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I know what spices like garlic and black pepper are, and what foods you typically put them in. But spices like cardamom, rosemary, thyme, paprika, etc., completely elude me. I haven't found a good resource yet that explains all of them. Is there some kind of "spice cheat sheet" out there that I can tape to my kitchen cabinet?

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This to me, is one of the best questions about learning to cook. –  JYelton Jul 9 '10 at 20:37
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7 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

It's not a "cheat sheet", and is rather too big to stick to your fridge, but I highly recommend the book The Flavor Bible, which is an encyclopedia of exactly these associations. What ingredients does any particular ingredient go with? How do you cook it? Absolutely terrific book!

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Exactly what I was going to suggest when I opened up this question! The #1 most useful book in my kitchen. –  keithjgrant Mar 9 '11 at 1:57
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First, trust your nose. Smell the food you're cooking. Open the spice and sniff above it (but not too close, and don't sneeze!). If they smell good together, they usually taste good together. If you're working with products you can't taste test (like raw meat), either wait until the food is cooked to season, or be very conservative in your early experiments.

Second, find a dish you want to create. Search google for several recipes and look for spices they have in common, and spices that are unique. That should give you some ideas on what to experiment with.

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+1 for most of this, except for “be very conservative in your early experiments”! Especially when things are difficult to taste-test, I think being a bit reckless in early experimenting helps — it does mean you (and perhaps your family) will get the occasional flawed dish, but you will learn a lot about taste from it, and find your way to better spice use much faster! –  PLL Mar 7 '11 at 22:18
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To piggyback on Tim Gilbert's answer, my wife will actually open two spice jars and hold one up to each nostril at the same time, to see if they smell like they would go together. More often than not, she picks out good combinations.

Since there have been some great comprehensive links I don't think I have much more to add to your specific question about finding a list, but in my experience the best way is to make two of each dish when you cook.

Say I want to learn how to use ginger. I search online for a recipe that uses ginger. In a large pan (pot, casserole, whatever) I'll make the recipe as directed. In another pan, I'll follow the same recipe (but a much, much smaller portion) without the ginger.

When I taste both side by side, I can see what kind of difference the ginger made. It's kind of a reverse engineering approach, and it will definitely take time and practice, but when you have the opportunity I recommend trying this way. Great learning experience.

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I have one of the Betty Crocker books which dedicates several pages in the back to exactly this. I highly recommend getting something like this. Here are a few good ones online also:

http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/foods/he198w.htm

http://www.joyofbaking.com/IngredientSubstitution.html

http://lancaster.unl.edu/food/ciqsubs.shtml

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Those are some nice links –  Kryptic Jul 10 '10 at 20:48
    
Those seem to all be ingredient substitution links, not about when to use spices –  Casebash Jul 26 '10 at 11:32
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Experiment. Experiment, experiment, experiment, experiment!

Recipes and cheat-sheets can give ideas and guide your experimenting, but nothing else will help you really get to know the tastes of the spices and develop your olfactory imagination.

Even experiments that fail can be well worthwhile. Once when I was camping, the lid of a pepper container fell off and my stew (leek and potato, iirc) got about about ten times as much (ground) black pepper as I would ever normally put — at least a good tablespoonful, in two people’s worth of stew. Since we had very limited supplies, there was nothing for it but to go along and eat what chance had given us. In fact, while it was a bit too much pepper, it was not bad at all, and very interesting, opening my eyes to aspects of the flavour that I’d never been aware of before. I’ve had a better understanding of black pepper ever since, and been able to use it in many more ways — though never yet in such quantities again!

(I hasten to add: I’d never normally advise using pre-ground pepper, if you have a choice — but our provisions on this trip were constrained to a quick shop at a remote roadhouse, so a nice grinder wasn’t really an option.)

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I got a cheap pepper grinder a few months ago, and WOW does it make a difference! I still have a more expensive pepper grinder on my wish list, because my cheap plastic one is about to fall apart. Absolutely agree with you there. –  Judy Apr 18 '11 at 4:38
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I second Harlan's recommendation for the The Flavor Bible. And a blatent plug here: http://www.spicesherpa.com is a site and blog dedicated to providing small bits of fun spice information and pairing guides. :-) For example, I just released a post on 10 Awesome Coriander Combinations.

It's a way to get learn about spices, flavor combinations a little bit at a time so you don't get overwhelmed. And it's definitely written for those who prefer easy in the kitchen.

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Thanks for the tip, I'll check it out. –  Judy Apr 1 '11 at 0:47
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I recently bought The Flavour Thesaurus and am finally getting a chance to get into it. It is not exhaustive, limiting itself to 99 flavours, and it is organised a lot like Roget's Thesaurus; each flavour has entries for several flavours that work well with it. Many entries have either full or brief recipes. There is a good index of flavours for cross-referencing, a general index and an extensive bibliography. One thing to note is that the entries are written in quite a familiar style, some may find this annoying, but I thought that many of them hit the mark.
While not an encyclopaedic reference tome, it is a very interesting introduction to the combination of flavours and by virtue of the number of things that are on my list to try out, a great way to get one the brain and the taste buds thinking.

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