My 3 Favourite Spice Blends
(and their substitutes)

moroccan meatball tajine-3

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #9b9b9b;”] W[/dropcap]hen I was getting into cooking, one of the few things I found really intimidating was working with spices. I’m not sure what caused my ‘spice phobia’ but I do remember only using spices if the recipe called for them. I’d always use exactly the types and amounts listed.

Talk about restrictive.

Over the years, with a lot of trial and a little bit of error, I’ve adopted a more liberated approach to cooking with spices.

Why Use Spices?

If you’re ever short on time or short on space in your pantry, spices can be an absolute life saver when it comes to making food taste amazing.

Not only that, using different spices is by far the quickest and easiest way to make a boring old dish taste new and exciting.

What’s not to love about spice?

Anyway its been literally years since I last wrote about spices on Stonesoup so I thought it was high time that we had a little spice love.

I specifically wanted to share my 3 favourite spice blends because these days I find I’m far more likely to reach for a blend than faff around with adding a heap of different single spices.

Using spice blends means you get the complexity of flavour of loads of different spices all in the one little packet. Love it!

My 3 Favourite Spice Blends.

This is a Moroccan spice blend that translates as ‘top of the shop’. It’s traditionally the best spice blend a Moroccan spice merchant will sell. The ingredients lists can be lengthy, with as many as 23 different spices. And as you can imagine the flavour is exotic and complex without being too ‘out there’.

It’s my favourite blend for the tajine recipe below and it works really well with fish and chicken and vegetables like eggplant (aubergine).

Best substitute for Ras el Hanout: Equal parts paprika, coriander, ginger and a pinch of saffron OR just ground coriander.

A Lebanese blend of 7 spices including paprika, pepper, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and nutmeg. It’s a bit darker and more intense than Ras el Hanout but still works well with meat, poultry, seafood and vegetables.

Best substitute for Baharat: Equal parts paprika, cumin and cinnamon OR ground cumin.

I always spell this Indian spice blend wrong but think I’ve got it right today! For some reason garam masala is my ‘go-to’ Indian spice if I’m in the mood for a bit of curry. I tend to reach for garam masala over a generic curry powder.

I think this is because garam masala tends to be more laid back than some in your face curry powders. Which tends to suit my cooking style better.

Best substitute for Garam Masala: Mild curry powder OR loads of black pepper.

What about you?

Do you have a ‘spice phobia’? What are your favourite spices or blends? I’d love to hear in the comments below :)


moroccan meatball tajine-3

Moroccan Meatball Tajine

This is a dish I’ve been making for years and am kinda surprised I haven’t ever written about it on Stonesoup. About time! It’s a brilliant example of how using spices can transform a boring old dish (Italian meatballs) into something exotic and super tasty.

enough for 2-3
1 onion, peeled & chopped
450g (1lb) minced (ground) beef
125g (5oz) almond meal
2 teaspoons ras el hanout, baharat or ground coriander
1 jar tomato passata or puree (700g / 24oz / 2.5 cups)
4 tablespoons butter
1 bunch coriander (cilantro), leaves picked
cauliflower rice or cooked couscous to serve

1. Preheat your oven to 180C (350F). Place onion in a small pan on a medium heat with a little oil and cook until soft but not browned. About 5 minutes or a little longer.

2. Combine cooked onion, beef, almond meal and your chosen spice in a large bowl. Season generously with salt. Roll teaspoonfuls of the mixture into balls and place in an ovenproof dish.

3. Pour over the tomato passata or puree and top with butter. Bake uncovered for 45 minutes or longer until the meatballs are browned on top and cooked through.

4. Serve meatballs on a bed of cauliflower rice or couscous with coriander leaves on top.

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to serve with couscous – cook couscous according to the packet but add some extra butter.

to serve with cauli rice – grate 1/2 small cauliflower using your food processor or a box grater and serve meatballs on top. No need to cook or warm it.

different accompaniments – great wrapped in lebanese bread, tortillas or other flat bread. Could be served with your favourite pasta.

short on time – skip the onion and simmer the tajine on the stovetop until the meatballs are just cooked through. You might also like to skip the meatball rolling and just cook the meat more like a bolognese sauce.

different meat – beef is a favourite but lamb is also great. Pork, chicken, turkey or buffalo could all be used.

vegetarian – try adding the spice above to these lentil balls.

nut-free – replace almond meal with soft bread crumbs or cooked quinoa.

dairy-free – replace butter with lots of extra virgin olive oil.

different herbs – mint, basil, parsley or baby spinach are all great.

italian meatballs – just skip the spice and serve with basil instead of the coriander.

indian meatballs – use garam masala as your spice and serve with a dollop of natural yoghurt.

With love,
Jules x
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  • Love the quick versions of those blends! I make my own blends because I like to tweak them but 23 spices gets expensive and then the food starts getting bland again…Personally I’ve never had a spice phobia. I was the girl that put in WAY too much. My family even calls my weekly curry experiment ‘Heavy-handed Curry’ because I make it so intense!

  • Great post! I love to make my own spice blends.
    I make a “Tex-Mex” inspired spice blend for roast chicken:
    equal parts paprika, smoked paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, kosher salt, coarse ground pepper, ground cumin, chili powder and a dash of ground cayenne pepper.
    It’s also great on roasted potatoes and eggs.

    • My spices for Tex-Mex include oregano, cumin and a little chili powder. I chop up my onions and garlic rather than have them in a spice blend. And, of course, Himalayan salt and course ground black pepper. Many years ago when I was young and lived in Texas, I don’t remember ever using cilantro in my cooking and didn’t know what coriander could possibly be used for though I saw it in the supermarket.

  • I really enjoyed thus post and to hear that you had had a spice phobia. I can relate to that. I have always just allowed myself to follow the recipe when it came to soice. I think because I just followed and did as I was told I didn’t learn to think about the spice and its personality. My years of cooking are running out but now, in my old age, I am finally becoming more adventourous and you are one person that has helped me to do that. I have subscribed to your weekly menus and have been given lots of new ideas. Thank you, Jules.

    • You’re welcome Jennifer!
      And so glad to hear I’m not the only one who has had a spice phobia :)
      I’m thrilled to hear that Stonesoup has helped you become more adventurous… you’ve made my day!

  • I have been blending spices and flavours for years and find people are afraid of what a dish will taste like if they use different flavours. It is all about trial and error. Do not be afraid to try something once. If you don’t like it, don’t do it again. Cooking has been made far to convenient where one can just go and pick out something ready made or flavoured, most of these products are filled with unwanted colourants and things like MSG. Using real herbs and spices give you genuine flavours and make dishes taste really good. If anyone out there would like advice on which spice or herb to use, please feel free to send me an email or visit me on Facebook at The Spice Girls Incorporated and I will gladly help you.

  • Do you suppose this recipe could be translated for a slow cooker? A little more liquid perhaps, maybe some tomato juice, and leave it on low for 6 hours?

    • Absolutely Angeline!
      I’d halve the liquid (or leave it the same for the slow cooker) because you don’t get anywhere near as much evaporation. And low for 6-8 hours should do it
      Let me know how you get on

  • Thanks so much for this post, Jules. I love to use spices in my cooking but had never thought of blending them like this. Always good to bring something new to the kitchen!

  • Hi Jules, Excellent post and right up my ally! I was married to an Indian (many, many years ago now!) and learned to cook real curries from my mother-in-law, which left me with an addition to curry and a strong repertoire of traditional recipes which I’ve simplified over the years to ensure I can satisfy my curry cravings (and impress my friends!) with minimum effort. Agree with you on garam masala but rather than off the shelf curry powder, I’d suggest making your own blend of four key Indian spices: turmeric, coriander, cumin and red chilli for a truly authentic taste. Hot tip – always start by sauteeing freshly crushed garlic and ginger in ghee or unsalted butter till golden before adding the rest of the ingredients … guaranteed to make any curry taste truly amazing!

  • Although garam masala is good, my all time favorite is a milder, yet tastier blend we know as leaf masala. It includes curry leaf, and is a rougher blend than garam masala. Cumin aka jeera is anogther great stand-by for adding flavour to many dishes. And, of course, one can never add enough rough ground black pepper!
    (South Africa)

    • I haven’t come across leaf masala Corrine.. will have to keep an eye out for it… I love curry leaves so can imagine it’s really delicious
      And couldn’t agree with you more re black pepper!

  • I like your choices of spice blends. I use Garam Masala all the time, and I’ve used Baharat. Not Ras Al Hanout. But I like the idea. One of my other favorite spice blends, that I unfortunately don’t have much use for these days is Za’atar. I also like the idea of making my own curry powders because there are many ways to do that, all of which tend to taste better than the stuff you buy in jars. I’m looking forward to trying these meatballs – they sound delicious, as well as being a great way to try a new spice blend.

  • These meatballs look really good. I like to try out unfamiliar spices. I grew up in South Texas and have been cooking Tex-Mex style from an early age. Just about everything I cook has herbs and spices added. Even things I don’t cook. I think I have Garam Masala in my pantry. I’ll be looking out for ras el hanout and baharat when I’m shopping. I’m not at all fond of coriander/cilantro and never use it in my cooking. I don’t like capsicam/bell pepper/sweet pepper be it green or red/orange/ yellow/purple/black or any other of it’s 9 colors either. I do like well seasoned foods but not hot or salty.

    • Hi Gina
      Dried coriander seed tastes very different to the leaves (cilantro) so you might like to try it out.
      Lucky you growing up with all those TexMex flavours!

  • I am Indian and i love making my own spice blends. Indian chefs believe proportions in garam masala should vary based on what you are using it for: vegetables/sea food/poultry. Absolutely right !!

    • I didn’t know there were different types of garam masala Archana… thanks for sharing.
      And I can imagine varying the type for different meals would be delicious

  • i do all my curries from scratch and i use garam masala in them ,i like a hot one.Za’atar is great to sprinkle on a finished dish that uses either of the 2 fore-mentioned spice mixes.i try to use seeds as much as possible and roast them.spice mixes only have a limited shelflife so fresh is best.i grow large amounts of chillies in my garden as well.

  • I wasn’t an enthusiastic cook until I retired and had time to play. Now I’m loving the mad scientist experimentation, esp with middle eastern and Moroccan spices that can turn a simple tomato vegetable soup into something warm, sweet and exotic. As we age, we gradually lose flavor sensations, food becomes boring and tasteless. It’s no wonder elderly people lose interest in regular food. I love the stronger spicing. I’ve been using individual spices but bought everything to make Ros el Hanout, the long version. This post is really helpful! Thank you!

  • I see most of the comments are quite old. I stumbled upon this site looking for a substitue for Ras Al Hanoot in a soup recipe I found. I am a 60 year old empty nester who silently cheered the day my last daughter moved out about 3 years ago. Onions, peppers and adventurous cooking was never a part of our meal routine until the kids moved out. I am really enjoying my new found love of cooking! Thanks for the blog!

  • thanks for converting grams to oz for us! I never had grams measurment and just can’t get the hang of it in recipes… And thanks for the spice mixes. I love spices and always making up new recipes

  • Archana, do you have any recipes for the different mixes for the veggies/fish/poultry/red meat?

  • New to your site and so enjoyed the 3 favorite spice blends and plan to make the Moroccan meatball tagine this weekend!

    Thank you,

  • In my mother’s old time recipes, I keep running across the requirement for Whole Spice. I have not been able to find out just what that is. Any ideas on what Whole Spice is. I have a recipe I am working on right now is asking for 2 oz of Whole Spice?

  • Love spices, have always cooked with them and am bereft on self catering ho,s without them! Favourite spice blends vary but Garam Masala and zatar are definitely among them. Thanks for the post.

  • Cloves & black licorice flavor spices in general are icky imo. I make a cajun spice blend for my son that he loves on everything! But can’t take credit as its Emeril’s recipe. Found you when I was looking for a sub for 5 spice(icky lol). I am going to make my own 5 spice w/o clove, anise, etc.

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