While salt and pepper are great staples, there are hundreds of other spices awaiting adventurous cooks, and they offer a world tour in the process. In a single day, you can have Madagascar vanilla in your morning latte, South American chilies in your fajitas for lunch and Indian curry for dinner.
History in the making
Spices have a long history, and their first recorded use dates back 2,600 years to Egypt, according to Matt Perry, owner of Bend, Ore.’s Savory Spice Shop. He says not only were spices used for cooking, but they also had a major presence at funerals and were actually used in the embalming process. In 1000 B.C., spices began to be used as a trading commodity between Arabian countries and Europe.
Grammar expert Richard Nordquist points out that the phrase “worth your salt” originated because salt once was used to pay military personnel. In the 15th and 16th centuries, wars were fought over the control of the spice trade, according to the Food History website.
Columbus is credited with introducing spices to the New World, and some that were grown in America began to be exported to Europe and Asia, according to Perry.
Coming to terms
The terms herbs and spices are often used interchangeably, but technically “spice” refers to the flower, seed, bark or root of a plant used for seasoning — it can be fresh or dried.
According to the American Spice Trade Association, spices are defined more generally as “any dried plant product used primarily for seasoning purposes.” This also includes herbs, defined elsewhere as the dried leafy portions of the plant.
Extracts refer to liquid flavorings of three types: pure, natural and imitation. The flavorings are usually mixed with alcohol to create a liquid. Perhaps the best known pure extract is vanilla. Natural extracts, such as rum, may be mixed with other flavorings to enhance the taste. Imitation extracts are synthesized from chemicals and contain none of the namesake flavoring agent.
Like other produce, spices can be grown conventionally or organically, so be sure to read labels to get what you’re looking for.
While you are likely to have more than just salt and pepper in your kitchen cabinet, what else do you need? The answer, of course, depends on the type of cooking you do (or don’t do).
When asked to suggest five spices every kitchen should have (besides salt and pepper), Perry suggests the following: Italian blend (which offers multiple spices in one), cinnamon, Parmesan-pesto blend, fajita seasoning and paprika. Purchasing spices fresh and in bulk allows individuals to buy just a small amount to sample or use for a single recipe.
The optimum spice experience is to grind your own from the whole spice. Grinding can be done with a simple mortar and pestle, a spice grinder or by using a dedicated coffee grinder. Grinding your own spices releases the flavors and oils as they’re ready to be added to the food. Some spices can be dry roasted before grinding to release even more flavor. For spices like nutmeg and cinnamon, use a sharp grater instead of a grinder.
Whole spices have a longer shelf life than ground ones. Once any spice is ground, it begins to lose its flavor. Though spices do not actually go bad, the flavor diminishes over time. A lifespan of one year is typical for most spices, though Perry recommends a “smell test” to determine how strong the spice is after prolonged storage.
Light, air, heat and moisture are spice enemies. Spices should be stored in a sealed glass jar in a dark place, such as a cabinet. Showcasing spices in the light, and especially sun, will cause them to deteriorate rapidly.
Although some spices can be refrigerated without harm, others, like the vanilla bean, will spoil if subjected to the cold.
Some spices have a longer shelf life than one year. For example, Perry notes that saffron can be kept for seven years, and vanilla beans last around two years.
Drying actually helps create the flavor in many spices, and the process concentrates flavor as well. So, when using dried spices, use less than you would if using fresh. Perry suggests using about one-third the amount of a dried spice as a fresh version of the same, and notes that in some recipes the substitution isn’t recommended. Cilantro is an example where dried may not be as good to use as fresh, such as in guacamole or salsa.
While most people welcome the savory smell and flavor of spices, some people have dietary restrictions that limit the spices and blends they choose.
Perry’s advice for learning more about spices is: “Experiment! Cook with real food and don’t be afraid to try new spices. They offer a tour of the world’s flavors without leaving your kitchen.”
Roasted Cauliflower and Chard with Chickpeas and Dukka
Created by Bend Savory Spice Shop owners Matt and Betsy Perry, this vegetable entree is perfect for trying your hand at grinding your own spices. Dukka is an Egyptian blend of spices.
¾ lb cauliflower, cored and cut into florets
1 lg sweet onion, cut into
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
5 TBS olive oil (divided 3 TBS and 2 TBS)
¾ tsp kosher salt
½ lb Swiss chard, stems and ribs sliced and leaves chopped
1 can (15 oz) chickpeas or garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
½ C Dukka (see note)
Note: To make the Dukka: Toast 1½ tsp coriander seed and 1½ tsp cumin seed in a small frying pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until aromatic (about 1 minute). Let cool. Whirl toasted spices with ½ tsp kosher salt and pepper, ¼ tsp dried thyme and ¼ cup hazelnuts, sunflower seeds or toasted sesame seeds until coarsely chopped.
Heat the oven to 425 degrees. In a roasting pan, toss the first three ingredients with 3 TBS olive oil. Roast, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Add the chard stems, toss to coat, and roast until tender, about 7 minutes. Stir in the chard leaves, chickpeas, Dukka and remaining 2 TBS of olive oil. Roast until the chard is wilted, about 8 minutes. Stir, season to taste with more Dukka and salt.
— From Mike and Betsy Perry, Bend Savory Spice Shop owners
Vanilla Bean Sugar Cubes
Makes 256 cubes.
Perfect for adding to coffee or tea, these flavored sugar cubes are a great gift, too.
3 C white sugar
4 Madagascar vanilla beans
¼ C pure Madagascar vanilla extract
Heat oven to 275 degrees.
Cut 4 vanilla beans into ½-inch pieces and grind to a coarse powder. In a large bowl, mix the sugar, beans and extract until thoroughly combined (when the extract is completely incorporated the mixture will look a bit like dough).
Pour the sugar mixture into an 8-inch by 8-inch pan, spread out evenly to ½-inch thickness and press it down lightly. Use a knife to score out ½-inch square cubes by running the knife the length of the pan every ½ inch and the width of the pan every ½ inch. Bake for 1½ hours.
Remove from oven and let cool. Once cooled, carefully flip the pan onto a cookie sheet to remove the sugar. Gently break into cubes along the scored lines. To round the cube edges, gently pour them into a big pot with a cover and lightly shake. Check and repeat if necessary. Pour the cubes from the pot into a small-holed colander or sifter to gather the cubes and sift off any sugar particles that can be reserved as granulated vanilla bean sugar.
— From Janet Johnston, Savory Spice Shop founder and host of Food Network show “Spice & Easy”
Cathy’s Gingerbread Cookies
Makes 1 dozen cookies.
1 C butter
1½ C sugar
4 tsp orange zest
2 TBS dark corn syrup
3 C flour
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp salt
Heat oven to 375 degrees.
Cream butter and sugar together. Add egg and beat until fluffy. Add orange zest and syrup and mix well. In a separate bowl, sift together dry ingredients. Mix wet and dry ingredients. Form into a ball of dough and chill for at least 2 hours. Roll out and cut dough using cookie cutters. Place cookies 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake for 8-10 minutes. Cool 1 minute before removing from pan.
— From Cathy Schwartz, Savory Spice Shop customer