The Mystery of Pumpkin Spice (Hint: It’s Not Pumpkin!)

It's a lightning rod of seasonal debate: Pumpkin spice lattes are amazing. Pumpkin spice lattes are basic. Pumpkin spice itself should be added to everything — no, wait, it's in way too many things already.
Whatever your position, it's hard to deny that pumpkin spice tastes like fall. But, it's not the flavor of pumpkin that's delicious, per se. In fact, there's no actual pumpkin in pumpkin spice, just like there are no apples in apple pie spice. Or crying in baseball.
Pumpkin doesn’t taste like much on its own. Or, rather, it doesn’t taste like pumpkin pie. It’s a squash, and so on its own it's mild, mellow, and earthy. That symphony of spices — cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves — get credit for imparting beloved autumnal warmth. The one that calls to mind falling leaves and cozy sweaters.
The reason those Starbucks lattes taste so perfectly fall is because that medley of spices is considered "warming" — a perfect pick-me-up for chilly days.
In ancient Indian medicine, called Ayurveda, spices are either warming or cooling. Ayurvedic medicine believes those designations change how food and drink affect the well-being of the digestive system and our inner balance.
You know a warm spice when you smell it wafting through the house or taste it in a sumptuous hot soup. It’s deep, rich, and well, warm. In contrast, think of cooling, refreshing spices like mint and dill.
Warm spices like ginger, allspice, cardamom, cloves, and coriander often team up in recipes with blends like garam masala, curry powder, and chai. Lots of sweets (pumpkin pie, spice cookies, gingerbread) rely on their vivid flavors, but they’re important players in savory dishes as well.
Warm spices have health benefits too, particularly in the impending winter sickness season. Cinnamon has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial superpowers, and can help increase circulation. Ginger aids digestion, is invigorating, and can treat colds and neutralize toxins. Nutmeg promotes peaceful rest, and may help clear skin and strengthen the immune system. Ancient Egyptians chewed cardamom to whiten their teeth and sweeten their breath.
Inspired? Here's a quick way to make your own.

Pumpkin pie spice
Yields about 2 tablespoons

1 tbsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Generous amount of cardamom or mace

Mix all spices together until free of lumps. Store in an old spice jar. Use whenever the mood strikes.
Add a dash to oatmeal, and top with honey or brown sugar. Stir into pancake batter, a smoothie, or a protein shake. Sprinkle onto butternut squash or other root veggies, then roast or blend into soup. Jazz up any cookie or cake recipe — or your holiday whipped cream — with the mixture. Lattes are just the tip of the spice-berg!

More from Food & Drinks

R29 Original Series