I love cooking. I cook breakfast and dinner just about every day of the year. I have a relatively large repertoire of dishes I can make without ever needing to look at a recipe.
Still, making 730 meals a year, and managing to keep them interesting can be a challenge. Luckily, I have a secret weapon. My spice rack!
Variety is the spice of life, but spice is the basis for variety in our daily meals. For example, black beans with cayenne can take a meal one direction. While, black beans made with coriander, cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon take our taste buds to a whole different place.
You can only grow so many different vegetables and raise so many different kinds of animals on your homestead. So, if you want to keep your meals interesting even when your ingredient list is limited by what you can grow or raise, mastering the art of ‘spicing things up’ is essential.
Herbs Versus Spices
In terms of cooking, there’s technically a difference between herbs and spices. Cooking herbs are the fresh or dried leaf parts of annual, biennial, or herbaceous plants.
Annual plants are those that start from seeds each year and die after setting seed. Biennials generally grow one year, then flower and die the next. Herbaceous plants are perennial or biennial plants that die back to the ground in winter and don’t grow woody plant parts above ground.
Spices are the seeds, fruit, or bark of any plant. Additionally, spices can be made from the leaves of plants that don’t fall into the category of annual, biennial, or herbaceous. In other words, spices can also come from the leaves of woody perennials or evergreens.
As an example, bay leaves come from the Bay Laurel which is an evergreen shrub. Even though they are the leaf part of the plant, they are still considered a spice not a herb because they grow on the woody stems of a perennial that does not die back to the ground in winter.
What About Rosemary?
This distinction gets a bit tricky in the case of something like rosemary. Reason being is because the leaves we use from rosemary only grow on the new, non-woody growth, not the old woody growth.
In cold weather, those young leaf-growing tips are likely to die back to the woody parts which make them kind of herbaceous. Also, if you had only woody parts on your rosemary plant, those woody parts would not produce leaves. The plant would basically die.
Rosemary is one of those gray areas where you can call it both a spice or an herb and be arguably correct. Now, I am not the terminology police. Frankly, you can call herbs spices – and spices herbs – if you want. They are yours after all!
The only reason I bring up this distinction is that many homesteaders tend only to grow herbs, and don’t tackle stocking their own spices. Don’t get me wrong, herbs are fantastic because they don’t take long to grow, are easy to harvest and process, and can add complexity and elegance to otherwise simple meals.
It’s just that I think it is also worthwhile for homesteaders to grow and prepare some of their favorite spices too!
Easy to Grow Spices
There are quite a few easy to grow spices you can add to your garden. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Coriander is the seed from the cilantro plant. If you live in warm areas where cilantro bolts easily, you can likely grow great coriander. All you need to do is let your plants bolt, and keep them growing until the seed heads form, and dry.
The seeds are easy to shake from the seed head into a bowl or paper bag to use in cooking later. Plus, if you grow those plants around your cabbage, they are reputed to help deter cabbage moths.
Mustard seeds are the basis of a lot of Indian-style dishes. Again, like coriander, simply let the mustard plants you already grow flower and set seed, then you can stock your own mustard seed spice. Though, if you want to get serious, try growing black mustard seed plants.
You can also use these seeds to make homemade mustard condiments. Mustard flowers are also great early and late season as pollinator food as well!
Cumin is an earthy, pungent spice that brings out the flavor of pork and other meats and beans. It only grows well in locations with long, hot summers. However, you can start seeds indoors four weeks early to get a jump on the season.
This plant is in the parsley family and makes beautiful umbel flowers that attract all sorts of beneficial insects.
Caraway seeds, which are a favorite in sauerkraut and rye bread, can be easily grown in cool weather areas. They also taste great in pickles and used sparingly in meat dishes. They are similar in appearance to cumin, but with a completely different flavor.
Caraway umbel flowers also make great beneficial insect attractors in your herb garden.
Fennel seeds are a key ingredient in Italian sausage, many Indian-style dishes, and many baking recipes. The seeds also make a great post-dinner digestive and breath freshener.
Seed fennel is perennial and extremely easy to grow. Bulb fennel is used more like a root vegetable, but can also be grown for seeds. Generally, fennel doesn’t work well as a companion for most herbs and vegetables, so give it a dedicated space on the outskirts of your garden.
Garlic is a great storage vegetable and can be used in bulb form for most of the year. However, when dehydrated and powdered or minced, it becomes a powerful spice for hearty dishes.
Hardneck garlic, often grown for the scapes, doesn’t store as long as softneck varieties. They also tend to be more spicy and savory than hardneck kinds. These traits make softneck garlic a perfect candidate for dehydrating and making into spice. Also, any garlic heads with the damaged skins can store longer when dried.
Paprika is a magical spice. It doesn’t have a significant amount of flavor on its own. But, when paired with tomatoes or meat, it makes them explode with flavor. It also adds beautiful color to sauces.
Paprika also seems to hold smoky flavor better than just about any other spice. Whenever I want to add a touch of smoke-flavor to a dish, I reach for my smoked paprika.
Paprika is grown from mildly flavored peppers that are dried and powdered. These peppers can also be eaten fresh, though they don’t have as much flavor as other fresh-eating peppers. Paprika style peppers also have particularly papery skins that make them excellent for drying.
You can grow varieties that come from Hungary or Spain. You can also find spicy paprika peppers to dry and use for making homemade Spanish-style Chorizo.
Saffron is one of the most precious and expensive spices on the planet. It is used in more gourmet recipes than you can imagine and adds the best aroma to rice.
Saffron comes from the stigmas of the saffron flower. These flowers are grown from fall-planted corms. They are extremely easy to grow as long as you have hot and relatively dry summers (to keep the bulbs from rotting).
Generally, you can’t buy corms on the open market for Saffron of the finest quality. However, you can get pretty good Spanish saffron corms for about $1 each. On a large scale, it’s painfully labor intensive. However, for a homestead garden, growing and harvesting your own saffron is a breeze.
9. Bay Leaf
Bay leaves come from Bay Laurels. These are shrubby trees that are only hardy to USDA zone 8-11. However, they make great container plants. You can grow them outdoors in good weather and then bring them into sunny locations indoors to overwinter. They also grow well in greenhouses.
No self-respecting stew is complete without a bay leaf or two for aroma. They also make great decorations and aromatic greenery in bouquets.
Lavender is often considered an herb. Yet, by definition, since you use the seeds, it is technically a spice. It’s one of the most beautiful plants you can grow. It has a host of medicinal and calming benefits.
My favorite ways to use it though are to add a few seeds to black tea or steep seeds in goat milk to make lavender ice cream.
Fenugreek is a spice used in curries. It smells like caramelized sugar meets maple syrup. The leaves, often called methi, are also edible. It grows well in areas with long, cool growing seasons.
Just a few seeds, crushed and stirred into butternut squash soup can elevate the sweetness to the level of candy. The seeds themselves are bitter. But the aroma they produce tricks your brain into perceiving more sweetness than is present.
Fresh dill is amazing in sauces and salads. For pickling though, I prefer dill seeds. The vinegar breaks down the seed shells and draws out the potent inner flavor. Ground dill seeds are essential to any homemade Ranch dressing recipe too (in my opinion).
Thankfully, dill is super easy to grow. Just let your dill flower and seed out in hot weather. The seeds shake right off the flower heads when dried and ready for harvest.
Note: To avoid off tastes, don’t grow near wild dog fennel or cultivated seed fennel. It cross-pollinates and spoils the seeds.
Like paprika, cayenne peppers are grown, harvested, and dried for use as ground cayenne pepper. A half teaspoon is usually enough to make knock-out chili!
Be careful when processing though. Wear gloves and grind in well-ventilated areas. Do not – I repeat – do not touch any part of your body when handling dried cayenne (particularly not your eyes). Trust me, I had a friend in the hospital with eye damage for making this mistake!
14. Juniper Berry
Juniper berries grow on juniper bushes. They are blue in color when fresh and turn dark purple to almost black when dried. They are the base flavor of most gins. But, they also make a mean stew.
If you make pâté or head cheese, juniper is one of the most essential spices to make your meat aromatic and flavorful.
Ginger is a rhizome that grows well in warm, humid climates. Below USDA planting zone 8, you’ll need to grow it indoors or in a greenhouse.
Even for those who don’t have gardens, since it only requires shallow soil for planting and constant moisture, it’s easy to cultivate on any size homestead. Fresh ginger is a must for kombucha makers. For anyone who makes curries or desserts, though, dried and powdered ginger is an essential spice.
Turmeric is also a rhizome grown in similar conditions to ginger. No curry would be complete without it. But I also use it in many of my meat stocks for added flavor, body, and health benefits. The rhizomes you harvest are small and dry well. They also grind up a bit easier than ginger.
17. Star Anise
If you do have a greenhouse and can keep conditions above USDA Zone 9, growing some star anise in the shade of other plants is worth trying. It’s a pretty plant, and it’s seed pods are both beautiful and delectable, particularly in many Asian recipes. It’s also great for use in potpourri.
Sesame seeds are technically grain seeds. They can be ground up and used to make tahini. They can be pressed to produce oil. However, they are also often toasted and used as a seasoning for Asian dishes like Sesame chicken.
Sesame requires hot weather to flourish. The seeds are usually direct planted after all risk of frost has passed. Plants can also grow to 6 feet tall, so they need some room. Southern growers tend to have the best luck growing sesame seeds.
Sumac berries come from the sumac tree. These trees grow like weeds in my neck of the woods (Northwestern North Carolina). I have about 20 on my property, but you won’t hear me complaining.
That’s because when dried and ground into powder, they add a lemony flavor and beautiful red color to Mediterranean dishes. Mixed with olive oil and poured over tahini is my favorite way to use this special spice. (You can also use the fresh berries to make a lemonade tasting beverage.)
Growing your own vanilla might be a stretch for most of us. But, if you are up for the challenge and can create the right conditions, it’s worth a try.
Vanilla is incredibly expensive. But what would Crème Brûlée or Vanilla ice cream be without it? Or how about chocolate chip cookies for that matter?
The best way to use it is to partially dehydrate the pods, to about the moisture level of figs or raisins. Then, cut the pods open and use the grains inside in lieu of that entirely inadequate substitute called “extract.”
3 Ways to Stock Up on Spices
Even if you can’t grow your own, or can only grow a few different spices each year, there are better ways to get your spices than in jars at the grocery store.
Here are a few options to consider.
- Many ethnic grocery stores offer a much larger variety of spices, in bulk packaging and at lower prices than your typical American supermarket.
- Buying online from bulk retailers and herbal medicine sites will often get you better quality at better prices.
- If you have any bulk dried goods stores around you, or any buyers clubs (e.g., Costco, BJ’s), you can often get twice the quantity of spice for half the price of your local grocery.
No matter how you get your spices, proper storage is key to retaining their freshness. Use airtight containers. Downsize to smaller containers as you use up your spices.
Store your containers out of direct light. Avoid temperature fluctuations. Close immediately after use to preserve aromas.
These things can all help your spices last longer. However, in my case, since I use them every day, I tend to turn them over quickly enough that they never lose their flavor. For, me good organization is even more important than proper storage techniques.
I keep mine in pint size mason jars or small plastic containers. They are clearly labeled and organized in alphabetical order so that I can find them quickly. They are also under a cabinet, out of direct light, on top of my counter so I can reach them while cooking.
For me, the best storage method is the one that makes it easiest for you to access your easy to grow spices. May spice bring variety to your dining life!