This week's column will provide an overview of spices in general; future pieces will focus on specific spices or families of spices. If you have a specific spice you'd like to know more about or use more often, please let me know via e-mail.
I can't even imagine food without spices and herbs. However, seasoning with herbs and spices means enhancing and complimenting your dishes, not overwhelming the flavor of the food you serve. Let's begin with some background on herbs and spices.
The history of spices
Spices have been a major component in man's history. The spice trade began around 2000 BC throughout the Middle East with cinnamon, Indonesian cinnamon and pepper. In ancient and medieval times, spices were among the most valuable items of trade. Controlling trade routes and spice-producing countries spurred many of the explorations of the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Marco Polo's trip to China in the late 1200s revealed the spice trade in those lands, and other Europeans sailed off in search of spices. Portuguese navigator Vasco Da Gama sailed to India in 1499 to circumvent the high spice prices in Venice. Similarly, Christopher Columbus brought back from the New World many of its previously unknown spices. Between the Silk Road and the navigational sea routes, the spice trade flourished. In fact, by the 1800s, some of the earliest American millionaires became rich through spice trading businesses.
Spice or herb?
Spices are dried buds, seeds, roots, fruit or bark, used to flavor foods. Herbs are leaves of low-growing green plants which are used for seasonings. Herbs are used fresh, dried or ground into a powder. And, although the common seasoning, salt, is often considered a spice, it is a natural mineral.
Many spices and herbs also have qualities that make them useful in medicine, cosmetics, food preservation, perfumes, sacred rituals and as vegetables themselves. For example, ginger is used medicinally and sage is used in cleansing rituals, while garlic and fennel can be used as vegetables as well as for seasoning. Many herbs and spices are used in folk medicine. Today, more and more researchers are exploring the potential medical benefits of certain spices and herbs.
Seasoning blends are spice-herb mixtures. Examples of seasoning blends are chili powder (red pepper, cumin, oregano, salt, and garlic powder); curry powder (coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek seed, white pepper, allspice, yellow mustard, red pepper, and ginger); garam masala and bouquet garni.
Condiments are liquid blends of herbs and spices, such as catsup, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, tabasco sauce, and specialty vinegars. Storing spices
Whole herbs and spices will last much longer than crushed or ground varieties. Many cooks buy them whole, then crush or grind as needed. Herbs and spices can be crushed with a mortar and pestle, smashing them between two cloths, or with the back of a spoon in a cup. Some chefs believe that grinding them in a coffee or spice grinder releases their volatile oils: A fine grind producing delicate flavors; a coarse grind, strong bursts of texture and taste. To further enhance flavor: Roast the whole spices in a dry skillet over medium heat, being careful not to burn them.
When stored properly, dried herbs and ground spices should retain their flavor for a year; whole spices should last three to five years. Check your pantry of herbs and spices for freshness at least once a year. If no aroma is detected after crushing, the seasoning needs to be replaced. To ensure freshness, I suggest buying small quantities instead of the cost-saving economy containers. What good is a gallon of stale paprika?
Store all seasonings in cool, moisture-free places in air-tight containers. Use clean, dry spoons for measuring. Avoid sunlight or heat sources (e.g. stove, dishwasher). Heat, humidity and excessive light will accelerate dryness, causing spices and herbs to lose flavor quickly.
The art of seasoning
Using spices and herbs in cooking helps in the preparation of finely tuned gourmet dishes or ethnic/cultural meals. By reducing levels of fat, sugar and sodium, herbs and spices can also be used to cut calories and improve the dietary content in your cooking. However, there is an art to seasoning with herbs and spices - learning how much to use and how to combine flavors can make all the difference between a tasty dish and an outstanding one. Use strong, pungent spices in small amounts; more delicate seasoning can be used in greater amounts. And while the herb or spice should not overpower the flavor, cultural preferences will influence your decision on use.
Cooking spices for too long can result in too strong or too harsh flavors. For best results, crush the herbs just before adding to your dish. With long-cooking dishes, such as stews and soups, add herbs and spices an hour or less before serving. Unless the recipe specifically calls for it, don't use more than three herbs and spices in any one dish. Indian recipes are an exception to this rule, as they often require five or more different spices in a dish.
To experiment with seasoning and further hone your skills, consider these steps:
1. Start with a tested recipe. After it has been prepared, decide if more or less seasoning is needed for the next time. What would you do differently?
2. Prepare the dish again, being more creative in your seasoning. Spice companies suggest 1/4 teaspoon (a pinch) of spice per pound of meat or pint of liquid when creating recipes. Only use 1/8 teaspoon of stronger seasonings. A guiding principle: It is easier to add more than to try to "fix" a dish after adding too much.
3. More than one herb or spice can be used in a recipe. When creating your own recipe, start with one or two choices. As you gain experience in cooking with herbs and spices, taste will spur you on to add other spices or substitute alternatives.
4. Try to strike a balance between art and science in your cooking. Begin by learning the use and flavoring of one or two herbs and spices and how they enhance certain dishes; then explore with others. Look for new ideas and recipes and expand your repertoire of seasonings and their uses.
Jacqui lives in Danville with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.