5 spices to help you cook like a chef

Aliya Lee Kong in the kitchen. (Photo: Michael Creagh)
Aliya Lee Kong in the kitchen Is your usual combo of garlic powder and crushed pepper causing you to yawn every time you throw some veggies on the stove? It might be time to spice up your spice rack.

Chef Aliya LeeKong, a former judge on the Food Network’s Kitchen Casino and the author of Exotic Table: Flavors, Inspiration and Recipes from Around the World to Your Kitchen, obviously knows how to cook like a chef—because she is one.

But she’s imparting her kitchen know-how on you with five spices you may not have tried that will help you cook like a chef and add a ton of flavor to lots of your everyday recipes. (And fret not, you can easily find these spices online.)

“The point is to get the most flavor out of something,” says LeeKong. “An Aleppo chili flake, for example, will give you more interesting and complex flavor than your regular crushed chili flake, and Pimentón de la Vera will give you more smokiness than a jar of paprika from Food Emporium. If you’re talking about cooking like a chef, and ways to enhance an everyday meal, that’s what these spices do.”

Happy sprinkling! —Molly Gallagher

(Photo: Aliya LeeKong by Michael Creagh)


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Aleppo Chili Flakes 1. Aleppo Chili Flakes

LeeKong would liken this spice to an ancho chili. It’s a type of chili flake from Syria, and as opposed to crushed red pepper, these are more of an oily red, with a glisten to them, she says.

“It adds adds a little fruitiness and smokiness with its heat. It [adds] the right amount of heat to a dish, so you don’t feel like you’re overpowering it,” LeeKong says, and suggests using it to saute broccoli or throwing some on top of a pizza (gluten-free, of course).


cardamom 2. Cardamom

You can get Cardamom in a pod form—and grind it yourself, which LeeKong does, because it’s more flavorful that way. But you can also buy it pre-ground in a little jar (if you’re pressed for time, which you probably are!).

“It’s a great winter spice. Part of the flavor that you think of when you think of Cardamom is chai. What I like about it is that I can add it to both savory and sweet dishes,” LeeKong says.

Case in point: She adds it to everything from butternut squash and apple bread (the cardamom and cinnamon balance each other, she says) and stronger flavors of meat, like lamb or beef. “It helps to round out the flavors,” she says. (While you’re at it, you could also add this seed to your beauty routine.)


Pimenton 3. Pimentón de la Vera (smoked paprika)

This is a smoked Spanish paprika that comes in both sweet and hot styles, LeeKong says. The Spanish peppers are smoked and dried before they’re milled. Traditional paprika isn’t smoked, she notes.

“The hot one will add heat, but the sweet flavor will just add smokiness. I throw it in my eggs—and pretty much everything,” LeeKong says. “If I’m doing a dry rub, on chicken, meat, or fish—it’s a great way to add smoke and flavor, without adding a ton of heat to a dish.”


Persian saffron 4. Saffron

This is an amazing spice, LeeKong says. There are a lot of different types, but she tends to prefer Persian saffron because it’s drier, so she can really grind it up into a powder.

“I’ll add it to a soup. Some people use it in kebobs or different marinades. It has a floral flavor to it,” LeeKong says. “Say you are stewing chicken, you would throw it into the liquid as the soup is cooking. You wouldn’t just take saffron and slap it on a piece of steak.”


ground vanilla bean 5. Ground Vanilla Bean

Okay, so you might not use vanilla extract that often, but it’s delicious in sweet dishes or for your overnight jar of oats. Now you can buy it ground up in a jar instead of by the whole bean, explains LeeKong, which can be hard to find and pricey when you do. “You can use just a little vanilla flavor, and it’s less expensive than buying the whole bean. Grab a pinch and throw it in,” LeeKong says.

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