Name your favorite, coziest holiday treat or beverage and you can bet that one or more of these spices are the main feature. This festive time simply wouldn’t be the same without the scents and tastes of nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, ginger, or allspice. From gingerbread cookies to wassail, and pumpkin pie to mulled cider, the stars of each dish are undeniably the heirloom spices of our shared and blended histories. Perhaps that’s why they do so well, serving in tandem with the holidays, in drawing people close in unity and memory.
But there’s probably a lot you don’t know about these famous spices. Here’s the inside “scoop.”
If you’re like me, you immediately assumed that allspice was simply a blend of “all” the holiday spices, but you’d be wrong. Pumpkin pie spice is actually the ready-made go-to blend of all our favorite seasonings: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves.
Despite its deceptive name, allspice is in fact made from a berry belonging to a plant in the pimento family: Pimenta dioica. The dried allspice berry can be used whole for flavoring and garnish in select dishes such as spiced cider or mulled wine, or for pickling and brining, but it is more commonly used in its ground powder form.
The taste of allspice is suited for sweet and savory dishes. Its flavor is similar to that of pepper as well as the taste of its seasonal contemporaries (except ginger). Other names for allspice are “Jamaican pepper” and “newspice” and for substitution you actually could get away with making a blend of the trifecta: cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg.
The powder form of cinnamon is made from the ground bark of a Cinnamon tree, of which there are hundreds of varieties. Cassia Cinnamon is the variety that we’re most used to in the U.S., while Ceylon Cinnamon is a favorite in Europe, Mexico, and Asia. The popularity of Cassia is largely due to its comparative affordability, its robust cinnamon taste and aesthetic in stick form, and its Coumarin content (5%).
Coumarin, a blood thinner, is often used for weight loss as a metabolism booster, but too much can cause liver damage. The liver risks are a reason why Ceylon, in comparison, is gaining traction in the U.S., though more expensive. It has lower Coumarin levels (.04%) and a naturally sweeter taste.
Like cinnamon trees, nutmeg trees are evergreens that thrive in tropical climates. They are native to the rainforests of the Indonesian “Spice Islands” in the South Pacific, and are scientifically called Myristica fragrans, and for good reason. The fragrance of nutmeg is powerfully aromatic and the spice has historically been used for its aphrodisiac and curative properties as well.
While many of the health properties of nutmeg are indeed grounded in fact, early merchants of the spice touted it as a miracle cure for the plague. Combined with other lofty claims, its reputation and low-availability made the spice a luxury item worth its weight in gold and a prominent feature of the 16th and 17th century “Spice Wars.”
Nutmeg powder is the ground up seeds of the nutmeg fruit, and are a good source of antioxidant, disease-preventing, and essential nutrients.
Cloves are also native to the Spice Islands and featured in the Spice Wars as countries fought for control of the profitable trade. Whole cloves are the dried bud of the flower from the Syzygium aromaticum tree and has been used for millennia in India and China not only in cuisine, but as a remedy for tooth decay and halitosis. Today, the known health benefits of cloves include:
- Improved digestion
- Blood sugar control
- Liver protection
- Bone strength
- Oral disease protection
- Immune system boost
Another versatile spice, ginger is famously applicable to sweet and savory cuisine alike. It also has a long, rich history as a medicinal plant due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It is known scientifically as Zingiber officinale and originates from Southern Asia.
Ginger powder, which is derived from the dried out ginger root, has been used in many different ways as an aid in achieving weight loss goals, relieving headaches and chest pain, boosting immunity, and perhaps more traditionally, soothing nausea and upset stomach.