Unexpected Grill Seasonings

These spice rack standards add a surprising—and welcome—complexity to spice rubs and sauces.

These spice rack standards add a surprising—and welcome—complexity to spice rubs and sauces.

Your spice rack holds hidden treasures that can add depth, complexity, and unexpected dimensions to grilled foods. As a general rule, add whole spices to sauces and glazes as they are cooking, and use ground spices in rubs and marinades.


In the United States, we usually reserve cinnamon for sweets, but in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, it often flavors savory foods. Add it to a basic spice rub of ground cumin and coriander for grilled chicken or pork, or use it in a garlicky marinade for lamb or eggplant. A cinnamon stick infuses barbecue sauces and glazes with its sweet-hot flavor.

White Pepper

In some quarters, white pepper retains its musty reputation as a spice used in white sauce (where specks of black pepper would stand out) and little else. But its flavor, which has hints of citrus and pleasing bitterness, is a better reason to use it. Black and white pepper are berries from the same plant (Piper nigrum); white peppercorns are harvested at a riper stage. We like to combine white, black, and cayenne pepper to add complexity to spice rubs and sauces. White pepper also complements grilled seafood.


It’s no coincidence that allspice is a core ingredient in Jamaican jerk seasoning (along with hot chiles and thyme): Jamaica is the world’s top producer of allspice, which is the berry of an evergreen shrub. These pea-size berries got their name because they taste like a combination of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. A few allspice berries add a lot of flavor to cooked marinades, spice rubs, and finishing sauces.

Star Anise

Star anise, a staple spice in the Chinese pantry and the dominant flavor in five-spice powder, has a warm licorice flavor that suits pork and poultry. Simmer whole pods in barbecue sauce and glazes (the flavor works particularly well with citrus) or grind the pods to use in spice rubs.

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