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What is Allspice – 11 Fascinating Facts

Allspice is that magical powder associated with all Christmassy foods, scents, and flavors. Hailing from the Caribbean, it blends a lovely mixture of aromas and tastes. If you haven’t used allspice, you may wonder what allspice is and if it’s a mixture of different spices.

Allspice is the round-shaped fruit of an evergreen tree indigenous to Central America and the West Indies and comes in powdered or whole dry fruit forms. It’s called allspice because it has a mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove flavors which give it a warm, spicy, sweet, and woody taste.

Read on to learn more about allspice and its history, uses, and how it tastes and smells. We’ll also elaborate on the main traditional recipes made with allspice.

Whole Allspice berries sitting in a small wooden spoon with extra allspice berries sitting on the table next to it
Photo by Paulgrecaud

What is Allspice?

Allspice is the fruit of a tropical evergreen tree called Pimenta dioica that belongs to the myrtle family. The tree is native to Central America and the West Indies, although it’s grown in other warm climates now. It grows up to 30 feet (9 meters).

The fruit is a type of berry that’s the source of the highly flavored and aromatic allspice. The round fruit is about 0.2 inches (5 mms) in diameter and contains two kidney-shaped seeds.

Interestingly, the tree’s fresh leaves look like bay leaves, and people use them as a substitute for bay leaves in cooking. Local people use the Pimenta dioica’s leaves and wood to smoke meat. 

The tree primarily grows in Jamaica, which exports a better part of the consumed allspice worldwide. The Jamaican variety contains twice as much essential oil as the Central American variety. That’s why it’s a staple of Jamaican cuisine and dishes like beef patties and jerk seasoning. Jamaicans call allspice “pimento,” but there’s no relation between Jamaican pimento and the Pimento pepper.

Christopher Columbus came across allspice when he was looking for pepper and other native spices in the Caribbean. Because he had never seen pepper plants, he named allspice the Jamaican pepper which became the root of its botanical name, Jamaican pepper and Pimento. The first time that explorers took it to Europe was in 1601.

Jamaicans use allspice to cure different illnesses, including diarrhea, lung bleeding, infant colic, and menstrual cramps.

Is Allspice its Own Spice or a Mixture of Spices?

Although the name allspice may suggest that it’s a blend of multiple spices, it’s a single spice. Allspice gets its name from its rich combination of aromas that resemble cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. The early explorers who took the spice to Europe chose this name because i tasted like it was a mix of many spices.

The spice is the powder made from the dried fruit picked when it’s still green and unripe. When the fruits dry under the sun, they turn into round brown fruits that look like peppercorns.

There are some other aromatic shrubs called allspice. For example, the Carolina allspice, the Japanese allspice, the wild allspice, and the spicebush. The last one also has aromatic berries that grow in eastern North America, and people use it instead of Jamaican allspice.

Also known as Jamaica pepper and Pimenta, allspice comes in powdered and whole dried berry forms. When you grind allspice, it loses its pungent flavor and becomes less intense, unlike other spices that become more intense when ground. That’s because it contains volatile ingredients that evaporate in the open air. So, it’s better to take them in the whole form, refrigerate them, and make them into powder when they’re ready to use. 

What Does Allspice Smell Like?

Allspice combines a mixture of sweet, spicy, and dry smells that resemble cloves, cinnamon, ginger, pepper, juniper, and nutmeg at the same time. It has a warm, woody, and nutty quality with peppery overtones that remind you of Middle Eastern cuisine or pumpkin pie flavor.

The rich, intense aromas in allspice have made its oil an exotic ingredient in today’s cosmetic products, especially in men’s toiletries and perfumes labeled “spice.”

What Does Allspice Taste Like?

Allspice’s unique flavor profile comes from its highly fragrant and intense taste that creates a sweet and pungent flavor. It has a strong, spicy taste that can carry a little heat similar to ginger.

The amazing feature of allspice is that it doesn’t taste like a single spice, as the name suggests. Its taste is so powerful that adding only a pinch will give any dish an enticing flavor.

whole Allspice sitting in a large wooden spoon next to ground Allspice in a glass container
Photo by HandmadePictures

What is Allspice Good for Foodwise?

Allspice isn’t a mixture of spices, but it can replace lots of spices. So, if you have run out of cinnamon or cloves, you can safely replace them with this versatile spice.

Since allspice’s taste and scent are a combination of clover, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon, you can use it in any recipe that contains these spices. That said, this spice has its unique place in a wide array of cooking styles and cuisines.

The unique flavors mixed in allspice make it complement many types of dishes, both savory and sweet. So, you can use the spice with anything you crave, to add a flair to it, from a masala tea (chai) to pasta or yogurt. The alluring scent doesn’t overpower other tastes and flavors in the dishes and boosts other ingredients by adding pleasant underlying tones. You could either infuse them into ingredients or sprinkle a bit over the dish to get a flavor boost.

You can also add whole allspice berries to warm winter drinks such as apple cider and mulled wine.

It’s even used in Swedish cuisine, namely in the Swedish meatballs made with ground beef, breadcrumbs, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, and black pepper.

As we said, you can use allspice in the ground form and as whole dried berries. The ground powder is better to add flavor to cakes, cookies, or pies, while the whole berry is perfect for soups and stews.

You could also add the whole berries or powdered allspice to your cooking oil for enhanced aroma and taste. Since whole allspice berries have a richer flavor than the powdered form, you may find it too powerful. You can tame it by boiling the berries for ten minutes or warming them up in a pan.

A classic way to infuse allspice into cooking is to use it in jerk chicken, combined with other ingredients used to marinate the meat. 

You could even sprinkle a little on anything, from cooked or steamed vegetables to coffee. This way, you add a little surprise to the taste and try something new.

As a staple of the Caribbean and Latin cuisine, allspice is present in many dishes, from spice mixes, sausages, and chutneys to holiday treats such as eggnog. It’s also a major ingredient of pickle spice and mincemeat.

In the U.S., Cincinnati-style chili is a unique-tasting meat sauce that contains allspice. People use it on spaghetti and as a topping for many dishes such as coney dogs (hot dogs topped with chili).

How to Store Allspice

The ideal way to use allspice is to keep it as whole berries and grind them whenever you want. Since the powdered allspice loses its flavor quickly, it’s best to use it immediately after grinding. You don’t need to keep it refrigerated, but it needs a cool and dry place to retain its flavor. Store it in an airtight container away from direct sunlight, and you can keep it for years.

If you buy the spice in powdered form, make sure it’s genuine, pure allspice, as some packaging companies mix allspice with other spices for added mixes of flavors.

What are the Health Benefits of Allspice?

In Jamaica, people use all parts of the Pimenta dioica tree as a home remedy. They use it in various forms, including hot tea, essential oil, and topical paste. It serves a whole array of medicinal purposes such as treating colds, diabetes, upset stomachs, muscle aches, and joint pain. Its medicinal uses have spread to other parts of the world, including India and the U.K.

Allspice essential oil goes well with massage and bath oils to help relieve muscle pains and reduce stress and fatigue. Its comforting scent makes it a great choice in aromatherapy.

The most abundant chemical in allspice is eugenol, a polyphenol compound with many anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and antifungal benefits.

Although there’s limited research on the health benefits of allspice in modern medicine, the rich antioxidant content of this spice can be a beneficial source to prevent cancer.

Are there any Substitutes for Allspice?

If you’re halfway through cooking a dish only to find out it needs allspice and you don’t have any, don’t worry. Although allspice is a single spice, it doesn’t mean that you can’t create your own mixture to mimic the taste. You can bring a similar flavor and taste by combining the spices commonly found in your pantry.

For an allspice mixture recipe, you’ll need cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. These are the same ingredients that compose the unique allspice flavor.

The proportions are essential to creating a close enough taste. So, for one tablespoon of allspice, you’ll need equal amounts of ground cinnamon and ground cloves (1/2 teaspoon) and just a pinch of ground nutmeg. This mixture gives you a good enough substitute for allspice, although it won’t have the spice’s characteristic peppery and pungent kick.

Is Allspice the Same as Chinese Five Spice?

As we said, allspice isn’t a combination of several spices. That said, some people confuse it with other spices, such as Chinese five spice.

Chinese five-spice, as the name suggests, is a blend of five spices: cloves, star anise, Chinese cinnamon, fennel seeds, and Szechuan pepper. There may be other combinations depending on the region, but the main ingredient is star anise.

Ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, and mandarin orange peel are other ingredients occasionally found in this spice. The main theory behind five spice is to combine all five tastes: sour, salty, sweet, bitter, and pungent, although there’s nothing salty among the five spice ingredients.

Five spice is a perfect addition to meat and poultry seasoning, marinades, honey glaze, and spice rubs due to its wide range of tastes. It goes well with soups, stews, oatmeal, gingerbread-type desserts, and even stir fries. Plus, you can use them in desserts because it’s sweet and aromatic. It’s so versatile that you can bring this exotic blend to any recipe with a bit of creativity.

Although both spices have extensive uses in the culinary world, they have completely different taste profiles. Five spice gives your recipes a more Asian touch, while allspice brings Middle Eastern and Caribbean cuisine to mind. Both have potent flavors that require only a small portion of them in any recipe.

Whole Allspice berries scattered about a white background
Photo by Ewanbellamy

Is Allspice the Same as Mixed Spice?

Allspice is nothing like mixed spice, but it’s one of the main ingredients used in mixed spice. Mixed spice is a combination of different spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, caraway, cloves, allspice, mace, ginger, and coriander.

It has a sweet, spicy, and warm flavor that works well for baked goods, including cookies, puddings, and cakes. It also goes by the name of British sweet spice, cake spice, or pudding spice because it has British origins and is mainly used in sweet dishes. However, a sprinkle of mixed spice won’t hurt a savory dish.

Both mixed spice and allspice can be used in the same recipes, although mixed spice has a much milder flavor. Mixed spice is also very similar to pumpkin pie spice, and you can use them interchangeably.

To make mixed spice, you can grind and mix all the said spices in equal proportions and keep them in a tight container. Toasting the cloves, mace, coriander seeds, and allspice will add more flavor to them and make them easier to grind.

Is Allspice the Same as Pumpkin Pie Spice?

Pumpkin pie spice is also another warm combination of spices that has nothing to do with allspice, although it contains allspice. The main ingredients include cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice.

While it’s a mixture of spices commonly used in pumpkin pie, you can use it in other dishes, too. The pumpkin pie spice is the main ingredient of Starbucks’ pumpkin spiced latte, which is widely popular in the fall season.

Making a homemade batch of pumpkin pie spice is just as easy as reaching out for the ingredients in your pantry. You need three tablespoons of ground cinnamon, two teaspoons of ground nutmeg and ginger, one teaspoon of ground allspice, and one teaspoon of ground cloves. Put them in a jar, seal the container, and shake it until well mixed.

Jamaican Jerk Chicken Recipe

As we said, the most famous traditional dish that uses allspice is Jamaican jerk chicken. Jamaican jerk seasoning is among the most significant recipes that make generous use of allspice.

Jerk is a style of Jamaican cooking that rubs or marinades meat with Jamaican jerk spice. The meat is traditionally pork or chicken, but fish, beef, shellfish, tofu, lamb, and vegetables are other ingredients that can use jerk seasoning. The main ingredients for jerk seasoning are allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers. It may also contain cloves, thyme, cumin, garlic, ginger, and nutmeg. 

There are hundreds of different jerk chicken recipes on the internet that use a wide array of ingredients in the marinade. Some recipes use soy sauce, vegetable oil, and brown sugar. Although Jamaican jerk joints don’t share their secret formula, the key ingredients are usually allspice, thyme, Scotch bonnet peppers, fresh ginger, and scallions.

Another peculiar stage of cooking Jamaican jerks is preparing the fire. Local Jamaicans place charcoals under metal grates and put them ablaze, continually stirring them to stay hot. Then, they put large logs of green allspice wood on the grate and place the meat directly in the wood. After that, they cover the meat with large metal sheets.

During the cooking process, the meat absorbs oil from the wood while getting a mixture of smoky and steamy flavors. When it’s ready, they remove the bones, chop it up, and serve it with the traditional Scotch bonnet hot sauce.

Jerk chicken isn’t a dish that you can make in an hour. Marination should be as long as possible. Some cooks let their marinades sit for up to 24 hours. This way, the meat absorbs all the tastes and aromas before getting smoked.

To make a homemade Jamaican jerk chicken:

  1. Combine all the marinade ingredients in a food processor. Getting coarse or finely chopped vegetables and spices is all your call.
  2. Pour the mix into a bowl and put the chicken in the bowl.
  3. Turn the chicken to get an even coat.
  4. Cover the dish and put it in the fridge overnight.

Before cooking:

  1. Take out the chicken to bring it to room temperature.
  2. Light the grill and put the chicken on medium fire.
  3. Turn the chicken occasionally until it’s brown and cooked thoroughly. If you want a smoky flavor, you can cover the grill.
  4. If you don’t have a grill, you can also use an oven or cook the chicken in a pan on the stove.

Closing Thoughts

As a staple of Caribbean cuisine, allspice adds an exotic flair to any food recipe. It’s a single spice that brings together the scents and tastes of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger. Although commonly mistaken with, and similar in taste to mixed spice, pumpkin pie spice, and five spice, it is different from them.

The spice is a perfect addition to a wide range of savory and sweet dishes. Cakes, cookies, casseroles, soups, stews, and meatballs are among the many dishes that can be enhanced with a pinch of allspice.