Kitchen Essentials 5: Spice 101


Spices.  If your new to cooking they can be an overwhelming ingredient.  Sure you may be able to add them to recipes when they are called for, but how can you venture into making your own recipes with spices?  Would if you don’t have a given spice a recipe calls for, will the dish be ruined?  What combinations of spices go well together and what should be avoided at all costs?  How long do my spices actually last?  These are questions that can keep people from taking their culinary adventures to the next level.  As part of my Kitchen Essentials series, I want to talk about spicing up your cooking with this post on spice 101.

“As part of my Kitchen Essentials series, I want to talk about spicing up your cooking”

Of course there are a myriad of spices and spice combinations out there.  Every culture has its preferred plants to add flavor to dishes.  As you grow in your cooking skill, you will find a need and desire to add more and varied spices to your dishes.  That shouldn’t stop you from creating a spice starter kit and having some staple flavors in your cooking.  There are some basic things you should know about spices before we discuss what spices you should have on hand at all times.  Here are five tips about spices that will benefit your cooking immediately.

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1. Fresh is Always Better

Fresh spices have a much bolder flavor profile than old spices.  A few leaves of freshly chopped oregano is going to go much further than a few tablespoons of the dried stuff.  More than that, “newer” dried spices will have more kick than “older” ones.  For this reason I try to use fresh spices as much as I can.  When I do have dried spices, I make sure to only keep them for six months or less.

2. Sunlight is Your Enemy

Most spices begin to deteriorate with exposure to sunlight and other UV light sources.  In the supermarket most spices are sold in clear containers so we can see whats inside.  That fact means that without some added effort on your part, the spices you are using are constantly loosing their punch.  To help keep your dried spices fresher longer buy opaque tins to keep them in.  Sure it is a little inconvenient to open the spice container you bought at the store and put the spices in a different container, but it is worth the effort.

3. Heat and Humidity are Almost as Bad and the Sun

Because heat and humidity can suck away the flavor of your spices, proper storage is essential.  Spices are food, and as such should be treated with the same care you would give any other ingredient.  Their storage shouldn’t be an afterthought.  Keep your spices in a cool dark cabinet, away from the stove.

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  • 4. Grind Your Own Spices

    Even though fresher is better, it is not always an option.  You will be hard pressed to find fresh cinnamon since the trees it comes from is on the other side of the world.  You can, however, grind your own.  The moment a dried spice is ground, it begins to release some of its essential oils and flavors.  If you are buying ground nutmeg, chances are it has lost a lot of its goodness by the time it hits the market shelves, never mind your food.  Grinding your own dried spices will revolutionize the way your food tastes.  Buy a coffee grinder reserved for spices and hand grater to maximize your spices flavor profile.

    5. Find a Spice Store

    Stop buying spices at your local supermarket if you can avoid it.  Most places have a spice store relatively close.  Because these stores specialize in spices, have lots of product turn around, and are run usually by educated spice connoisseurs, they will have a superior product almost every time.  You can also gain a lot of knowledge by asking the owner questions listing to their suggestions, and simply smelling the spices they are selling.

    What other advice about spices would you add to this list?