How long have your spices been in your cupboard? How confident are you at experimenting with spices? If you find spices a little intimidating, let me share a few spice essentials like selecting spices, storing, and some cooking methods to get the most out of them.
Spices are powerful. In ancient times epic battles were fought, and empires were won or lost because of them. Spices shaped the essence of cultural foods by the way they were combined and used. With such a rich (and violent) history, we can be grateful that spices are more readily available in the modern World. Spices brought about humanity’s first taste of globalisation and with it the influence that a remote part of the World had over what others ate on opposite sides of the planet. That globalisation and availability mean if you are looking for a fiery Thai dish or warming Chinese broth, you will most likely not have to look far to find the ingredients.
Spices are intimidating. At least they were for me when I began experimenting and learning to cook. I loved buying them, smelling them and thinking of all the fantastic dishes I could make, but when it came to putting them together… panic! Salt (not actually a spice, but a mineral) and pepper was the default when in doubt.
Spices are magical. When you get the blend right, and it compliments your food, it can make a meal magical and memorable. This is because spices can trigger all our senses. The bright colours, the pungent smell, the burn on your lips, the sound of seeds being ground all activate the very first phase of digestion – the cephalic phase.
Let’s step aside from spices for a bit and understand how powerfully they can affect us by looking at the cephalic phase:
Cephalic Phase of Digestion
Many believe chewing is the first part of digestion. While vital, the cephalic phase is the underappreciated first step. It has to do with activating our medulla oblongata, found in the brain.
When our senses are triggered by food, it activates our brain, sending neurological signals to the digestive system. We then start producing digestive juices in our mouth and gastrointestinal tract to prepare that food. The cephalic phase triggers up to 20% of these digestive juices.
We more commonly recognise this as the mouth-watering reaction to food. This process is severely hindered when we eat while working, driving, watching TV or any activity where we are not relaxed. Being present and aware when eating is an essential part of digestion; if you suffer from indigestion, benefit significantly by applying mindful eating practices at mealtimes.
Rocking Your Senses
Spices have a way of rocking our senses and bringing us into focus. They are just so vibrant and hard to ignore. There is, however, a fine line between just right and too much, which will differ from person to person. I love rich smells and tastes and a healthy dose of tang (sour) or zing (burn); others find it overpowering and off-putting. The magic of spices is such that you can control the intensity.
Try experimenting with this recipe Creamy Chickpea Curry. Use different types of curry blends and see how drastically it can change a dish.
Figuring Out What Spices To Use
Mixing and selecting the right spices, while amazing, is also what makes them so intimidating. However, if you are working toward making all your food from scratch, it will eventually include your spices, purchasing them in a whole form and then making your own blends.
The problem here is – spices are pricey. Making a mistake can be costly, and if you find you don’t like the spice, it will inevitably live the remainder of its days at the back of the spice draw. So you may not want to toss it out if you have just spent a fortune on it.
This is one of the rare times that buying pre-made is the way to go.
Luckily, you can follow a few guidelines to get the best use out of your spices, and buying pre-made is part of that.
Are Spices Healthy?
We use such small amounts; you might be wondering if they even count when it comes to a healthy diet? The saying – ‘dynamite comes in small packages could not be more apt. Those tiny seeds and powders are potent. While culinary and medicinal uses require different concentrations and extractions, the fundamental health components remain and strongly complement a diverse and healthy diet. For example, spices have flavonoids in them that help our bodies with everything from destroying free radicals, reducing inflammation, allergen reducing, digestive aids, and so much more.
So, are they healthy? Most definitely!
ORAC: Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity.
Spices have some of the highest levels of antioxidants on a gram for gram comparison. If you are interested in seeing just how much take a look at this document prepared by the USDA (U.S Department of Agriculture), specifically pages 10 – 13.
Western Vs. Traditional Medicinal Uses
Those living in the Western World are accustomed to taking pills, powders, and syrups to deal with their ailments. We associate this with manufactured, scientific and clinical practices, i.e., doctors rooms, chemists, hospitals.
It is easy to forget that many of those prescriptions originated from plants like herbs and spices. So the World Health Organisation initiated a Traditional Medicine Strategy for 2014 – 2023, which effectively “will strengthen the role traditional medicine plays in keeping populations healthy”. They also published a booklet on Traditional herbal remedies for primary health care (which is well worth reading). Medicinal uses of herbs and spices lie in every culture across the planet, and scientists often explore the plant kingdom for new compounds that they can synthesise and patent in modern medicine.
“Foolish the doctor who despises the knowledge acquired by the ancients.” – Hippocrates
It is safe to say that spices are a healthy addition to our diets. But how do we use them for the most significant benefit when cooking? The answer to this lies in the selection, storage and preparation.
How To Select Spices
As mentioned, if you are entirely new to spices, you might want to start with a selection of spice blends, rubs or pastes. If you end up buying a BBQ rub every week, then it will be worth your while to explore making that from scratch and in bulk. If you are using it often, then making your own bulk mix will most likely be cheaper than the ready mix.
Whole spices are essentially the dried barks, roots, leaves, seeds, fruit or flower of a plant. When whole spices are ground up, they become the powdered spices we see on our shelves. Therefore, when selecting your spices, be sure (wherever possible) to:
- Purchase whole spices (seeds, berries, buds, sticks, bark, etc.).
Whole spices will keep their flavour, fragrance and nutrients longer.
- Purchase locally sourced spices.
Spices have some of the longest food miles, meaning the time and travel between harvest and landing in your kitchen can range from months to years.
- Fleshy spices like ginger or lemongrass taste different in dried form than fresh ones.
Keep this in mind when selecting these spices or when you do substitutions.
- Purchase from reputable sources.
Spices are prone to fraud and adulteration. Unscrupulous suppliers will add fillers and additives to bulk or mimic a spice. Here is a video about adulterated oregano that gives you a glimpse into how these scamsters operate.
- Select non-irradiated spices.
Irradiation is a controversial subject as it is considered a safety measure. It is meant to kill off harmful bugs and ultimately make the spices more stable and longer shelf life. However, it also kills the good bugs and nutrients. If your intent is a health-promoting diet, then irradiated spices aren’t a good choice. This article sums it up nicely.
How to Store Spices
How we store spices has a significant impact on retaining their flavour and nutritional value. I often joke in my classes that most of us have spices from the first divorce, and it’s funny because it’s true. Before I knew better, I had kept some of my spices for ten years or more. (Perhaps somebody will do a study on that one day because it seems to be a ubiquitous thing).
But the reality is spices are organic and, like your veggies, wilt away in the fridge, so spices lose their potency and effect. It might not happen as quickly as with herbs, but they have a shelf life and are affected by the environment.
Here are some tips about storing spices:
What you store them in is essential. Glass is ideal, with stainless steel the next best option. Plastics and foils should be avoided due to the volatile oils. As the spices age, the volatile oils are being released and can cause leaching of plastics and foils. Both these materials have been associated with health issues and, as a precaution, should be avoided.
Whichever container you choose, ensure that they are sealed tightly. Air comes with moisture, and there is nothing worse than opening a bottle and finding a solid clump of spice in it.
Heat encourages the release of volatile oils, so storing your spices near a heat source should be avoided.
Any foods exposed to natural or artificial light causes photodegradation (degradation due to photon exposure). It’s the reason your oils are sold in dark bottles. Likewise, to keep your spices fresh and long-lasting, be sure to keep them out of direct light when in storage.
- Whole vs Powder
Whole spices last longer (up to 3 years) if stored correctly. So if you are looking for longevity, then whole spices are the way to go. Powdered spices can last anything between a few months to a year.
- Fridge or Freezer?
This is a personal choice. I don’t store spices in the fridge or freezer. However, many swear by it. If you choose to keep them in the refrigerator or freezer, be aware that if you live in a hot climate and don’t return them directly to the fridge after use, there will likely be some condensation from the container. This can cause clotting and bacteria.
How do you know when to throw them out?
There is no hard and fast way to tell, but if they have been in your cupboards for ever (you know what I’m talking about), then that will be your first clue.
If their colour is faded and they are looking dull – they should probably go.
The most obvious is smell – spices are pungent and if they have no smell then it is definitely time to toss them.
Cooking Methods for Spices
Now for the fun part! A few techniques help get the most out of your spices, especially when you are working with whole spices. The goal here is to release as much flavour and nutrients as possible into your dish. You might think of spices as dry as we mostly see them in powder form, but they are oil-based. These volatile oils (essential oils) contain concentrated forms of nutrients, aroma, and flavours. These techniques are often listed in recipes but not explained why.
For example, you might have read a recipe that calls for blooming, roasting, or infusing the spices. I used to think it was simply a chef with far too much time on their hands or trying to be fancy, but it turns out they are vital to the preparation and use of spices. Let’s look at some of the more common techniques:
Method 1: Dry Roast
A popular method used in Indian cuisine.
- using a small heavy-based pan over medium heat
- you can allow the pan to heat up first or place your spices in the pan immediately
- if the pan is already heated, allow the spices to heat for 30-60 seconds, they may begin to crackle a little
- if the pan has to heat up, let the spices heat for 1 – 2 minutes
- stir frequently and remove as soon as you can smell the aroma of the spices is released
- remove from heat and grind or use as per the recipe
Method 2: Blooming
Also known as oil frying or tempering. A popular method used in Asian cuisine.
- add oil (butter, ghee, olive, coconut, etc.) to a small heavy-based pan over medium heat
- once heated, add the spice/s and allow to gently fry and release the aroma
- depending on the heat, this can take 30 – 60 seconds
- Blooming can be done with water; however, as the spices are oil-based, using oil allows for a better release.
- While cooking, the process can be done by creating a well in the centre of your pan, adding a little oil, then your spices and allowing them to heat and release, then blending with the rest of the ingredients before adding broths or liquids.
Method 3: Grinding
Powdered spices have already been ground. Whole spices can easily be ground at home.
- mortar and pestle – this is a slightly more laborious way, but very rewarding
- grinders – before splurging on a dedicated spice grinder, know that some coffee grinders can do the job just as well. Just be sure to clean it properly before and after.
Method 4: Grating, Bruising and Crushing
Fresh spices, seeds and more fibrous spices can sometimes not be ground. In these cases, using a fine grater, crushing or bruising with your knife or a pestle will help release the good stuff.
Shredding and chopping can also be added here, as your knife or blender can be used.
Method 5: Infusing
Some spices need to be infused, like saffron or tamarind. Soaking them in a little warm water or milk for a few minutes allows the flavour and the colour to be released.
- place saffron strands in a little warm liquid for 3 – 5 minutes and then use both liquid and strands.
- place tamarind pulp in a few tablespoons of warm water and leave for 5 – 10 minutes. Then, strain the juice to use in your recipe and discard the pulp.
- **infusing oils, alcohols, vinegars and honeys with spices is a story all on its own – there will be an article on this in the future**
Interesting facts about spices
Justfunfacts.com have a whole lot of exciting tidbits about spices, but here are some I thought you might find interesting:
“Saffron, the World’s most expensive spice, is costly because only a small part of the saffron flower — the stigmata — is actually used for the spice. More than 225,000 stigmas must be hand picked to produce kilogram 0.45 (1 pound).”
“fresh vanilla beans have no taste or aroma. They must undergo an extensive curing process that results in the release of vanillin with its distinct aroma and flavor. The traditional method begins with subjecting the harvested beans to a process of nightly sweating and daily exposure to the sun for about 10 days, until they become deep chocolate brown in color. This processing and the need for manual pollination make vanilla the second-most expensive spice after saffron.”
“Nutmeg is highly neurotoxic to dogs and causes seizures, tremors, and nervous system disorders which can be fatal.”
Remember, experimenting in the kitchen is how we learn. Your apron is just a lab coat in disguise!
Spice Mixes From Around The World
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