Enliven your dishes with spices!

How can you take a piece of chicken (or other protein) and one night you make something with Thai flavors, another night you use a similar piece of chicken to make an Indian dish and another night, the chicken can be infused with Italian flavors? What allows you to do this are spices. In this Cooking Tip, I want to help you pick out spices, keep them fresh and how to use them to get the most flavor into your dish. I have written other Cooking Tips on herbs as well as individual spices and flavoring/seasoning agents such as paprika, chili peppers, garlic, salt, and pepper. In this one, let’s take a more general look at spices. If you live within driving distance of Parker, Colorado, I will come to your house and design a Spice class just for you. Contact me for info.

Before we get into what spices to buy, allow me to mention how to buy spices. Many spices come in two forms – the whole spice and a ground version. For example, you can buy cumin seeds as well as ground cumin. The whole version is always the preferred choice because it retains its flavor much better. Once a spice is ground, it starts to lose the essential oils that contain the flavor. Whole spices can last up to a year or even two whereas a ground one will start to lose its potency within a few months.

Although I say this, I know that most of you will have mostly (if not only) ground spices in your pantry. I, too, have many ground versions. Because of how quickly these can lose their flavor, you want to have the freshest you can. This means buying from a reputable spice merchant and buying the smallest quantities that you can so that you will be able to use them up within a few months. Although I do the majority of my grocery shopping at a regular grocery store, I almost never buy my spices there. First, they typically come in larger quantities than I want. Second, you have no idea how long ago that spice was ground. If you have a shop that specializes in spices, you are going to get much better quality and they will be much fresher. That means superior flavor for your dishes and they will last longer for you. The spice merchant that I like is Savory Spice. I am fortunate to have a shop fairly close to me but, if not, you can order online.

I challenge you to go through all of your spices and take a whiff of them. If they do not smell of much, neither will they impart much flavor in your dish. Many chefs will date their spices as soon as they open them so they know when it is time to get a fresh supply. Store them in a cool, dark cupboard/drawer to keep them away from heat, light and moisture.

If you choose to buy whole spices, it is relatively easy to grind them. If you just want a small amount, a mortar/pestle will quickly take care of the job. If you want a larger quantity, a spice grinder is great.

There are a handful of spices that are difficult to grind at home and are usually bought ground. Those are mace, dried ginger & turmeric, cinnamon and cassia.

Many spices benefit from a quick dry roast in a skillet. For whole spices, do this prior to grinding to get maximal flavor and aroma. You can dry roast ground spices but be very careful so as to not burn them. You could also do what is called “blooming”. Heat some oil in small pan, add your spices and cook for about 30 seconds. You may want to add some aromatics (onion, garlic) first followed by the spices and then finish your dish as desired.

You might ask what spices you should always have on hand. You can do an online search and different sources will give you their recommendation of the top ten, fifteen or twenty spices that you should have. I have close to 50 different individual spices in my spice drawers since I am in the culinary business. You do not need anywhere near that many. I would recommend that how you stock your spice pantry depends on what you like to cook and eat.

A friend recently referred me to a chef’s website. I loved how he put spices into what he called “Spice Teams”. These are groupings of spices that work together to give you a flavor profile of a country’s cuisine. I have included his “Teams” here.

CuisineSeasonings
ItalianGarlic, Oregano, Basil
LatinCumin, Coriander, Cilantro
FrenchMarjoram, Thyme, Rosemary
ChineseAnise, Cinnamon, Cloves, Szechuan Pepper, Fennel Seed
JamaicanAllspice, Cloves, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Thyme, Garlic, Cayenne
IndianTurmeric, Cumin, Coriander, Red Pepper
SpanishPaprika, Garlic, Cayenne, Saffron
GreekGarlic, Mint, Black Pepper, Oregano
JapaneseGinger, Sesame, Orange Peel, Wasabi Powder
ThaiCoriander, Nutmeg, Cloves, Cinnamon, Anise, Peanuts

Another grouping you might find helpful is the following chart that lists spices that complement different proteins.

Food TypeSeasonings
BeefBasil, Bay Leaf, Black Pepper, Cayenne, Cumin, Curry Powder, Dry Mustard Powder, Garlic, Green Pepper, Onion, Oregano, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme
FishBay Leaf, Cayenne, Curry Powder, Celery Seed, Chives, Dill, Fennel, Lemon Zest, Marjoram, Mint, Mustard, Onion, Paprika, Parsley, Red Pepper, Saffron, Sage, Sesame Seed, Tarragon, Thyme, Turmeric
LambBay Leaf, Cayenne, Curry Powder, Celery Seed, Chives, Dill, Fennel, Lemon Zest, Marjoram, Mint, Mustard, Onion, Paprika, Parsley, Red Pepper, Saffron, Sage, Sesame Seed, Tarragon, Thyme, Turmeric
PoultryBasil, Bay Leaf, Cilantro, Cinnamon, Curry Powder, Garlic, Mace, Marjoram, Mint, Onion, Paprika, Parsley, Rosemary, Sage, Saffron, Savory, Tarragon, Thyme
PorkAllspice, Caraway, Celery Seed, Cloves, Coriander, Fennel, Ginger, Juniper Berries, Mustard, Paprika, Sage, Savory
VealBay Leaf, Black Pepper, Curry Powder, Dill, Ginger, Lemon Peel, Marjoram, Mint, Oregano, Paprika, Parsley, Saffron, Sage, Tarragon
EggsBasil, Chives, Curry Powder, Mustard, Green or Red Pepper, Onion, Paprika, Parsley, Tarragon
CheeseBasil, Chives, Curry Powder, Mustard, Green or Red Pepper, Onion, Paprika, Parsley, Tarragon

A final topic I want to mention is that of Spice Blends. These are mixtures of spices used to create a certain flavor in your dish. Examples are Garam Masala, Curry Powder, Italian Seasoning and Jerk Seasoning. Most of these you can buy in the stores pre-blended. I generally recommend that you not purchase these but make your own blends although there are exceptions.

The reasons to make your own are:

  • You get a fresher mix.
  • You only need to make what you need. Why buy a entire bottle of a particular blend when you only use it twice a year? By the second time, it won’t be fresh and flavorful.
  • You control which spices go into it.

On the other hand, there are reasons you might want to purchase a blend.

  • It is a blend that you use frequently and will use it up before it loses its flavor. For example, I keep an Italian blend on hand as I use it almost every week.
  • It is a blend that you absolutely love and do not think you could reproduce it.
  • The blend has a large number of individual spices that you think you would never use again.

Spices are a wonderful way to enliven your cooking and please the palates of your friends and family. I hope the above will help you stock your spice pantry in a way that works for you and will assist you in putting wonderful, flavorful dishes on the table!