Spices and Herbs 101: Gateway to a World of Cuisines
If there’s one category of ingredients that distinguishes one cuisine from another, it’s herbs and spices. Packed with essential oils, they’re incredibly concentrated in flavor—often a pinch or small spoonful is enough to perfume an entire dish.
Take a whiff of a stew, braise, casserole, or curry, and the first thing your nose will register is its spice profile. Smoked paprika signifies a Spanish influenced meal; the piney aroma of juniper berries lend a Scandinavian flair, and so on.
Spice Blends: Classic Combinations
Here in Silicon Valley, we have a global pantry of ingredients at our fingertips, free to mix and match as we please. But when it comes to spice blends, I usually stick to classic combinations and often leave the blending up to the experts. After all, traditional spice blends have stood the test of time for a reason, and it takes a judicious hand to balance the forceful flavors of different spices to create a cohesive blend, balancing spicy with sweet, savory with sharp.
Whole vs. Ground Spices: Shortcuts Worth Taking
You can buy spices in either their whole or ground form. Whole spices tend to keep longer, retaining their aroma for up to two years, while ground spices and blends remain fragrant for considerably less time, about eight to 10 months. When deciding whether to buy a spice in its whole or ground form, it can be tempting to just choose the whole varieties since they’ll keep so much longer. However, it’s important to consider whether you’re going to be willing to take the extra step of grinding them at home.
Some whole spices are easier to grind than others—most of us are used to adding a few turns of the pepper grinder to a soup or vinaigrette, or rubbing a whole nutmeg seed against a grater or microplane. Smaller varieties of chili peppers are another great candidate for buying in their whole form, since they’re easy to bash into flakes. Just pour a few into a mortar and gently tap away with a pestle for a minute or so.
Great candidates for buying pre-ground include cinnamon, cardamom, anise and ginger. Anything that starts out as an unwieldy piece of bark, a large seedpod or a solid root will be hard to process into a fine powder without serious grinding machinery. And whatever you do, don’t be tempted to force big spices into the hopper of a fancy burr coffee grinder—they’re not designed to handle items larger or harder than coffee beans.
Dried Herbs: Woody vs. Leafy
When you’re discussing spices, it’s hard not to mention their leafy counterparts, dried herbs. When deciding whether or not to buy an herb in dried form, I stick with this rule of thumb: Woody herbs such as rosemary, oregano and thyme retain good flavor in their dried form, while leafy herbs like parsley, basil and tarragon don’t bring much flavor to the party.
Health Benefits of Spices: Ayurveda Goes West
In addition to being delicious, it just so happens that many spices have proven health benefits. We’re just beginning to understand what Ayurvedic practitioners have known for thousands of years—a pinch of asafoetida in a pot of beans can make them easier to digest, turmeric acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory and ginger is widely known to help with motion sickness and nausea, just to name a few!
Storing Spices: Pantry is Best
While it may be tempting to display your bottled spices on a pretty rack, they keep much better when protected from heat, light and humidity. Store them in the pantry on a lazy susan or graduated shelf for easy access, or in a dedicated spice drawer, with the bottle caps labeled for overhead identification.
Expert Tips and Winter Blends: Tammy Tan of Spice Hound
Every Saturday from 8am ’til noon, you’ll find Tammy Tan’s Spice Hound booth at the Palo Alto Farmers Market at the corner of Gilman Street and Hamilton Avenue. At the market and in her online store (SpiceHound.com), she sells a huge variety of spices, salts and custom blends, which she grinds and mixes at her kitchen space in Belmont. Her spices are impeccably fresh and bursting with aroma, and she will happily help you find just the right ones for your next meal. Here are Tammy’s tips for using spices at home:
1. For grinding whole spices, use a ceramic burr grinder made just for spices. Ceramic won’t rust, and it stays sharp much longer than metal burr grinders and blades. Look for a model that’s easy to disassemble and clean, especially if you’ll be using it for lots of different spices. Tammy’s favorite is the Kyocera Everything Mill.
2. Once a year, go through your spice cabinet and get rid of any spices that are no longer fresh. As Tammy says, “Smell is key—it should smell like when you bought it.”
3. Spice blends are great for heartier winter dishes, and using them in a rub or marinade helps to bring out their flavor. Tammy recommends her za’atar and berbere blends as poultry rubs, curry powder and garam masala for simmered dishes and the ever-popular pumpkin pie spice for baked goods.