Spices vs. Condiments (The Differences)

Published Categorized as Food
Spices and condiments laid out on a tablekarandaev /Depositphotos

You can spice up your condiments, but you can’t “condiment up” your spices. Here’s why.

A bowl of chili or a plate of beef stew is only as hearty as the spices you throw into it. Similarly, a cheeseburger or a hot dog is only as good as the condiments you put on top.

Both spices and seasonings can be used to add aroma and flavor to your food. But have you ever wondered what the difference is between them? Let’s just say you’ve come to the right place; we dedicated this whole article to this topic.

Spices, typically in the form of dried roots, bark, and fruit, are used by the cook to aromatize and flavor a dish during cooking. Condiments, mostly in the form of sauces, relishes, and dressings, are used by the eater to personalize the dish.

Spices are dried and come from the seeds, the roots, the bark, and the fruit of trees, shrubs, and plants. They can be whole, such as peppercorn, or ground, such as black pepper.

In case you’re wondering, salt isn’t considered a spice and neither are herbs, whether fresh or dried, which come from the stems, flowers, or leaves of plants, sometimes the same plants that spices come from.

Condiments are added only after the dish is cooked and assembled. They can take on the form of sauces (cooked and smooth) relishes (uncooked, with bits and pieces of vegetables), or dressings (uncooked, with fresh herbs and/or dried spices).

What Are Spices?

Coming from the Latin word species, meaning “sort,” “kind,” or “type,” spices are typically added to food at the start of the end of the cooking process.

Spices are used to give aroma and flavor to the food. Spices have different characteristics: they can be earthy, herby, fruity, nutty, hot, pungent, and the list goes on.

Examples for sweet spices include allspice, the dried berries of the Pimenta dioica plant, and nutmeg, the seed or ground spice of several species of the genus Myristica. Tamarind, the dried edible fruit of a tree indigenous to tropical Africa, is an example of a sour spice. A bitter spice is the yellow ground-up root of the turmeric plant.

Different parts of plants, including seeds, roots, bark, and fruit, are used to make spices. Fennel, nutmeg, and mustard all come from seeds, while black pepper comes from the fruit of the pepper bush. Cinnamon comes from the bark, while turmeric and ginger come from the root.

Spices are not made from the stems, flowers, or leaves of plants; these are classified as herbs. For example, basil, cilantro, and parsley would be considered herbs, not spices.

When purchasing spices, they can be found fresh or dried. You can also choose from whole or ground spices. Keep in mind that fresh spices are not as concentrated as dried spices: as a general rule of thumb, you only need 1 teaspoon of dried spices compared to 1 tablespoon of fresh spice.

What Are Condiments?

The word “condiment” comes from the Latin condire, which means “to pickle.” While pickled items were traditionally considered condiments, there are many other food items that are classified this way today.

Like spices, condiments are used to enhance the flavor of a dish. Condiments can have a variety of characteristics. Ketchup, for example, has a tangy, sweet flavor. Sauerkraut is both salty and sour, and so is pickle relish. Vinegar has a pungent, acidic flavor.

Condiments can be made from a variety of foods, like fruits and vegetables. Ketchup starts with tomatoes and relish usually has cucumbers or zucchini. Condiments can also have an oil base—for example, tartar sauce or aioli. Spices can be part of a condiment, like ginger is an ingredient in chutney.

Some condiments, like mayo and dairy-based salad dressings, require refrigeration once they are open. Other condiments, such as Tabasco or apple cider vinegar, can safely be kept in your cabinets or pantry at room temperature.

How Do Spices and Condiments Differ?

Spices and condiments differ in how they are used to enhance the flavor of foods.

Condiments are generally used to complement a dish and are added by each eater at the table (just like you add ketchup, mayo, and/or mustard to a hot dog). Spices (for example, nutmeg or turmeric) are added by the cook during cooking.

Another difference between spices and condiments is how they are classified:

  • Spices have a very specific definition: they are parts of a plant—either the seed, the root, the bark, or the fruit;
  • Condiments, on the other hand, have a broader description and include sauces, relishes, dressings, and even seasonings.

Another key difference is how spices and condiments are stored. Spices should be kept in a cool, dry space, like a cupboard, away from heat and light. Condiments are either stored in the refrigerator or in a cupboard, depending on their ingredients.

Different cuisines use different types of spices to flavor their food. Certain spices are more popular in certain regions of the world.

Popular spices in China include fennel, cinnamon, and clove. In East Africa, cinnamon and clove are also popular, as well as fenugreek. Cumin is frequently used in the Middle East and North Africa.

Caraway seed is popular in Northern and Eastern Europe. Indian cuisine often features cumin, mustard seed, anise seed, cardamom, fennel seed, clove, turmeric, and ginger.

In Louisiana, popular spices include paprika, cayenne pepper, and mustard seed. Caribbean cuisine will often include chile peppers, black pepper, ginger, clove, nutmeg, and allspice.

The popularity of condiments also varies from place to place. In the United States, commonly used condiments include ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard.

Along the East Coast, sauerkraut, pickle relish, and coleslaw, all brought to the states by Western and Eastern European immigrants, are the go-to condiments. Along the West Coast, they put Sriracha and ranch dressing on everything.

Salsa is a popular condiment in many parts of Mexico and South America, and there’s a ton of variety:

Pico de Gallo is made with tomato, onion, peppers, cilantro, and lime juice, and it goes great on tacos. Salsa Roja, on the other hand, can be used on top of beef or chicken, and it is made with tomato, onion, garlic, and chili peppers.

Vegemite is an Australian condiment that’s made from brewer’s yeast and is often spread on toast. Similarly, Marmite is a yeast-based condiment popular in the United Kingdom.

In many North African countries, such as Tunisia and Morocco, people are fond of harissa. This condiment is typically made with hot peppers and garlic. It can be served with stew, bread, or roasted vegetables.

Middle Eastern countries use a lot of tahini, which is a sesame seed paste. This condiment is used to make hummus and baba ghanoush. It is also used as a dip, a spread for sandwiches, or a salad dressing.

Plenty of Asian countries use fish sauce in a lot of dishes. This is made from salted and fermented fish and is used to season dishes or as a dip.

Wasabi is commonly used in Japan. This hot green paste is often used to complement various types of sushi.

In Korea, people use gochujang–a red pepper sauce that varies in heat–for everything from meat to vegetables.

What Spices and Condiments Should I Use?

With such a variety of spices and condiments available, it can be hard to know which ones to stock in your kitchen. The best idea is to try a variety of different ones to find out what you like. 

Dried spices are often sold by weight so that you can buy as little or as much as you need. This can be a great way to try different spices without spending a lot of money. 

Condiments and spices are a great way to add flavor and variety to your meals. By keeping a few different options in your kitchen, you’ll be ready to make a great-tasting dish anytime!

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.