Spice It Up! How to Use Spices


Using spices is one of my favorite ways to add a little flair to my cooking. With the right combination of spices, you can turn your standby recipe into an exotic taste adventure. We’ve touched on spices a few times: in a reader question and an introductory blog post, so since there seems to be interest, I wanted to expand on the topic.

MOST IMPORTANT SECRETS TO SUCCESS WITH SPICES:

  1. Buy whole. Grind as needed. If you make no other changes to your spicing techniques, this alone will increase the taste and quality of your dishes. All those little caddies full of spice powders that seem to decorate most kitchens? I’ll turn around so you can throw them away in private. There is no way to judge how long ago those spices were ground before they even made it to the packaging plant, where the little bottles were then filled and popped into the decorative little carousel, to languish on a store shelf for some ungodly amount of time before you gave them a good home. And let’s be honest, when was the last time you gave it a spin and reached for the cumin or coriander? Spices lose potency as they are exposed to air, so the more intact and protected they are (i.e. whole versus ground) the longer they will keep optimal flavor. Also, it is really fun to experiment with HOW you grind…you don’t have to always use a spice mill and grind to a fine powder. When you are in charge of grinding, you can adjust the texture to best match your needs, unlike a one size fits all powder, which isn’t really all that interesting, in my opinion. You can crush spices by hand with a mortar and pestle for a more rustic texture, or just do a few pulses in the spice mill for a mix of fine and coarsely ground to add crunch. That’s one of my favorite tricks with cumin.
  2. Buy small amounts. My favorite way to buy spices is to buy no more than what I expect to use in a month from the bulk section of the store. Many mainstream stores are beginning to offer bulk spices, such as Whole Foods and Central Market, but you can also usually find bulk spices (for really good prices!) at small ethnic stores or specialty spice markets. Buying this way ensures you are getting the freshest possible product, as the supply is more likely to be in constant motion than packaged sets of ground spices. It also allows you to customize what’s in your pantry and how long it sits around. Time is definitely the enemy of spices, they definitely go stale, so best to not keep an overabundance sitting around. You can also usually buy empty spice jars in the bulk section, which is a much better way of storing them than in flimsy plastic bags in the pantry. Keep your spices in an airtight container, away from heat and light.
  3. Toast whole spices, then grind. Toasting can really bring out a new layer of flavors in spices. Cumin, coriander, cinnamon and most other “warm” spices can really benefit from a good toasting before you grind or crush them, especially if using them in an application like soup or a puree, where they won’t be roasted with the dish. It’s super easy, and really ups the flavor…just throw your spices in a dry pan (no oil) and heat over high flame. Shake the pan every now and then to avoid burning. For a light toast, remove the pan from the heat as soon as you smell the spice fragrance wafting through the air, and immediately pour the spices onto a cool, flat surface, like a cookie pan or large plate. If you want to add a little smokiness and deeper flavor, keep the seeds in pan over the heat until they darken in color and the fragrance becomes a little heavier. Then immediately remove to a cool, flat surface.

ESSENTIAL TOOLS FOR UTILIZING SPICES

Spice Grinder: I like one that has a removable canister so it is easy to wash. This is the one I have, and just adore, but you can use any handheld coffee mill for grinding spices if you don’t want to buy a new gadget. If the receptacle is not removable, you can either just wipe it out really well to clean, or grind plain, white rice to neutralize flavors and odors and then wipe it out. Do not put water in coffee or spice mills that have cords attached to them!

Mortar and Pestle: I love crushing my spices by hand for a lot of ethnic recipes that rely on spice layering. Crushing them, rather than zipping in the spice mill, really brings out the oils in the spices so you will actually get a slightly different character than using an electric mill. The texture will definitely be rougher and more rustic, but sometimes that is the goal. Lightly crushing spices will also help release their flavor if you’re going to be infusing something that will then be strained.

Stainless Steel or Cast Iron Pan: whatever you do, do NOT toast spices in a non-stick pan. The temperature you will get the dry pan up to in order to toast the spices will likely start to fry whatever coating is on your pan, and not only cause a really foul odor but also potentially release toxins into the air your breathing, the spices you are toasting, and compromise the non-stick qualities of the pan you’re using. Cast iron will take longer to heat up, but will provide the most even toast. Stainless steel also works dandy, just keep an eye on it, because your spices can scorch quite quickly.

GETTING STARTED AS A SPICE ADVENTURER

Easy pho: one of my stand-by “recipes” for busy days is my easy pho broth. You can either just simmer these all together in a big pot of water for a few hours, or pop them in a crockpot:

Skinless, on-the-bone chicken (or skip for vegetarian broth)

2 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
6-8 whole cloves
6-8 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
1” lemongrass stalk, crushed
Handful of peppercorns
1” ginger, sliced
1 carrot, roughly chopped
½ onion, roughly chopped
½ fennel bulb, roughly chopped
A little handful of salt

Once the chicken is falling off the bone and the veggies are mush, just strain the broth and pick the chicken meat off the bones. The veggie mush and spices should be discarded. If you make extra broth, it can be frozen for a month or two for future easy meals. To make your soup, add the chicken back in, and add whatever veggies your heart desires.

I like to add sautéed mushrooms, carrots, minced garlic and ginger, plus raw baby bok choy, then just simmer it all together until the bok choy is just tender. Season the soup with soy sauce, fish sauce, and chili paste as desired. Pour over cooked rice noodles, serve with lime wedges, mung bean sprouts, and whole leaves of cilantro, mint, and thai basil.