What Is Baker’s Spice?

Bakers all over the world have used a variety of spices to flavor their food for centuries. From the subtle Madagascar vanilla to the in-your-face Grenada nutmeg, there is almost no end to the number of unique spices used in baking. Many of these spices are often also used in savory dishes, but their purpose and flavor are often completely different in baked goods. Read on to find out more about the spices that are essential to the pastry world and their function in the many dishes that feature them.


Vanilla is the single most important spice used in baking and is exclusively used by the industry. The spice is the second most expensive in the world after saffron, with even average-quality pods costing a small fortune. This can be attributed to the intensive hand pollination process necessary for the plant's flowering. The spice has a taste that is completely unique; it would be impossible to try and describe the taste or aroma that the fragrant pods bring to preparations. Vanilla is considered to be indispensable to the industry; from the crème chantilly to the plum cake, there is almost no dessert that can go without it. However, most shops operating on a budget choose to skip out on the spice, using vanilla extract instead. The extract often features vanillin, an organic phenol aldehyde, as opposed to real vanilla. Vanillin is manufactured in large quantities from lignin, which contains sulfite liquor, a byproduct of the paper industry. This makes it substantially cheaper when compared to vanilla pods or extracts that feature the actual bean. While this has made the spice’s flavor accessible to many more bakers, it pales in comparison to the real thing, as vanillin is only one of the 200+ compounds that give the beans their flavor.


Cinnamon, along with all the other spices on this list, with the exception of vanilla, are all key components of savory cooking. The difference with regard to how the spices are used in baking all depends on one key flavor enhancer: sugar. Sucrose, fructose, and invert sugar all act on the several organic compounds found in cinnamon in a substantially different manner in contrast to salt and acid, the two primary flavor enhancers in savory food. In fact, the taste of cinnamon represented in baking is much truer to its original taste when compared to savory dishes that use the same spice. However, what both classes of food share is the spice’s affinity to fat. Baked goods that use butter or shortening will have a cinnamon flavor that is much more pronounced in contrast to those without, an observation that is true for most dry species. Cinnamon, again, is incredibly expensive, since the plant is endemic to Sri Lanka and mandates several labor-intensive processes, from growth to processing. This is why most bakers resort to using cassia, or Chinese cinnamon, a substantially cheaper bark from a plant in the same family. Cassia has a flavor that is incredibly similar to that of cinnamon; in fact, the cassia bark has a far stronger cinnamon taste as opposed to the real thing, albeit without the refinement of the ever-popular quills. Cinnamon is indispensable in European baking, from Christmas Stollen to year-round specialties like kanelbulle (cinnamon roll), and the potent bark has remained a cornerstone of the industry for hundreds of years.


Cardamom, just like cinnamon, originally started out as a savory spice. The tiny pods pack a potent punch. Because cardamom is known for its affinity to sugar as opposed to other spices that are used in the trade, it is incredibly easy to overpower a dish using the spice, which most people find unpleasant. Nevertheless, this green spice is one that is indispensable to traditional baked goods all over the world. From the rich syrup used to coat Middle Eastern baklavas to the many payasams that Indians savor all over the subcontinent, cardamom is one spice that is no stranger to any culture that bakes.


This list would not be complete without the mention of this incredibly potent spice that is a staple of both European and English baking cultures. Clove is similar to cardamom in the fact that a little goes a long way. Just a few of these minty buds will be enough to flavor any preparation, from pumpkin pies to plum cakes. The eugenol found in cloves may also be processed into vanillin, which was the spice's primary use case at one point, which is all the more interesting since clove is almost never used in a preparation without the addition of vanillin, or vanilla.


This potent spice is one that is indispensable to the Christmas season. Nutmeg is popularly used across Europe and North America in festive preparations such as stollen, plum cake, gingerbread, and cheesecakes. The spice is unique in the fact that it is just as potent raw as it is cooked. In this vein, most cheesecakes will have nutmeg grated on top rather than mixed in. The spice is an excellent complement to orange-based dishes. In Europe, nutmeg is a year-round staple in most baker's spice mixes.