Imagine basking in the warm Spanish sun as you take a bite of paella, its vibrant colors and tantalizing flavors brought to life by an array of herbs and spices. A closer look at Spanish cuisine reveals a multitude of carefully chosen seasonings that make each dish sing. If you’re a culinary explorer, this guide will introduce you to the world of Spanish herbs and spices, with an emphasis on their flavor profiles, uses, and the dishes they enhance.
🔪 List of Spanish Herbs and Spices
The red gold of the spice world, saffron is an essential component of Spanish cuisine. Its unique, slightly sweet flavor and vivid color bring dishes like paella and fabada to life. Hand-harvested from the crocus flower, saffron threads infuse a vibrant yellow color and a subtle earthy sweetness, making it an irreplaceable ingredient in many traditional Spanish dishes.
2. Paprika (Pimentón)
Whether sweet (Pimentón Dulce) or smoked (Pimentón de la Vera), paprika is a defining ingredient in Spanish cooking. This ground spice, derived from dried red peppers, offers a sweet, slightly smoky flavor, used liberally in dishes like patatas bravas, chorizo sausage, and Galician octopus.
Garlic, though not exclusive to Spain, is a key player in Spanish kitchens. Its strong, pungent flavor forms the backbone of many dishes, including gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp), pollo al ajillo (garlic chicken), and alioli, a garlic and olive oil sauce often served with seafood and potatoes.
This bright, slightly peppery herb is a common sight in Spanish recipes. Parsley adds a fresh, grassy note to a multitude of dishes, such as the fish stew known as zarzuela de mariscos, and is an essential ingredient in salsa verde.
5. Bay Leaves
Bay leaves, both fresh and dried, are widely used in Spanish cuisine to infuse dishes with their warm and slightly floral aroma. You’ll find them in slow-cooked dishes like fabada asturiana, a rich bean stew, and in the preparation of pickled vegetables, like banderillas.
Thyme’s earthy, slightly minty flavor profile is an integral part of Spanish cuisine. It is used in a variety of meat dishes, soups, and stews. Thyme pairs particularly well with lamb and can be found in many roast meat recipes and tomato-based sauces.
Aromatic and slightly peppery, rosemary is a favorite in Spanish cuisine. Used in roasts and stews, its strong pine-like flavor enhances meats, particularly lamb. Rosemary also features in the famous dish of patatas a lo pobre, where potatoes are slowly fried with onions, green peppers, and plenty of this fragrant herb.
Although used sparingly, cumin holds a vital place in Spanish kitchens. Its warm, earthy flavor and strong aroma are prominent in many dishes from Andalusia, often used in moor-inspired dishes like pinchitos morunos (Moorish skewers).
Oregano is another important herb in Spanish cooking. It lends a balsamic depth to dishes and is frequently used in Spanish tomato sauces and marinades. Oregano often shows up in tapas dishes and brings a touch of Mediterranean flavor to Spanish pizza.
Cilantro, also known as coriander, is primarily used in the southern regions of Spain. It’s aromatic, citrusy notes are frequently found in soups, sauces, and fresh salads. Ajo blanco, a traditional white gazpacho from Andalusia, often gets a sprinkling of chopped cilantro before serving.
11. Fennel Seeds
Fennel seeds carry a mild anise flavor, lending a sweet, earthy note to Spanish dishes. They’re often used in baking but also show up in slow-cooked stews and soups. In Catalonia, fennel seeds are used in the production of a traditional sweet anise bread called ‘pa de fetge’.
In Spain, nutmeg is affectionately referred to as ‘nuez moscada.’ This spice is sweet, warm, and slightly woodsy. It’s traditionally used in Spanish baking, lending a rich depth to cakes and bread. Nutmeg also makes its way into béchamel sauce, a creamy addition to dishes like croquetas.
13. Sesame Seeds
Sesame seeds, or ‘semillas de sésamo,’ are used in Spanish cuisine to add a nutty flavor and a delicate crunch to dishes. They’re often sprinkled over ensalada mixta (mixed salad) or used in baking traditional bread and cookies.
14. Cayenne Pepper
Cayenne pepper brings a hot punch to Spanish dishes. Although Spanish cuisine isn’t typically spicy, a pinch of cayenne in gambas pil pil (prawns in hot chili oil) or patatas bravas adds a vibrant kick that highlights the other flavors without overwhelming them.
Cloves, known as ‘clavos’ in Spanish, are used sparingly due to their strong, sweet, and slightly bitter flavor. Cloves are a key ingredient in making sweet Spanish pastries, and are also found in some savory dishes, like the hearty meat stew, estofado.
Anise is a popular spice in Spain for its sweet, slightly spicy, licorice-like flavor. It’s mainly used in baking and dessert recipes, as well as in the production of anise-flavored liqueurs like Anís del Mono.
While turmeric isn’t native to Spain, this vibrant, earthy spice has found a home in Spanish kitchens. It’s often used as a more economical substitute for saffron, providing a similar color to dishes like arroz a la cubana and even some versions of paella.
18. Juniper Berries
Juniper berries bring a fresh, pine-like flavor to Spanish dishes. They’re commonly used in the preparation of game meats, giving dishes like conejo en salmorejo (rabbit in salmorejo sauce) a distinctive, forest-like flavor.
Peppercorns, both black and white, are used widely across Spanish cuisine. They add a spicy kick to dishes, used in everything from simple tomato sauces to more elaborate dishes like cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig).
20. Caraway Seeds
Although not as common, caraway seeds are used in some regional Spanish dishes. These small seeds have a warm, slightly sweet, and anise-like flavor. They’re often used in stews and to flavor traditional Spanish sausages.
That’s it for our flavorful journey through Spanish herbs and spices! Remember, the true joy of cooking comes from the freedom to experiment, so don’t hesitate to try these spices in your kitchen and experience the magic they bring to your dishes.
Cardamom, ‘cardamomo’ in Spanish, is a spice often used in dessert recipes. Its warm, slightly sweet flavor pairs wonderfully with chocolate, making it a star ingredient in some versions of Spanish hot chocolate. It’s also a key flavor in certain types of traditional Christmas turrones.
22. Star Anise
Star anise brings a sweet, spicy flavor to Spanish dishes. While not traditionally a Spanish spice, it’s often used in modern interpretations of recipes, particularly in desserts and sweet sauces.
23. Mustard Seeds
Mustard seeds, while not extensively used in traditional Spanish cooking, have started to gain popularity in modern Spanish kitchens. Their tangy, slightly spicy flavor adds complexity to marinades, pickled vegetables, and meat rubs.
Dill, known as ‘eneldo’ in Spanish, is used in some regional Spanish cuisines, especially in fish and seafood dishes. It’s also used in ensaladilla rusa, a Spanish take on the Russian salad.
Allspice is a relatively new addition to the Spanish kitchen, but it’s gaining popularity for its unique flavor that combines the tastes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. It’s used in baking, as well as to spice up dishes like stews and roasts.
Fenugreek isn’t common in Spanish cuisine, but it’s used in some regional dishes, particularly in stews and curries inspired by North African cuisine. It has a unique, slightly bitter, nutty flavor.
27. Coriander Seeds
Coriander seeds are used in some Spanish dishes, particularly those that show Moorish influence. Their warm, nutty, and slightly citrusy flavor complements dishes like fideuà, a noodle paella from Valencia.
28. Celery Seeds
Celery seeds are used sparingly in Spanish cuisine, mainly in pickling and brining. Their strong, savory flavor adds a depth to dishes like escabeche (marinated fish or meat).
29. Poppy Seeds
Poppy seeds add a nutty flavor and a crunchy texture to Spanish baking. They’re often found in bread rolls and sweet pastries.
Remember, the use of these spices can vary significantly from one region to another within Spain, reflecting the country’s diverse culinary heritage.
🧾 Facts about Spanish Herbs and Spices
- Spain is one of the world’s largest producers of saffron, and La Mancha saffron is recognized as some of the finest globally.
- Paprika, or Pimentón, has a Protected Designation of Origin status in Spain, ensuring it meets quality standards and is genuinely from the region.
- Spain’s diverse climates and regions contribute to the variety of herbs and spices used in the country’s cuisine.
- Many Spanish dishes are centered around one key spice or herb, showcasing its flavor rather than combining many.
- Spanish cuisine favors fresh herbs over dried ones, which contributes to the vibrant flavors of Spanish dishes.
- Garlic is so beloved in Spain that there’s an annual garlic festival, Las Pedroñeras, in Cuenca.
- Parsley, beyond being a culinary herb, is also appreciated for its medicinal properties.
- The use of cumin in Spanish cuisine is largely due to the influence of the Moors, who ruled parts of Spain for nearly 800 years.
- The Canary Islands have their unique spice blend, Mojo, which uses a variety of these herbs and spices.
- Traditional Spanish kitchens often have an herb garden, reflecting the importance of fresh herbs in Spanish cuisine.
💡 Tips about Using Spanish Herbs and Spices
- Fresh over Dried: Spanish cooking typically favors fresh herbs, which provide a brighter flavor.
- Quality Matters: For spices like saffron and paprika, invest in good quality. The flavor difference is significant.
- Grind Your Spices: Grinding whole spices as needed ensures a fresher, stronger flavor.
- Balancing Flavors: Spanish cuisine is about balanced flavors. If a spice or herb is dominant in a dish, it’s usually paired with simple ingredients.
- Heat and Time: Many Spanish dishes benefit from slow cooking, which allows the flavors of herbs and spices to fully infuse the dish.
- Experiment: Spanish cuisine is diverse. Don’t be afraid to experiment with these herbs and spices in your dishes.
Discovering the flavors of Spanish herbs and spices can transport you to the sunny landscapes of Spain. Remember, the joy of cooking comes from experimentation, so feel free to mix and match these spices and herbs and see how they can transform your dishes. Enjoy your culinary journey through Spain, one spice at a time.