Essential Spices Every Holiday Baker Needs

Spice, spice baby.

When it comes to holiday baking, we know to stock up on our tried-and-true favorite spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice. But it pays to take a fresh look around to see what else is could bring out the best in our homemade treats. A few well-chosen spice blends can make quick work of adding bursts of flavor, not to mention lesser-known single spices that deserve a spot in our spice cabinet.

Christmas Baking
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No matter the choice, be sure the spices are fresh and full of flavor, especially those you use only around the holidays each year and might be considerably older and staler than you realize. Whole spices can last for a few years, but most ground spices lose their oomph in only one year. Before the annual baking and cooking push, give your spice collection a quick sniff test to ensure they are still vibrant and fragrant. If they've lost their aroma, they've lost most of their flavor as well, and can't do their job in the recipe. One thing that each of us can do today to become a better baker is to replace our old spices. Consider buying new spices (especially the pricey ones) in amounts you're likely to use while they're still in their prime, or share them with friends.

If you run out of a favorite ground spice, look to see whether you have it in whole form that you can grind on your own. Think cinnamon sticks, whole allspice, or whole cloves, for starters. You can pulverize them in a spice grinder or a small electric coffee grinder reserved for spices. (No one wants their spices to pick up coffee reside from the blades, or vice versa.) If you have only one electric grinder that must do double duty, clean it out between uses by buzzing up a few spoonsful of dry uncooked rice. The rice powder polishes the blades clean as a whistle and the grinder will look brand new. In lieu of an actual grinder, you can grate them on a rasp-style zester, such as a Microplane.


This is a cousin to nutmeg and comes from the same plant. It has similar flavor, but is a bit brighter and more fragrant, yet also sweeter and softer. You'll find ground mace, and also a form known as mace blades, which looks like small chips that are easy to use in mulled spice blends.


This is the secret ingredient in many of our holiday baking recipes, especially cookies and yeasted sweet breads with Scandinavian and Eastern European roots. You'll see whole cardamom pods and whole cardamom seed in some stores, but most of our recipes call for ready-to-use ground cardamom, which comes from green cardamom. There's also black cardamom, which is strong, smoky, and used in savory dishes, and isn't a suitable swap for the green.

Pie Spice

Most of us have seen blends designated for pumpkin or apple pies, but some companies make an all-purpose pie blend that can work well in all types of pies and other baked goods. Read the label to find one that checks most of the flavor boxes you seek.

Ancho Chile

Yes, chile pepper can add a little spark to sweets, especially those made with chocolate and/or nuts. (This could be the star addition to a classic pecan pie.)Ancho chile is mild and fruity, what some cooks describe as raisin-like. For a bit more kick and heat, try a pinch of smoky ground chipotle instead.

Cake Spice

Some of the major spice purveyors have created a spice blend that can do for cakes what pie spice does for our pies, which is add a lot of flavor in one spoonful. Try replacing the usual cinnamon with an equal amount of cake spice.

Holiday Store Blends

Similar to pie and cake spice blends, some of our favorite spice and baking supply stores are creating new blends with a holiday spirit. Take a look at Yuletide Cheer, Gingerbread Spice, and Speculaas Spice (the flavor we love in Biscoff-style cookies and those jars of delicious cookie butter.)

Chai Spice

As many of us know from trips to our favorite coffee and tea shops, chai is a type of spiced aromatic tea. Some stores sell a spice blend that replicates those flavors and aromas. Be sure to buy spice, not a spiced tea.

Garam Masala

This is a spice blend used in Indian and Asian cooking. There are many variations and brand-specific blends, so read the label when selecting one for a baking recipe, looking for warm, mild spices such as cinnamon, ginger, allspice and the like. Some contain ground chiles, and we know that a little mild chile can be delicious in baked goods, but you want to avoid garam masala blends that are pungent and fiery. A good way to try garam masala is in a recipe that calls for ground ginger.

Star Anise

This is a spice most often sold whole, recognizable by its distinctive star shape. It's a common component of mulled wine and cider spice blends.


C'mon, you know this can't be the toxic plant by the same name found out in the woods. This is edible sumac, which can come in whole berries or ground. It has a lovely deep red color, and has a light lemony taste that can work in both sweet and savory dishes.


It's the most common spice we use in baking, so one might think there's nothing more to be said, but there's plenty, actually. There is more than one kind of cinnamon in the world and like wines made from grapes grown in different places, they don't all taste the same. If you love cinnamon and are looking to upgrade your favorite recipes, read about different types of cinnamon and select something special. It's similar to picking out a specific kind of locally roasted coffee instead of a national brand that tastes the same bag after bag.

This same advice can apply to other spices, such as allspice, cardamom, ginger, pretty much all of them. If you're comfortable with spices and enjoy a little experimentation in the kitchen, shop in specialty spice shops, whether in person or online. There's a world of deliciousness out there.

Candied Ginger

Although we consider ground ginger a spice, candied ginger is slightly different. This is slices or cubes of fresh ginger that are sweetened and preserved in sugar syrup, which preserves them and gives them the texture of gummy candy. Crystallized ginger is similar, but the candied pieces are coated in crunchy sugar crystals as well. The flavor is bold and delicious. Many bakers recommend buying larger pieces of moist candied ginger and chopping it into small pieces to in recipes that call for chopped candied ginger, rather than buying pre-chopped ginger bits that can be unpleasantly hard, even when cooked.

Vanilla Beans

This isn't a spice, per se, but we often see recipes that call for vanilla beans around the holidays. They can be expensive, so we want to use the entire bean in one way or another. Choose vanilla beans that are still plump and pliant so that they bend rather than snap when folded. If you must buy beans in packaging that prevents that test, buy them from a store that sells lots of vanilla beans, increasing the chance that you're buying fresh product. Most of the flavor from a bean comes from the tiny dark moist seeds inside the pot. To release them, split the bean lengthwise with the tip of a sharp knife and then scrap out the seeds. Don't discard the empty pods, however. Tuck them down inside a bowl of sugar and let it stand for a few days so that they can infuse the sugar with flavor. You can use the sugar in other recipes or in hot beverages.

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