Baking Spices 101

Everything you need to know about the most common spices used in baking.

Everything you need to know about the most common spices used in baking.

The volatile flavor compounds in spices turn dull over time, a process that accelerates once the spices are ground. This isn’t a big deal with spices you use all the time, like cinnamon. But if you use such assertive baking spices as cloves and nutmeg only occasionally, and then with restraint, consider buying whole spices and pulverizing them to order—dedicate a coffee grinder to the task. Otherwise, label the jar of ground spices with the date you bought it, store it in a cool, dark place, and throw out any you haven’t used after a year.


Unless labeled Ceylon, most cinnamon sold in this country is really cassia, not true cinnamon: Cassia is more robust and cheaper to produce (both are the dried bark of tropical evergreens). We use cinnamon so often when baking, we avoid the bother of grinding it ourselves; it’d never get the fine, powdery consistency we want. We like stick cinnamon for mulling cider and wine, poaching fruit, and in some pan sauces and marinades.


A little nutmeg goes a long way, so measure it carefully. You can grate such small amounts from a whole nutmeg in almost the same time it’d take you to measure ground nutmeg—and the flavor will shine. Nutmeg graters work fine, but if you’d rather not dedicate a tool to a single task, use a rasp-style grater (also called a Microplane), which efficiently grates chocolate, hard cheeses, and garlic as well. On the savory side, nutmeg is often used to season spinach or béchamel sauce.


Dried ginger is sharper and less floral than fresh; because of profound differences in moisture, pungency, and flavor, they are not interchangeable in recipes. We sometimes supplement the dried ginger in gingerbread or gingersnaps with grated fresh ginger, and occasionally, crystallized ginger.


We use whole cloves to flavor stocks and to stud hams more frequently than we reach for ground cloves when we’re baking. Pungent, potent, and peppery, cloves make such a statement in baked goods, we use them sparingly. You can pulverize whole cloves in a coffee grinder. They’re so strong that toasting them first is not necessary.

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