Having a well stocked spice cabinet is one of the best things home cooks can do to improve their cooking.
Knowing how and when to properly use spices can take your food from bland to aromatic and complex. The pinch of a secret spice will make your guests pause and say, what is that awesome flavor I am tasting?
It may seem like a huge cost and endeavor to get your spices up to snuff, but with these few tips, it can be cheap and easy!
1. Don't buy your spices at the grocery store.
They are really overpriced! And old, and bland.
2. Buy whole spices instead of powders.
They are cheaper, and they last longer (2+ years instead of 6 months).
3. Buy spices in bulk.
It isn't really full bulk like Costco or BJ's, but when you buy spices at a spice shop or online, they come in a larger bag instead of that small jar you are accustomed to at the grocery store. Because it is the whole seed that lasts longer, you end up being able to save it and not have to buy that spice for a long time!
Now I am going to talk a little about some of the spices common in Asian cooking:
is something most people are probably familiar with. Coriander is the seed from a cilantro plant! It is common in steak spice blends like Montreal seasoning. This spice is great on most proteins. It has an almost citrus flavor at first, with a peppery bite at the end. Coriander is available at most grocery stores.
is another common one that can be found at grocery stores. Most people know cinnamon from desserts like pumpkin pie, but used in savory applications cinnamon can be really surprising.
is used by most as a slight pinch in spice cakes. Another spice that can be found at most grocery stores. If you smell the ground clove that you have had in your spice cabinet for 5 years, it will smell nothing like the fresh stuff!
is the first harder-to-find one. Little known fact about fenugreek -- it is used by fake maple syrup producers to make the corn syrup taste more mapley! When you first open the package you may notice the faint maple aroma. The seeds and leaf of fenugreek are both used commonly in Indian cooking.
is actually one spice, and not a blend of ALL SPICES like some people think! It has an interesting flavor that is peppery with a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg.
has a much more interesting and complex flavor than it's yellow counterpart, and that is why when you buy fancy mustards, you see the black flecks floating around. Black mustard is one of the pillars of Indian cooking!
is possibly my most favorite spice in the world. Cumin makes everything better! Known as jeera
in the Indian language, this spice is pretty much omnipresent. With all the Indian, Thai, and Mexican cooking I do, Cumin doesn't last long in my cabinet!
Aniseed is like a cross between fennel seed and cumin. It has that anise/licorice flavor, but it is a more mild version.
Dan Whalen is a blogger at The Food in my Beard; check Dan's Tablespoon profile often to try his recipes with creative international spins!
Cardamom was the gateway to Indian spice for me. The first time I opened a pod was like opening a door to a new world of cooking. The green ones are mostly used in dessert in indian cooking, while the black ones are used in savory applications. Cardamom is the main spice in chai tea, and is like the vanilla of Indian ice cream. The black pods are smoked over coals for days to achieve a smoky aroma and flavor.
To use cardamom, you need to open the pods and get the spice out. Yum!
Making a spice blend
How do you use all of these spices? Well you could always throw a stick of cinnamon and a few cardamom pods into cooking rice or simmering milk to add some aroma, but making a spice blend is simple and fun and you can store it and use it for up to 6 months!
Gather and measure all of your spices.
Toast them in a frying pan.
And blend them up! I use a coffee grinder, but don't do that if you plan on using it for coffee anytime soon! You can also use a blender or food processor but it wont come out as smooth. If you want to go old school, toss the seeds in a mortar and pestle!
Now you have a curry powder WAY BETTER that the store bought kind, ready to use for the next 6 months!
Here are a few spice resources for you: