Hey there, spice aficionado!
Can you handle a quick, playful check-up on your spice game?
- How long have you and your spice rack been in cahoots?
- Have you two been exploring new flavors together?
- And what about the little guys hiding in the back, playing hide-and-seek?
- Can you still use them in your culinary creations?
Time to spice things up and give your spice cupboard/rack/collection a little love.
As home cooks, we can sometimes have a love-hate relationship with spices.
We know they are valuable. We also know they can make or break a meal. They’re expensive, smell amazing and mysterious like the main character from a cheap romance novel. But, we don’t always know what to do with them.
Let’s follow the spice quest and see where they’re from, what makes them so magical and most importantly – know when it’s time to say goodbye.
Let the spicy adventure begin!
The Spice Wars
I’m not talking about the movie Dune here. In ancient times there were epic battles fought over spices. Empires were won and lost and they shaped the essence of cultural food along the way.
With such a rich (and violent) history, we can be grateful that spices are more readily available in the modern world. It’s fascinating to see how these small but powerful ingredients have influenced cuisine across the globe. The spice trade brought about one of humanity’s first taste of globalisation. Imagine, a local flavour from one corner of the world, affecting the taste of a dish on the other side of the planet!
Now, in the same week, and without leaving town, we can indulge in a spicy Thai dish, Pesto laden Italian dish or Cape Malay Curry.
Spices are intimidating and magical
Walk into a spice shop and take in all that aroma, colour and exotic names. You cannot help but conjure up all the amazing meals you could make with them. Then you get home and come to add them to your meal preparation and… panic!
That would be the intimidating part. (Before I learnt more about cooking, salt – not actually a spice, but a mineral- and pepper were my default when in doubt).
Then, once the panic subsides, you experiment a little. The colours set in, the aroma wafts through the house and your taste buds prepare for a magical and memorable meal.
The magic is because it triggers ALL our senses.
Activating all five of our senses
The food we eat isn’t just about our mouths and stomach. Before we even get to put the food in our mouths, our senses are stimulated and activated.
It all begins with the Cephalic Phase, which is vital to the effective digestion of food, but more about that later, let’s talk senses first:
Sight: The deep vibrant colours are often the first drawing card. Whether it’s the vivid red of paprika, bright golden turmeric or refreshing green of cardamom, the colours are hard to ignore.
Smell: Who can resits the the aroma of spices. Smell is also closely linked to our sense of taste. The distinct and potent scents can get you salivating (activating digestive enzymes) for your meal in seconds.
Taste: Spices can add sweetness, bitterness, heat, warmth or any number of combinations of flavours to a dish. This is what makes them so complex and why they can elevate a meal to something memorable.
Touch: Not all touch is related to our hands. The burn on your lips or the sensation of biting a peppercorn-crusted steak is all part of the touch experience.
Sound: Whether it’s hearing the spices sizzle in the pan or the crackling sound as you bite into a spice the sounds you hear are an equally important part of the enjoyable experience of eating.
The cephalic phase and our senses
Many believe chewing to be the first stage of digestion. While vital, the cephalic phase is the under appreciated first step. It has to do with activating the medulla oblongata, found in the brain.
When our senses are triggered by food, it activates the brain, sending neurological signals to the digestive system. This starts the production of digestive juices in our mouth and gastrointestinal tract, (up to 20% of the required juices).
We 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 with indigestion, you may benefit significantly by applying mindful eating practices.
Are they healthy?
We use such small amounts; you might be wondering if they even count when it comes to a healthy diet.
This is one of the times where the saying – ‘dynamite comes in small packages’ could not be more apt.
Those tiny seeds and powders are potent. Culinary and medicinal uses require different concentrations and extractions, but the fundamental health components remain. Day-to-day use of spices strongly complements a diverse and healthy diet.
For example, spices have high ORAC Values and 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!
Western & 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, and hospitals.
It’s easy to forget that many of those prescriptions originated from plants like herbs and spices. 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 (it’s 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.
Now that we know spices are a big part of our history and that they can rock our senses, let’s look at what makes them so intimidating.
How they end up at the back of the cupboard
Like with all things in life, there is a fine line between just right and too much or too little – or the Goldilocks dilemma as I like to say.
There’s also the fact that we each have our own preferences. Some love hot and spicy and others mild and mellow. This is all controlled by how much and what type of spice you use. An intimidating prospect if you are new to using spices and making meals from scratch.
You may have bought a few spices for a specific recipe, tried it, and it didn’t taste as good as you thought, but you may use it again, in the draw it goes. Or the spice was so expensive you simply cannot bring yourself to part with it, in the draw it goes.
These spices might stay in the front row for a bit, then move to the next row and eventually find themselves at the back. Forgotten.
There are a ton of for-instances but, at the core of all of this, there are a few basic things happening:
- We aren’t sure how to use the spice
- We don’t like the spice
- We not confident enough to experiment with the spice
- We have so many spices they get lost
- We hate to waste money
All excellent reasons to leave them at the back of the cupboard and hang on to them for a while. But you have to ask yourself, how do you stop this from happening again and what do you do with all those back-of-the-draw spices?
So glad you asked. Let’s start with selecting Spices.
So you want to use more spices, and experiment with a wider range of spices. The first step is selecting spices.
But you don’t want to just choose a whole lot of spices, bring them home and only use them once or twice. This needs to be budget-friendly, minimal waste exercise.
A quick note to remember as we go through these lists:
Whole spices are essentially the dried bark, 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.
1.1 Start with pre-made blends
Before channelling your inner alchemist and buying individual spices, start with small packs of pre-made blends, rubs or pastes. If you end up buying BBQ rub every week, then you know it’s worth your while to start experimenting with making your own blend.
If you’re buying a Za’atar blend once every few months, then stick to the pre-made and buy it as you need.
1.2 Use whole spices
Powdered spices are great and definitely an option if you’re using them often. But they do lose their potency and flavour over time. If you know you won’t be using them often or quickly, then whole spices are a good option.
Whole spices can be identified as seeds, berries, buds, sticks, bark or whatever form you can get as close to how it is found in nature.
Whole spices can be ground or grated as needed and hold their flavour, fragrance and volatile oils longer.
1.3 Food Miles
Note the origin of your spice selection. Where possible purchase locally sourced spices. Unlike fresh foods that reach our stores in a reasonably short time, spices can be stored for a long time before reaching us.
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!
1.4 Fresh Vs Dried
AreN'T fresh spices actually herbs?
When you get to the spice aisle you might feel a little confused when you see them all lined up and there’s dried parsley or dill on the shelves. You may wonder if the fresh version is a herb and the dried version a spice.
Many refer to spices and herbs interchangeably and there isn’t any real spice police that’s going to gasp in shock and horror if you do. But as your knowledge and familiarity with the two grow you will most likely start differentiating between them. Until then, here’s what you need to know:
Spices: Typically made from the seeds, barks, roots, or fruits of a plant.
Examples: Turmeric root, whole peppercorns, cinnamon bark, and juniper berries.
Herbs: Typically made from the leaves of a plant.
Examples: Basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley, coriander (cilantro)
Herbs can be dried and are therefore found on the same shelves as spices.
HOW MUCH DRIED SPICE EQUALS THEIR FRESH VERSION
The general rule is 1:3 of dried to fresh.
In the kitchen this will look like the following: (amounts are approximate and rounded to the nearest standard measurement)
1 tsp dried spice = 1 tbsp fresh spice (15ml)
2 tsp dried spice = 2 tbsp fresh spice (30ml)
3 tsp or 1 tbsp dried spice = 3 tbsp fresh spice (45ml)
4 tsp or 1tbsp + 1tsp dried spice = 4 tbsp or 1/4 cup fresh spice (60ml)
WHEN TO USE FRESH AND WHEN TO USE DRIED
Dried spices can store for a long time and there’s a huge range readily available in most stores. This makes them a versatile and affordable option. They can be used in many dishes, but there are instances where they are a better choice:
- Long Cooking – Dry spices need a little time to release and infuse their flavours into a dish. The longer they have the better. Slow-cooking, simmering or pre-cooking dishes that allow time for the flavour to be released often taste different during and after. The next day they have an even better flavour.
- Convenience & Availability – There are some parts of the world where fresh options are not easy to get and this can be limiting if you are experimenting with different cuisines or your culinary skills. Dried spices are available all year round. They’re also an easy option when you’re creating spice blends or mixes for different dishes.
- Cost – Generally dried spices are less expensive and you tend to get more bang for your buck. If you have a local spice emporium, you can probably buy per gram, which means you buy just what you need.
Not always as readily available as their dry counterparts, fresh spices have their own uniqueness when it comes to cooking with them.
- Brighter Flavour – Fresh spices tend to stand out more like the sting from fresh ginger or the slight bitterness of turmeric. They bring a zingy and tanginess that can sometimes be lost with dried spices.
- Texture – Adding fresh spices to salad dressings or directly to a dish gives colour and texture. That texture also carries a lot of flavours when you happen to bite into it.
- Health Benefits – Dried spices are often irradiated (more about that in the next section), which means their fresh version sometimes have additional beneficial compounds that are more bioavailable. This does not mean that all dried spices are nutritionally void, simply that alternating or combing fresh with dried versions is a good option.
1.5 Irradiated or Non-irradiated
Irradiation is a controversial subject as it is considered a safety measure. It’s meant to kill off harmful bugs, parasites and bacteria and ultimately make the spices more stable and have a longer shelf life. It does not make the spice radioactive, but when it kills off the bad bugs, it also kills the good bugs and nutrients.
Some consumers are also concerned that this allows food manufacturers to be less diligent with hygiene and safety within the factories. This is, however, just speculation.
The choice is ultimately yours and will be influenced by what you are wanting to use the spices for.
Irradiation has no effect on taste, so culinary uses are fine.
However, if your intent is to maximise the nutritional value of your dish, then consider using as much fresh produces as possible and non-irradiated spices.
1.6 Where you buy your spices counts!
This actually needs its own article, but here’s the mini version of what you should know.
Spice adulteration is a very real issue all around the world and has proven to be a very difficult issue to manage. Essentially herbs and spices are sourced from mass producers and small subsistence farmers from around the world. The product then passes between many intermediaries before the final product reaches your kitchen.
There is an increasing concern that in the quest for profit and prolific supply, adulterants are added to the mix. The purpose of these adulterants is:
- Bulking – adding mass, means more to supply and as spices are so costly, it leads to the next primary reason…
- Profit – The spice trade is a multi-billion dollar global industry. It also primarily deals in the powdered form which opens the door to unscrupulous intermediaries to ‘bulk-up’ both the product and profit. Cost per gram and kilo is the driving factor.
Spice adulteration is neither legal nor sanctioned, but because it is so hard to manage and detect, it is a big issue.
Items often used to adulterate spices are:
- artificial colourants
- corn flour
- horse dung
- lead chromate and many more.
As a home cook, there are limited ways for you to figure out whether your spices are being adulterated or not. Your best option is to get to know your suppliers and brands. If you have doubts or hear rumours contact them directly. Keep up to date with the news related to the food industry and make a choice based on what you have discovered.
This video gives you a small glimpse into the enormity and complexity of the issue:
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.
But the reality is spices are organic and, just like your veggies wilt away in the fridge, so spices lose their potency, flavour 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 important. Glass is ideal, with stainless steel being the next best option. Plastics and foils should be avoided due to the volatile oils. As the spice ages, the volatile oils are released and can cause the 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.
If you have a pull out spice rack alongside your oven, ensure the layer between the oven and your spices is sufficient to shield most of the heat.
Any foods exposed to natural or artificial light cause photodegradation (degradation due to photon exposure). It’s the reason some of your medications, vitamins and 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 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.
2.6 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.
2.7 Stay or go?
When to throw them out?
There is no hard and fast way to tell, but if they have been in your cupboards forever (you know what I’m talking about), then that will be your first clue.
If their colour is faded and they're 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.
Now for the fun part!
A few techniques and uses help get the most out of your spices, especially when you are working with whole spices.
The goal 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.
You might have read a recipe that calls for blooming, roasting, or infusing 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 and uses:
3.1 Cooking Methods
Method 1: Dry Roast
A popular method used in Indian cuisine.
- Using a small heavy-based pan over medium heat gradually allow the pan to heat up
- Once evenly heated place your spices in the pan and allow the spices to heat for 30-60 seconds, (they may begin to crackle a little)
- **If you start with your spices in a cold pan, the process may take 1 – 2 minutes.
- Stir frequently and remove them as soon as you can smell the aroma of the spices being 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.
The process can be done while you are cooking.
- Create a well in the centre of your pan
- Add a little oil to the well
- Add your spices and allow them to heat and release
- Blend well 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. Add all your dry ingredients first, then grind until you are closest to the consistency you desire. Add moist ingredients last and then continue grinding
Spice grinders are a quick and effective way to grind up your whole spices and make blends. They can be a little pricey, so before you splurge on a dedicated spice grinder see if you can use the following…
- Coffee Grinders
Not all coffee grinders can grind spices. First try with a small amount and see how it goes. Read the booklet that comes with the coffee grinder and it will most likely say whether nuts and spices can also be ground.
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 consider using the following methods:
Using a fine grater or rasper with spices like whole nutmeg, fresh ginger or turmeric is quick and easy
- Crushing or Bruising
Using the flat section of your knife, a rolling pin or a pestle, layout your spices on a flat surface, bowl or pan. Then begin to crush or lightly bruise them according to how your recipe requires it.
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
Both the infused liquid and softened strands can be used
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.
After you have selected your ingredients (spices with oil/vinegar/honey), use a clean and dry container to combine everything. (The ratio of ingredients will depend on your personal taste and the strength of the flavours you want to achieve).
Leave the mixture in a tightly sealed container at room temperature for a few days, or until it reaches the level of flavour you are happy with.
The longer the mixture sits, the stronger the flavour will be.
When you are happy with the flavour, strain out the solids using a fine-mesh sieve or cheesecloth.
Keep your infused mix in an airtight container away from heat and light. It should keep for several weeks, although the flavour may begin to fade over time.
Now that you have sorted your spice selection out, it’s time to start exploring the many ways to use your spices.
Marinades are used to flavour and tenderise meats, seafood and vegetables. They work best when coated over the food you would like to marinade and then left for a few hours to work their magic. The acids in marinades help tenderise while the oils prevent drying. The herbs and spices pack the flavour.
Spice rubs are usually a combination of herbs and spices that are then rubbed or packed onto meat, seafood or vegetables. Popular when braai-ing (grilling or barbecuing in the rest of the world) it can create a flavour bursting crust that releases flavour and aroma as it is cooked.
Spice blends can vary from household to household. Even well known or culturally associated blend can vary. Essentially it is a combination of spices that collectively create their own special flavour and aroma.
Spice pastes are effectively pureed or blended spices that have a fleshy or wet component that make them into a paste. Some mixes include the addition of an oil to help with the blooming process, but it is not always necessary. Popular with curries, spice pastes can be smooth or chunky.
Infusions are essentially the process of adding flavour to a liquid, whether it be an oil, vinegar, spirit or syrup. Typically heat is used to begin the process and then the mixture is left for a few days or weeks to allow the flavours to blend with the liquid. It creates a flavourful liquid that can be used for anything from savoury dishes to desserts to drinks.
Pickling is primarily a form of preserving food. However when herbs and spices are added to the process it can impart nuanced flavours that can add to whatever is being pickled. Pickles are usually used as a condiment and make a fantastic addition to salads and sandwiches.
Try this recipe…
Spices have a rich history some of it bizarre and some of it important. Here are a few tidbits about spices you might find interesting:
There is a good reason why it is known to be the World’s most expensive spice.
The only part of the flower that can be used as a spice are the fine stigmata.
More than 225,000 stigmas must be hand picked to produce 450 grams which is less than half a kilogram or 1 pound.
Vanilla is considered the second-most expensive spice.
You might be surprised to find out that they have no taste or aroma in their freshly harvested state. They need to be manually pollinated and harvested.
To get that delicious smell and flavour takes an intensive and extensive curing process to activate the enzymes needed for the flavour and aroma we know.
When consumed in high (seriously high) quantities, nutmeg has haluciogenic qualities.
It's also highly toxic to dogs and can cause seizures, tremors, and nervous system disorders which could be fatal.
Experiment with this recipe...
This is a pretty basic curry recipe that uses a curry blend. If the idea of experimenting with spices seems a little intimidating, start with something easy like this.
How to experiment with the recipe:
- Use different types of curry blends and note how they change the curry
- Use spice pastes instead of powders and see if it makes the flavour more intense or less
- Add extra spices like chilli, cardamom, coriander or cumin
Keep a note book handy and record the changes you make. Make note of the flavours and whether you found them too intense or if they enhanced the flavour profile.
Start with small increments and additions, then expand from there.
Going plant-based and need more protein? This Creamy Chickpea Curry is a great source of plant-based protein. Add the warmth of fresh ginger and curry spices, round it off with a bit of creaminess, and you have yourself a healthy and delicious comfort food.