Essential Herbs, Spices, and Flavorings for Your Plant-Based Kitchen

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Seven years ago, my doctor told me to purchase a cemetery plot because I would likely need one within the next five years. I consulted with a naturopathic doctor for a second opinion. At the time, I weighed 340 pounds, my waist was 52 inches, my total cholesterol was about 400, and I was taking 15 different medications, including insulin for type 2 diabetes. Instead of more drugs, my new doctor prescribed a plant-based diet and a shelter dog, and taught me how to cook using only whole plants. Following my new doctor’s advice, I dropped from 340 pounds to 185 pounds in less than one year, got off all medications, reversed my type 2 diabetes, lowered my total cholesterol to 114, and reduced my waistline to 33 inches. By following the same plan, I have sustained my weight and health at my new levels for six years. 

As I learned how to cook without animal products, I also learned that it does not require advanced culinary skills to make food taste good by adding bacon, a stick of butter, or a cup of cream or sugar. I immersed myself in cooking classes and found the chefs with the greatest skills to be those who could make healthy plant-based dishes that were also delicious. These modern, advanced chefs make food come alive from an advanced understanding of the different flavors and aromas. They do this by different combinations of herbs, spices, and other flavoring ingredients.

Significant research supports the beneficial medicinal use of herbs, spices and other plants, such as turmeric, ginger, garlic, turmeric, ginger, garlic, cayenne and seaweed, in our diet. In addition to great nutrition and medicinal benefits, herbs and spices provide the best way to flavor foods.

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As described in my new book Walking with Peety, the Dog Who Saved My Life, I talk in detail about my struggle with weight and how I finally overcame it, once and for all. I’m excited to share with you essential herbs, spices, and flavorings for your plant-based kitchen that have become a staple in my life and kitchen. My weight loss plan was possible with the ingredients listed below. 

Essential Herbs, Spices, and Flavorings for Your Plant-Based Kitchen

I recommend purchasing whole spices when possible, rather than powdered spices, and grinding them in small quantities as needed to maximize flavor and fragrance. You can quickly and efficiently grind spices using an electric spice grinder. I usually grind no more spices than I will use in a month or less, and with infrequently used spices, I only grind what I need for a dish. Buying pre-ground spices and using them over a long period is similar to brewing coffee long after it has been ground or drinking a good bottle of wine months after uncorking it –the flavor and aromas of these products dissipate over time, or become rancid.

With herbs, I use fresh rather than dried flakes when convenient, especially with herbs such as basil, rosemary, Italian parsley and cilantro.  But there are great reasons to use dried herbs, especially since fresh herbs in clamshell packages at the supermarket are expensive, and dried herbs can provide more intense and concentrated flavors and fragrances than fresh herbs. To achieve equal intensity between fresh and dried herbs, use three times more fresh herbs than dried flakes.

I always buy organic herbs and spices when available, since non-organic products may have been grown using pesticides and are commonly subjected to irradiation and other preservation methods. I buy my herbs and spices locally, in bulk, from specialty stores with good product turnover to ensure maximal freshness. Rather than purchase spice mixes such as Italian seasoning, Herbs de Provence, chili powder, and curry powder, I create my own mixtures as needed. It’s easy to do this: when a recipe calls for an herb and spice mix, just Google the mix name. Find  the recipe and process the individual ingredients using your electric spice mill.

 

Worldwide Herbs and Spices:

I use the worldwide collection of herbs and spices in the forms specified below to create meals with fresh, intense flavor, from plant-based recipes I create, adapt or find on the Internet:

  • Allspice berries
  • Basil flakes
  • Bay leaves, whole
  • Black peppercorns, whole
  • Cardamom seeds, green and black
  • Cayenne powder
  • Chipotle chili flakes
  • Cilantro flakes
  • Cinnamon, Ceylon, powder and whole sticks
  • Cloves, whole
  • Coriander seeds
  • Cumin seeds
  • Dill weed flakes
  • Fennel seeds
  • Fenugreek seeds
  • Garlic powder
  • Ginger powder
  • Gumbo filé (sassafras root)
  • Lavender, flowers
  • Mace, ground
  • Marjoram flakes
  • Mint flakes, peppermint, and spearmint
  • Mustard seeds
  • Nutmeg, whole
  • Onion flakes
  • Oregano flakes
  • Paprika, Hungarian, smoked spice and smoked sweet
  • Parsley flakes
  • Red pepper flakes
  • Rosemary flakes
  • Saffron threads
  • Sage flakes
  • Salt, kosher, sea salt, and Himalayan
  • Seaweed, kombu sticks and dulse flakes
  • Sesame seeds, white and black, whole
  • Sichuan (Szechuan) peppercorns
  • Star anise, whole pods
  • Summer savory flakes
  • Tarragon flakes
  • Thyme flakes
  • Turmeric powder
  • Vanilla, whole beans and extract

Other condiments and flavorings in my pantry include:

Miso:

Miso is a concentrated form of fermented soybeans, but they also make it using grains such as wheat, so if you need gluten-free be sure to always read labels. The texture of miso is thick and paste-like. I keep both dark and white miso in my refrigerator – typically, the darker the miso, the stronger the flavor.  I use darker miso for heavier dishes, and lighter miso for soups, salad dressings, marinades, and sauces.

Mustards:

I love mustards and use different types in different ways, for example, in salad dressings, with diced pickles in mayonnaise-free potato salad, and on baked potatoes with salt. If you think about it, mustard tastes great on soft baked pretzels, so why not also try it on potatoes? My pantry is always stocked with varieties of plain yellow, stone ground and Dijon mustards, in addition to mustard seed and powder.

Nutritional yeast:

Nutritional yeast is a deactivated yeast with a strong cheesy flavor, and makes a delicious garnish and ingredient for pastas, sauces, and other foods. Nutritional yeast is one of the few vegan food sources of vitamin B-12, an essential nutrient for the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system.  Be sure to supplement your diet with B-12 drops and also use nutritional yeast often in cooking.  Please note that nutritional yeast is not the same as brewer’s yeast or active yeast. Brewer’s yeast has a bitter flavor rather than a cheesy flavor, and you use active yeast to leaven bread.

Sriracha chili sauce:

My palate and tastes changed dramatically after I switched to a plant-based diet. As an omnivore, I hated the taste of spicy food, and never understood why anyone ate it. Then after my transition to a plant-based diet, a Vietnamese friend talked me into trying Sriracha sauce, and I was hooked.  Now, I use it to spice up many foods, especially Asian and Latin cuisines. A little of this condiment goes a long way!

Sweeteners:

All sugars are processed with all fiber and most nutrients removed, and should be only be used as needed for occasional treats and to make dishes palatable. I strictly avoid white sugar, since many brands are bleached or whitened using bone char from cows.

  • Maple syrup: Maple syrup is sap from a maple tree that has been boiled down to concentrate the sugars, and is an excellent replacement for brown sugar. Be certain to only purchase 100% pure maple syrup and not maple-flavored pancake syrup. Maple-flavored syrup often includes little or no maple. Instead, they make it using high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and preservatives.  Real maple syrup was previously sold in three grades of Grade A and one of Grade B. The USDA recently revised this grading system, and now they sell all maple syrup as Grade A based on color designations: Grade A Amber Color, Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Color, and Grade A Very Dark Color. The Very Dark Color is formerly Grade B, which I prefer because it has the strongest flavor and most concentrated nutrients.
  • Agave syrup: I use light agave nectar when I need a clean tasting, unflavored sweetener. Agave nectar is about 1.5 times sweeter than sugar and is a perfect plant-based substitution for honey.
  • Molasses: Molasses is a by-product of sugar production and includes several essential nutrients. I use it sparingly for its distinct, heavy flavor. Be sure to look for unsulphured molasses.
  • Medjool dates: An ancient fruit harvested from date palm trees, these make an excellent sweetener.  Be sure to pit them first then mix with your recipe in a high-speed blender
  • Palm sugar: This is a dried sugar refined from the sap of palm trees. I use palm sugar when I need a dry sugar for spice rubs.

Tamari and Soy:

Most soy sauce is brewed from equal amounts of soy and wheat, and therefore is not gluten free. Tamari is generally darker and richer than soy sauce, and they brew it without wheat, so it is gluten free. I love tamari and enjoy it as a primary flavor in all Asian cuisine.  I also keep a bottle of Bragg’s Liquid Aminos in my pantry. You can use this gluten-free, plant-based product can just like tamari and soy sauce.

Thai curry paste:

There is no standard definition or ingredient list for “curry” – all curries are mixtures of different herbs and spices with ingredients influenced by the culture of origin. A curry spice mix used in Indian cuisine will have entirely different characteristics than a curry paste used in Thai cuisine.  I came to love Thai food after discovering how easy it is to order plant-based cuisine in Thai restaurants – all include tofu on their menus, and most know exactly what you mean when you say “vegan”. Red and green curry paste is a powerfully flavorful, popular ingredient in Thai cuisine.

Traditionally, Thai curries are made by slowly pounding ingredients into a paste using a large mortar and pestle.  While the traditional method will produce an extraordinarily flavorful and aromatic paste, it involves more work than I am willing to do, so instead I usually purchase the Thai Kitchen brand of red and green curry pastes, which are vegan, gluten free, and available at most grocery stores.

Vinegars:

Sugar in fruits and other plants can be fermented into alcohol, then bacteria can convert the alcohol into vinegar. A weak acetic acid remains after this process, leaving some flavors of the originally fermented product. It is this acid that gives vinegar a tangy or tart taste and an almost indefinite shelf life. I rarely use white vinegar (made from diluted grain alcohol) for cooking because it has little flavor. Instead, I reserve white vinegar for cleaning and use the following vinegars for cooking: 

  • Apple cider vinegar: Made from apples, this is the most popular vinegar. It has a light, fruity tart flavor, and is great for salad dressings, condiments, and marinades.
  • Red wine vinegar: Made from red wine, I especially love this variety as an ingredient in tomato sauce, salsa, and fruity salad dressings.
  • Balsamic vinegar: The quality and price of balsamic vinegars vary widely based on what it is made from and how long it has been aged, if at all. Commercial varieties are typically priced at $10 to $20 for a good-sized bottle. Artisanal, cask aged balsamics can sell for many times that price. The uses for this product are too broad to list and beyond the scope of this guide. I suggest sampling some varieties at a local specialty store and buy what you enjoy and can afford.
  • Rice wine vinegar: With a clear or light-yellow color, rice wine vinegar sold in the US generally has a clean, mild flavor that I enjoy with sushi, stir fry, Asian marinades, and salad dressings.

Wines for cooking:

When you use wine for cooking, the alcohol reacts with heat before evaporating to add complex, deep flavors to a dish. I only cook with wine I would consider drinking, and generally avoid wines labeled “cooking wines”. Those often contain salt and other preservatives and are inferior to drinking wines. The bottom line is that cooking with a good drinking wine will give you a better flavored dish simply because the wine is better. When a recipe calls for wine, I use one of these:

    • Dry red and white wines: For reds, I prefer unoaked cabernet, and for whites, chardonnay or good white table wine.
    • Dry oxidized wines: Marsala and dry sherry add a wonderful flavor depth to cooked vegetables.
    • Rice wines: recipes typically specify either a Japanese or Chinese wine.  If Japanese, the typical product specified is mirin or sake. If Chinese, the most common wine specified is Shaoxing (Shaoshing). Make sure the rice wines you purchase do not include added sugar, as the better products achieve their flavors through fermentation rather than additives.

Eric O’Grey is an inspirational speaker. He has a bachelor of science in finance from San Jose State University and a juris doctor from Emory University. Eric enjoys long-distance running with his dog, Jake; gourmet plant-based cooking; and spending time with his wife, Jaye. He is passionate about animal kindness, plant-based nutrition, and helping others reverse obesity and achieve their optimal weight and happiness. Learn more about Eric and his initiatives at EricandPeety.com and in his new book, Walking with Peety.

You may also be interested in our 7-Day Plant-Based Meal Plan.

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