastern Indonesia which, according to folklore, must always ‘see the sea’ in order to thrive. But more than just a favourite culinary spice, the natives of Indonesia rolled cloves with tobacco to make cigarettes called ‘Kreteks.’ Rather ironically these were smoked for medicinal purposes to help chest pains and asthma… though this particular dubious remedy might have been disproven, clove cigarettes are still sold worldwide. Clove oil certainly does help with toothaches; although might also help leave you with pungent breath – so pungent that cloves were a remedy during the American prohibition to disguise the smell of alcohol.

Clove secrets…

1. Cloves are a known favourite in apple pie, but also are an essential for double chocolate spiced cookies. Add in some ground cloves along with honey, molasses and wine to cookie dough

2. Pisco Punch is a Chilean classic drink that adds crushed cloves to pineapple, orange and lemon juice with pineapple liqueur and white wine

3. A Christmas staple, punch some cloves into the skin of a ham, douse in coca-cola and leave to cook over the heat.

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