Common spices include cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and red pepper flakes. Cinnamon is an aromatic sweet spice used in cakes, pies and curry blends and though cloves have a sharper aroma and stronger flavor, they complement cinnamon in sweet potato, squash, and pumpkin pies and dishes. Ginger, a tropical plant root, adds zest to gingerbread and apple desserts. Nutmeg is a sweet spice that flavors spinach, winter squash and eggnog, while red pepper flakes add heat to international and Cajun foods.
The dried inner bark of a small evergreen, the cassia tree, is the source of cinnamon. When simmering hot cider or stewing fruits, chefs add whole cinnamon sticks to enhance the flavor.
Evergreen clove trees produce the buds that are whole cloves. Cloves are also a sweet spice that cooks use when simmering foods, including pilafs. Chutneys and curries benefit from the flavor of cloves, and the spice boosts the flavors of banana and apple desserts. Despite their flavor-enhancing qualities, cloves have a bitter taste.
Ginger is a spice that people use in fresh and ground forms. Ground ginger has a sweet-hot fragrance that enhances baked goods and vegetables. Nutmeg trees produce fruit shaped like little pears; the fruit's hard, nutty seed is the nutmeg. Chefs and cooks use freshly grated nutmeg; stores typically sell it after it is dried and ground. Nutmeg gives curry mixes and spice cakes special flavor.
Red pepper flakes have a sharp, hot taste. Dishes from Louisiana, Mexico, India and Southeast Asia owe their fiery flavor to the dried pepper's flesh and seeds. A tiny amount makes a strong impact in recipes using this common spice.