Rewild Your Spice Cabinet: 17 Seasonings to Forage For
Many people these days are trying to “rewild” their diet, foraging for their own or purchasing wild harvested food, or even buying wild plants grown in an agricultural setting from reputable sources. Wild meats, such as bison, salmon, venison, and duck are as popular as ever. Even wild mushrooms and root vegetables, such as sunchokes, seem to be popping up all over the country in farmers markets, food co-ops, and specialty grocery stores. While it is wonderful to see this movement back towards our local flavors and ingredients, it has been my experience that they are often prepared with traditionally Western methods and recipes, including common seasonings found in the Western diet. I think it is time that we experience the true taste of our local fields and forests and incorporate wild seasonings as well!
On the flip side, wild harvested seasonings are often wonderful to pare with Westernized foods. If you have ever had maple syrup on a waffle, then you have already tried this! Consider how many other lovely combinations you are missing out on!
Whether you are just looking to save a buck on expensive imported spices, preparing for the apocalypse, or want to integrate the taste of locally available seasonings into your cooking, you should consider foraging for your own spices!
Here’s 17 spices to look for on your next hike!
Sumac is prized as a seasoning by many foragers for it’s tart taste, which is why it is generally made into lemonade sans lemon. To do this, simply steep 4-6 bunches in cold water until the desired flavor is reached- do not use hot water as this will leach tannins from the stem, making it bitter. Sumac has so many other applications other than lemonade, though. Dried and crushed, the sumac berries can be used in any recipe in which you desire tartness, jam is good to start with, but it is also lovely on meat and in rice.
Sumac is the main ingredient in a Middle Eastern seasoning, called zatar, which is often used to lend a lemon-y flavor to fish or even chicken. Heid E. Erdrich, author of Original Local, suggests making a popcorn topping from her husband’s version of zatar, which includes sumac, sunflower oil, garlic, maple syrup, and tabasco.
If collecting sumac on your own, be sure to harvest the red berries in late summer (August in most places) before the rain leaches out the tart flavor. Only collect red sumac berries. Any white sumac berry is either poison sumac (which looks very different and grows in swampy areas) or unripe sumac of an edible species. All red sumac berries are edible.
If you are a gardener in the United States you have probably come across this common weed in your garden, and if not, you’ve almost definitely seen it in disturbed areas and roadsides. While the leafs, seedpods, and even flowerbuds of Brassica rapa and Brassica nigra, our two native species, are delicious to eat when very young before turning bitter, it is the fully formed seeds we are after for a seasoning after these foliar parts are generally too bitter to harvest. These seeds are the mustard seeds we commonly use in pickles and ground into mustard. While there is no wild ketchup, this foraged mustard is sure to go over big at your next wild boar sausage cookout with your buddies from the next cave over.
Surprise again! Caraway, as in the caraway seeds that most of you probably have in your spice cabinet right now, actually grows wild throughout the waste places of Eastern Canada and the North Eastern United States. Identifiable by their carrot like leafs, white umble shaped flowers, hairless stems and curved, fragrant seeds, one must be careful not to confuse caraway (Carum carvi) with the similar looking, but very poisonous, fools parsley, Arethusa cynapium, or water hemlock, Conium maculatum. While these species are easily distinguishable from one another when one knows what characteristics to look for, a casual passerby may make a deadly mistake, so please, research these three species more closely before attempting to foraging for caraway.
Similar to caraway seeds are the seeds of wild fennel, which is native to the Mediterranean but now an invasive in much of North American, especially the west coast. To learn more about foraging for wild fennel seeds, check out this post by Grow Cook Forage Ferment.
The root of wild ginger, Asarum canadense, is extremely similar to commercially grown ginger. It grows in the rich, rocky woods from Minnesota and to Quebec and New Brunswick and south to Kansas, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Northern Georgia. It’s three lobed, red-brown flower sits close to the ground between two large heart shaped leafs on hairy stalks. Wild ginger root looks similar to cultivated ginger, although often thinner and longer. This is one herb that you must exercise caution when harvesting as it is becoming increasingly rare.
Yet another spice that may already be in your cabinet! Juniper berries are widely used in make sauerkraut and other facto-fermented foods, as well as in the production of gin. They are wonderful for this purpose as they are very antimicrobial and prevent your ferments from spoiling. There are thirty species of juniper native to North America, growing mainly in eastern Canada and the United States south to Tennessee and Georgia. Juniper is easy to identify by its prickly, flat, scalelike leaves and small, hard, blue berries with a whitish bloom that stay on the bush all winter. Juniper berries are not actually a true berry but a sort of cone. It is quite easy to collect a good amount of them as they are strongly flavored and often only one or two are needed for a recipe. One ground berry is enough to flavor a main dish that serves eight people. While juniper is delicious and highly medicinal (it has long been used in highly diluted quantities as a diuretic), it is also a strong herb that needs to be used cautiously. Never eat whole berries; just three berries can be enough to poison a child. Do not let fear prevent you from working with this lovely shrub, though, simply use it in moderation and with care. Avoid juniper berries if you are pregnant.
Found in damp, shaded woodlands, lower mountain slopes, and in thickets along stream banks, this allspice like seasoning is a go to spice for many foragers. Found in most of the eastern United States and southern Ontario, this 5-20 foot tall bush can be identified by the spicy scent of crushed fresh leafs and twigs. Collect red berries in late summer and autumn and dry before crushing into a powder. The fresh leafs, twigs, and bark can be steeped in hot water to make a lovely tea as well.
When I first tried toothwort last spring I instantly fell in love with it! This low growing herb tastes almost exactly like wasabi to me, but in a much more toned down way, although others liken it to horseradish. While there are several species in the Dentaria family, all have highly toothed leaves, hence the name toothwort, and are found in wet woodland areas in much of the United States. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked and the small tubers make an excellent spice when finely chopped. Toothwort is one of the first green plants to appear in the spring, making it an excellent snack after a long winter devoid of fresh herbs. One of my favorite preparations is to wrap spring beauties, trout lily, and toothwort in a ramp leaf to make a spicy foraged spring roll.
While maple syrup makes an excellent topping for pancakes, it has an incredible array of other uses, as does granulated maple sugar, which is the product of maple syrup that has been boiled down to the crystal form. The Ojibwe, who live in the same part of the world that I do currently, were known for making huge quantities of it each spring and seasoning much of their food with it, as were other Northern Native American tribes. In fact, maple sap, before it has been boiled into syrup or the more shelf stable sugar, can hold it’s own as a refreshing beverage, although it is also good when used in place of water when making coffee. While you can now buy this pure sap in some stores, nothing beats tapping your own trees and trapsing out in the snow to drink it straight from the bucket.
Although sugar maples have the highest sugar content, and therefore require the least amount of boiling, there are dozens of other species of trees that can be tapped to make syrup, including birch, sycamore, even black walnut. It is hard to find these rare syrups in the store, so if you want it, you will have to experiment on your own.
There are few scents so pleasant to me as the smell of crushed mint when I stumble into a patch of it on a summertime wander. There are a large handful of mint species that are widely common throughout North America and it is so easy to find that you often do not have to look for it, but just walk and smell and you will know when you’ve found it. While mint is lovely as a nibble or a tea, it is wholely underutilized as a seasoning on meat or other savory dishes.
Identified by its long, grasslike leaves, clusters of 6 petaled flowers, and onion smell, Allium stellatum, or wild onion, can be found in rocky fields in much of the Eastern United States. Appearing in July and August, the leaves, stalks, and bulbs are an excellent seasoning that can be used similarly to scallions or bunching onions. I love to pair it with nettles, rice, and eggs to make a springtime fried rice soup.
A relative of the wild onion, Allium tricoccum is the wild leek, more commonly known as ramps. Harbingers of spring, these onion like plants are a prized delicacy of the rich deciduous woods of the Eastern United States and are highly celebrated by foragers and chefs alike. Although both their teardrop shaped white bulb and broad leaves are edible in the early spring before their long flower stalk emerges, I prefer to harvest just one leaf from each plant so that it can continue to grow and reproduce, leaving the bulb alone completely. Ramps are slow growers and face population depletions in areas where they are so prized that they are being over harvested into extinction, so harvest with care.
The needles of all conifers in North America are edible, except tamarack, juniper, and yew, and each have their own distinct flavor, although hemlock and balsam fir are two of the most popular. They make excellent tea (and kombucha), but are also a great seasoning in sweet and savory dishes alike. One popular recipe that I’ve seen going around lately is for balsam fir shortbread cookies.
Not only are they beautiful, but many flowers are edible too! Honeysuckle, dandelion, day lily, violet, and roses, to name a few, are commonly used in sweets. Live The Old Way adds honeysuckle flowers to their ice tea to make it sweet and Jordan at Rabbit Ridge Farm loves to make violet syrup for pastry and to sweeten drinks each spring. Since there are many flowers that are not edible, make sure that you are using a species that is and to positively identify it first.
I’ve never used this one in any dish but it is a fun one to try anyway. While many people are put off by the idea idea of eating insects (myself included), ants are pretty easy to manage if you have never eaten an insect before. They are so small and don’t have that squish factor, plus most species taste pleasantly lemony! Just make sure you eat them quickly so they don’t bite you first.
If ants just don’t cut it for you, that tart lemony flavor of wood sorrel is a great alternative. Found in deciduous woodlands in the Eastern U.S., wood sorrel leaves look similar to clovers, but their citrus flavor and delicate flowers will help you to tell them apart. Wood sorrel is great when crushed and stirred in cold water with frozen strawberries, but it works well as a lemon substitute in any dish. Although it is so tasty it is hard to resist, just remember to use it as a seasoning and not as a main ingredient because it contains oxalic acid, which can have negative affects on the body in very large quantities over an extended period of time.
Berries are a great seasoning, fresh, dried or frozen. I’m sure some of you already collect your own wild raspberries or blackberries, but there are dozens of other wonderful berries out there to harvest! Some included, highbush cranberry, pin cherry, choke cherry, juneberry, wild raisin, blueberry, wild strawberry, thimbleberry, mountain ash, cloudberry, lingonberry, barberry, partridgeberry, bunchberry, creeping snowberry, and wintergreen berries, just to name a handful.
Mountain ash berries are best in the late fall and winter when frosts reduce their tartness.
Believe it or not, when certain plants are burned, their ashes can be used as a delicious addition to dishes, enhancing the flavor, a bit like salt. In her book Original Local, Heid E. Erdrich mentions that Buffalo Bird Woman used ashes from corn cobs, elm wood, and cottonwood. She also notes that coltsfoot leaf ashes were used by Fernando and Marlene Divina in their book Foods of the Americas: Native Recipes and Traditions. Erdrich suggests using maple or oak and says “Once you use ash in a meal, you will want to fill a shaker and use it regularly”.
Those were some of my favorite wild seasoning, but this is not a comprehensive list by any means. Let us know in the comments below: What are your favorite wild spices?
If you want to learn more about foraging for and cooking with your own wild harvested ingredients, check out some of my favorite books on the topic!
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