8 Herbs and Spices You (Likely) Aren’t Using—and Should

inline_spice rackReaders, especially those new to Primal eating, frequently request quick and easy ideas for ancestral cooking. While new recipes may be inspiring, sometimes expanding your kitchen repertoire doesn’t require whole new meals—but new flavors you can infuse into multiple recipes you’ve already mastered. More than just another ingredient to extend the cooking process, herbs and spices are quick, inexpensive additions that can literally transform just about any Primal meal. Parsley and cinnamon need no introduction, but how well acquainted are you with sumac and fenugreek? When was the last time you added lemon balm or Mexican oregano to a recipe?

Here are 8 herbs and spices to add a new burst of flavor to your Primal cooking. They’re easier to use and more versatile than you might think. Most can be found in the spice aisle or produce department of regular grocery stores, but a few might require visiting a specialty market or online shop.

Dried Mexican Oregano

Most of the dried oregano sold in the spice aisle is Mediterranean. Finding Mexican oregano takes more effort, but it’s worth it. The flavor is similar to Mediterranean oregano, but more complex, with hints of citrus. Most importantly, it’s bolder than dried Mediterranean oregano, so it can stand out in highly spiced dishes like chili. To release the most flavor, crush the dried leaves of Mexican oregano between your fingers when sprinkling it into a recipe. Try Mexican oregano in this recipe for sweet potato chili.

Use dried Mexican oregano to flavor: chili, beef roasts, shellfish, chicken, salsa, soup, any Mexican or Tex-Mex recipes calling for oregano

Pairs well with: chili powder, basil, chives, cumin, thyme

Coriander Seeds

Ground coriander is a staple in many spice racks (often next to cumin), but whole coriander seeds should definitely be in the spice rack, too. A little bit perfumed, floral and citrusy, the seeds add a unique burst of flavor that stands out much more than ground coriander does. Toast coriander seeds in a skillet with a little oil for a few minutes to release the flavor and aroma before incorporating the seeds into a dish or sprinkling them over food as a garnish. Try coriander seeds in this recipe for lamb stir-fry.

Use coriander seeds to flavor: roasted vegetables, lamb, pork, shrimp, cabbage, stir-fries, feta cheese, olives

Pairs well with: cumin, cinnamon, allspice, basil, cardamom, peppercorns

Dried Fenugreek Leaves

Not quite as aromatic as fenugreek seeds (which have the unmistakable scent of maple syrup) dried fenugreek leaves have a milder flavor that’s slightly sweet and herbal. Dried fenugreek is a secret ingredient that adds mysteriously delicious flavor. Try it in this recipe for lamb meatballs in coconut fenugreek sauce.

Use fenugreek to flavor: Recipes from India, the Middle East and North Africa, and also in tomato sauces, coconut milk soup or sauces, root vegetables, dark leafy greens, lamb, beef and chicken

Pairs well with: cumin, coriander, cardamom, fennel seeds and turmeric

Mustard Seeds

Mustard seeds flavor pickles and are ground up to make mustard. The seeds can also add a crunchy burst of spicy, nutty flavor to dishes. Toast the seeds in a skillet with oil or butter for 1 to 2 minutes until the seeds begin to pop, then sprinkle them over a finished dish or salad. Look for either yellow/white seeds (mild) or brown mustard seeds (more pungent).

Use mustard seeds to flavor: salads, potatoes, cauliflower, roasted vegetables, onions, dark leafy greens, chicken, pork, fish, sour cream and yogurt

Pairs well with: cumin seeds, coriander seeds, turmeric, curry powder

Pink Peppercorns

Pink peppercorns add eye-catching color and warm heat to food. The flavor is often described as fruity, which makes sense since they’re actually dried berries and not true peppercorns. Pink peppercorns are best used in small amounts to add color and a pop of flavor. Pink peppercorns can be eaten whole or crushed with the flat side of a knife; they’re too soft for a pepper grinder.

Note: pink peppercorns may trigger an allergic response in people with allergies to tree nuts.

Use pink peppercorns as a garnish for: salad, meat (especially game), fish, and cream sauces or add to trail mix or fruit salad for a spicy kick

Pairs well with: ginger, lemongrass


Sumac is not subtle. It adds bright red color and tart, lemony flavor to everything it touches. It’s the spice equivalent of squirting lemon juice on food to brighten up the flavor. Sumac is usually added as a finishing touch to food just before serving. It’s a little bit addictive, making everything taste brighter and bolder. Try it in this recipe for yogurt dressing and turkey kefta.

Use sumac to flavor: raw and cooked vegetables (Try it with Turkish salad), beets, yogurt dressing, lamb, seafood

Pairs well with: thyme, coriander, cumin, chili peppers, mint, marjoram

Lemon Balm

The lemony, minty aroma and flavor of this herb is most often used in tea; just pour hot water over the leaves. Finely chopped lemon balm can also add fresh flavor to salads, chicken and seafood. Lemon balm doesn’t just taste good, it has historically been used to reduce anxiety and lower stress.

Use lemon balm to flavor: Seafood, vegetables, chicken, tea

Pairs well with: Mint, basil, dill

Thai Basil

Thai basil is similar to sweet basil in flavor, but definitely different. The licorice flavor is more pronounced, and there’s a citrusy flavor in there as well. Predominately used in South Asian dishes, the flavor of Thai basil is best if the basil is served raw or gently wilted, so add it at the very end of cooking.

Use Thai basil to flavor: Vietnamese and other South Asian dishes, stir-fries, coconut milk (soups, sauces and curries), sweet peppers, salad, fish, beef

Pairs well with: cilantro, cumin, coriander, fish sauce, ginger, lemongrass, mint, turmeric

Which of these do you use (or would like to) in your cooking? Other herbs and spices you’d recommend for Primal dishes—share them below. Thanks for reading today.


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26 thoughts on “8 Herbs and Spices You (Likely) Aren’t Using—and Should”

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  1. I love spices and I have 6 of 8 on the list (no Mexican oregano)….the bad news is, finding out recently that I should stay away from most. Bummer )-:

  2. Great timing on this article. I am going through my spice rack and expiration dates… And I am always looking for spices I have yet to try. I often use fresh herbs, oh the aroma.

  3. I admit that I don’t use many dried spices. We eat very simply for the most part and haven’t much need for the more exotic ones. We do use fresh oregano, rosemary, basil, and thyme, which I grow in the garden, and I love cucumbers spiced with dill. But most dried spices lose their flavor and potency rather quickly. For that reason, we don’t keep many on hand.

    A note about lemon balm… If you plant it, do put it in a pot. It will absolutely take over your yard if you don’t.

  4. I use Mexican oregon powder on my Big Ass Salad everyday. Love the stuff. You can usually find it in little Mexican grocery stores throughout the west.

  5. Ok, feel like I need to go shopping right now! I do love the taste of Thai basil. And lemon balm is super easy to grow…it can get almost invasive like mint. My yoga loving, cart wheel turning grandmother always had it in her garden and I have some growing in my little backyard. I’ve only used it for tea…might have to get a little more adventurous!

  6. Mustard Seed is indispensable for making your own salad dressings – at least, if you like dressings that don’t separate. Try throwing some into your dressing when you are using your immersion blender. If you want a nice, creamy emulsion that will last (and not separate), add the oil slowly in a thin stream (after everything else) as you blend. You’ll love the taste, and the texture means that the dressing will cling nicely to your salad ingredients.

  7. I’m lucky enough to have both a Savory Spice and a Penzey’s within walking distance, as well as a farmer’s market with two more local spice sellers, and all four have some wonderful blends. The one I go through the most is Berbere Seasoning from Penzeys.com. I have a ridiculously large collection of spices. I refuse to specifically go out and buy pink peppercorns since I have four other varieties. I detest fenugreek in any form, absolutely ruins any dish that it’s in. Thai basil is one of the easiest herbs to grow (here in Santa Rosa, CA, anyway) and I recommend that you grab it if you see a starter at the nursery.

    1. Thanks, Naomi–Great to know there is a Penzey’s in Santa Rosa. I’m in Petaluma so it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump.
      What I’d like to find is an organic Mrs. Dash type seasoning, just so I can easily add some diversity to anything when I’m not being particularly creative. Anybody know of a good one without salt? (Nothing against salt, I just like to add my own and not pay a premium for it.)

      1. Pat,
        My wife “googled” the ingredients of Mrs Dash and started making her own. There is basically no salt in the original and we use herbs from our own garden.
        We love it and us it every day.

        1. Thanks, Eddie, I’ve been considering doing the same, thanks for the suggestion. It might help me stop procrastinating!

      1. Savory Spice is downtown, and Penzey’s is at Montgomery Village. Suggest you sign up for the Penzey’s email newsletter before you go, because they frequently offer coupons to get a free jar of your choice if you spend $5, or sometimes they just give jars of something away!

      2. I’ve been ordering from their site and have been really pleased. Grab some Urfa Chile if you end up visiting. I’d love to go to their store!

        1. Thanks for the tip Nika! We’re really into chiles so I looked it up and we’re going to try to get some seeds and grow it. In the meantime, I’ll purchase some from Penzey’s or Savory Spice when I get there.

  8. We had wild sumac growing near our house when the kids were small, they would gather it and I would dry and store it for winter use. Try sumac tea as a gargle/mouthwash for sore throats and cold sores. Helpful and kinda delicious.

  9. I put pink peppercorns in a spice grinder … works fine. And tastes good.

  10. Thanks for the great post.
    I was familiar with the use mustard seeds and coriander seeds and rest i didn’t even knew that it exists.

  11. Very timely, as I am fixing to clean out the old spice rack, too. I have all but two ( Mexican oregano and fenugreek leaves). I love trying new spices and herbs, and when I see different herbs and spices at TJMaxx, Marshall’s, Ross, or one of the salvage or ethnic groceries, I usually give in and try it. (Why not? – it’s cheap and might add different antioxidants to our intake.) I also grow plenty of fresh herbs in my garden as well, and am always thrilled to see new ways to use them. Thanks!

    1. I should add that I keep most of my dried herbs and spices in the freezer to help them keep a little more of their virtue a little longer

  12. Thai basil is so amazing. I love to make a Thai basil pesto using chile paste, fish sauce, sesame oil and either cashews or macadamia nuts. It freezes really well, and I use it in lots of Asian-inspired dishes. Most recently, in fried cauliflower rice.

  13. OK, don’t shoot me right now!

    Hoooow abooout adding sumac to your guacamole? I’m thinking that this bold flavor would pair so well with the creamy texture of avocado. Am I horribly, horribly wrong?

  14. Pink peppercorns have pretty much been my life saver while I’ve been cutting since January. They make otherwise bland and boring food much more interesting!