If your vision of a complete spice cupboard is a shaker of black pepper and a cardboard cylinder of iodized salt, you may want to think of adding a little spice to your life - literally.
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
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
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
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
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
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.
andfrac34; 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)
andfrac34; tsp kosher salt
andfrac12; lb Swiss chard, stems and ribs sliced and leaves chopped
1 can (15 oz) chickpeas or garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
andfrac12; C Dukka (see note)
Note: To make the Dukka: Toast 1andfrac12; tsp coriander seed and 1andfrac12; tsp cumin
seed in a small frying pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally,
until aromatic (about 1 minute). Let cool. Whirl toasted spices with andfrac12;
tsp kosher salt and pepper, andfrac14; tsp dried thyme and andfrac14; 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
- 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
andfrac14; C pure Madagascar vanilla extract
Heat oven to 275 degrees.
Cut 4 vanilla beans into andfrac12;-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 andfrac12;-inch thickness and press it down lightly. Use a knife to
score out andfrac12;-inch square cubes by running the knife the length of the pan
every andfrac12; inch and the width of the pan every andfrac12; inch. Bake for 1andfrac12; 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 and Easy"
Cathy's Gingerbread Cookies
Makes 1 dozen cookies.
1 C butter
1andfrac12; 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
andfrac12; tsp ground cloves
andfrac12; 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