Spices are the backbone of many dishes, providing much of their flavor, color, and aroma. Even so, the pantry staples are often an afterthought, with random bottles left to linger in the back of a cupboard for years. To make the best dishes possible, it's time to rethink the spice cabinet as an essential part of home cooking.
Buying and Storing Spices
Your spice journey begins at the store, where options can be a bit overwhelming. While it's tempting to buy a giant bin of ground pepper for a few bucks, you won't be doing your cooking any favors. Spices are a good example of the old adage "you get what you pay for;" the quality of the spice tends to directly correspond with the price point. Look for fair-trade spices from companies that deal directly with farmers and getting the best, freshest spices possible.
Before you balk at the price tag, keep a few things in mind. Because these are top-notch, fresh spices, a little goes a long way. You may find yourself using less than you did with your store brand spices, which spend many months and sometimes years trading hands before they made it to your cabinet. High-end spices taste better, which means your finished dish will really shine. And you don't need to buy in bulk.
In fact, it's best to buy spices in limited amounts. The longer a spice sits on a shelf, the more flavor it loses over time. The fresher the spice, the better the taste—so only buy a little at a time. Keep your spices in airtight containers in a dry, dark, cool spot, and avoid the fridge and the freezer which can transfer smells to the spices.
Filling Your Spice Cabinet
With a huge number of spices available, what do you actually need? The answer depends on how and what you cook. If you don't tend to make heavily spiced food, you may need a minimal amount of spices, filling out your small spice cabinet with heavy hitters like pepper, oregano, red pepper flakes, cumin, paprika, ginger, and cinnamon. For many people, you'll need at least twice that, adding in common spices like turmeric, garlic powder, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, cardamom, and more.
You might be surprised to notice that spices overlap various cuisines. Cumin appears equally in Tex-Mex recipes as it does in Indian recipes, while oregano pops up often in Mediterranean cuisine as well as Mexican dishes.
Getting the Most Flavor From Your Spices
In addition to buying the best spices you can find and storing them properly, there are a few tricks for achieving the best flavor possible.
Buy Whole Spices
You can sometimes use whole spices in dishes as-is and simply discard them at the end of the cooking process. Spices like whole bay leaves and cinnamon sticks are commonly added to recipes and are easily removed before eating. To infuse several spices into a broth or soup, make a sachet using cheesecloth for easy retrieval. For dishes like herbal teas and clear broths, the mixture can simply be strained to remove the spices.
In addition to being useful in their whole form, whole spices can be used to make ground spices. Fresh grinding your own spices using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle is one way to get great flavor since ground spices tend to go stale more quickly than whole spices.
Toast Your Spices
When adding spices to a soup, stew, curry, or sauce, you help to develop more complex flavors and aromas by toasting the spices in the pan. Spices should be added to a pan at medium heat or lower, constantly stirred, and should not be toasted more than a few minutes to prevent burning.
Another way to coax more flavor out of spices is to allow them to bloom in hot oil. By adding whole or ground spices to oil over medium heat for a minute or two, you are infusing the oil with the flavors of the spices, which will in turn flavor your dish.
Soak Your Spices
When adding spices to broth and soups, add them early enough that they have a chance to infuse the liquid, releasing all of their flavor before serving. Saffron and dried herbs benefit from extra time in liquid to allow them to hydrate and add flavor to the mix.
Make Your Own Blends
Swap the store-bought, pre-mixed blends for homemade. They only take minutes to make and, being freshly blended, will have stronger, better flavors without preservatives. You can also adjust the spice mixes to your taste, adjusting the level of heat, adding or excluding salt, and more.
Get Creative With Spices
Spices can be integral to certain dishes, like a bowl of chili or a fragrant vindaloo curry. But what should you do with the rest of a bottle of cardamom after you're done making curry? Generally speaking, you want to avoid buying a whole bottle of a spice for a single recipe that calls for half a teaspoon—unless you're willing to expand your thinking about spices and get creative. Instead of simply pulling out a spice or two when a recipe calls for it, open your mind to using spices to add a little something special to a variety of dishes.
Add an extra element of deliciousness to meat and seafood marinades by adding whole or ground spices. Whole or ground peppercorns, cumin, bay leaves, dried peppers (whole or flakes), and coriander can add complexity without overwhelming the mixture. Try adding spices that may not have crossed your mind, like tossing a cinnamon stick into a beef marinade, fennel seeds into a lamb marinade, or a pinch of sumac to a fish marinade. Dried herbs like thyme and rosemary are great for marinades, too.
Even the simplest sauces can benefit from a bit of spice. Add some freshly ground pepper or smoked paprika to Hollandaise, red pepper flakes or cayenne to add a kick to tomato sauce, or chile powder or cinnamon to a sweet chocolate sauce.
If you've ever eaten phở, then you know what kind of impact spices can have on the flavor of a broth or soup. Add whole spices like star anise or makrut lime directly to the pot, or make a sachet using an empty tea bag or cheesecloth with allspice berries, cloves, or coriander. Ground spices can also be used, but if you're making a clear broth you'll want to strain it through cheesecloth to remove any specks.
Spices aren't just for infusing dishes with flavor, they also make a nice finishing touch. Sprinkle potato salad with caraway seeds, top muffins with cinnamon, dress roasted veggies with grains of paradise or za'atar spice mix, or dust freshly whipped cream with grated nutmeg. Spices can add a nice visual element to a finished dish along with aroma and flavor.
Teas and Cocktails
Whole spices and dried herbs can be used to make a variety of tisanes or herbal teas. Mint is a popular option, but basil, ginger, and turmeric are also common. Chai tea uses a mixture of spices like cinnamon, ginger, and cloves to make a delicious drink. Creative cocktails use infused simple syrups with flavors like rosemary, cinnamon, or even peppercorn. Mulling spices, used to make mulled wine, are a mixture of warm spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice along with dried citrus.