Spice Rules: The Do’s and Don’ts

Spice Rules: The Do’s and Don’ts


The seeds, pods, bark, dried roots, dried berries and flower parts of many plants contain volatile compounds, which can be utilized by the cook to introduce new and exciting flavors and aromas to foods. We call these “spices” and their positive impact depends entirely upon you, dear cook.

DO

  • Buy whole spices whenever possible.
  • If you have to buy ground, purchase small amounts from a reliable source.
  • Buy an inexpensive electric coffee grinder for grinding spices. (Best to keep the coffee in its own grinder)
  • Try concocting your own spice blends.
  • Store all spices in airtight vessels (glass is best as it won’t absorb essential oils) and keep away from light and heat.
  • Gently toast whole spices in a pan over low heat or in the oven
  • Mount the center grind shaft of a pepper grinder to a battery-powered drill or screwdriver. It’s a very effective method for grinding large amounts of spices like juniper berries, cumin, coriander and yes, even peppercorns.Watch here for an example.

DON’T

  • Buy spice sets just because you like the packaging…or for any reason, actually.
  • Buy spices in grocery stores unless you absolutely have to and even then…don’t.
  • Think that vanilla beans aren’t spices. They are…botanically speaking.
  • Buy spices in bulk unless you’ve got a darned good reason … like you own a restaurant, barbecue competitively or are working on a remake of Dune.
  • Store spices where you can see them…and yes I’m talking about those spinning counter racks.
  • Keep ground spices longer than 6 months.
  • Assume that spices are always safe to consume raw. They can carry food-bourne illnesses such as salmonella. So buy from reliable sources and toast or cook when you can.
  • Forget that the strength of spices, especially whole spices can increase over time the longer they’re left in a dish.

38 Comments

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  1. 2
    Judy S.

    Mr. Brown, I have a jar of whole spices that are meant to be ground to make a garam masala mix. I’m puzzled: do I grind together cardamom, star anise, etc. while still in their pods? That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but neither does the alternative. Please focus your powerful culinary eye in my direction – thanks!

  2. 4
    Korina

    Out here in the boonies we’re lucky to have a natural foods co-op with an excellent bulk spice section from Frontier Spices. I can buy as little or as much as I like, and since they have a fairly high turnover, the spices are always fresh.

  3. 5
    Stephanie

    I am so seeing where the proper space to store spices would be?
    I have mine in a “spinning thing” but up in a cupboard.
    I will look into transferring my spices into glass air tight containers. Any suggestions on the best place to find glass spice containers?

  4. 7
    Bob

    Can someone explain the point about not storing spices where you can see them? I like storing mine in glad jars on a spice rack for organization and easy access. Am I missing something?

    • 8
      Travis

      Mind you I am guessing here, but I know that a lot of volatile compounds lose their potency when exposed to light. I am only assuming that this is as true for spices as it is for fragrances and dyes.

  5. 9
    Jen

    What about buying spices at Whole Foods?
    They always have a good selection.
    Or what about buying organic spices from a grocery store which is what i normally do. Ugh

    • 10
      Denise Skidmore

      Selection isn’t the issue, time on shelf is the issue. If you go someplace that specializes in spices, or is a restaurant supply they’ll go through their stock more quickly and have fresher supplies on the shelf.

  6. 14
    cubicsymmetry

    I recommend looking for local grocers, like co-ops, farmer’s markets, and ethnicity-focused places (i.e. a Mexican grocer). I’ll go anywhere that has a spice set-up that I can smell, so I can give it a whiff and see if it’s worthwhile.

    For cinnamon, break it into chunks before sticking it in your grinder and after toasting it. Or you can use a microplane but that’s kind of a pain.

    Buy a single whole nutmeg! Just microplane off a little bit at a time as needed. It’ll last you for ages and the flavor is SO much better than pre-ground junk.

  7. 15
    Sean

    Kathleen – it is advisable to never buy spices at the grocery store for a couple of reasons. First and foremost is that they are ground in bulk and thus have lost the majority of their potency by the time they even go into their container. There is a reason flavor compounds are called “volatile compounds” – the evaporate and dissipate quickly so the ideal is to grind only what you need just before you use it (the same goes for coffee). Second, but just as important, is that the spices you buy in a grocery store are packaged by huge corporations whose primary motivation is their bottom line. They are going to use the cheapest possible ingredients, as well as fillers – there is no guarantee what you think you’re buying is actually what you’re getting. For example, nearly 100% of what is labeled as “cinnamon” In a grocery store is not actually cinnamon at all, but cassia.

    • 16
      Brian

      Cassia is cinnamon…. it’s the most common variety sold worldwide. Saying that cassia and cinnamon are different things simply isn’t true. Chinese cassia is much more plentiful and easier to find than Indonesian, Ceylon and Saigon cassia. All of these are just varieties of the same thing: cinnamon is nothing more than ground cassia bark.

  8. 17
    Kathleen

    Okay – not buying spices at the grocery store is a bit over the top suggestion. Unless there is a great answer. So far – not understanding the advice. Some help on that one?

    • 18
      Larry

      I think this is primarily because you can’t be reliably certain of the length of time spices in a grocery store have already been on the shelf prior to you purchasing them.

    • 19
      John

      I suppose if you had to it’s fine. But, there’s not really a reason too. They’re just as expensive or more expensive, you don’t really know what you’re getting and you’re paying for things like glass jars or name brands that don’t mean anything.

      Buy from a reputable, preferably local, spice store, and you’re getting 3 things.

      1. helping a local business
      2. high quality spices with a much wider selection than a grocery store
      3. the staff have a knowledge of the products and can answer questions
      4. most likely paying the same price, or likely less than the grocery store spices.

      • 20
        Kathleen

        Thanks John. I’ll have to see – calories burned (i.e. going across town for spices, looking for containers in which to store them) is not a particularly appealing proposition. Spices I buy at the store have always tasted great to me.

  9. 21
    Jen

    All the times I’ve seen advice like this, I’ve never seen advice on cinammon. When I was in East Africa, they said to heat it up and grind it hot. Even heated/roasted, it was still difficult to grind. Any better advice?

  10. 22
    VickiKent56

    I’ve bought spice sets in the past, very successfully. Step #1 is to dump out all the spices and refill them with fresh, organic spices as you need them! 🙂

  11. 23
    Chandler

    Mr. Brown – or other authorized personnel. Can your existing pepper-mill be used to grind other spices? Or will that give me cumin-flavored pepper, as I once experienced a morning of cumin-flavored coffee after using my whirly-grinder for spice the night before?

    • 24
      Cerisea

      Alton’s 3rd bullet point, under DO’s states:

      Buy an inexpensive electric coffee grinder for grinding spices. (Best to keep the coffee in its own grinder)

      That was one of my concerns as well.

  12. 26
    Michael

    I’m lucky enough to live near The Spice House in Evanston, IL that Alton has featured on GE.
    Last visit I tried buying smaller quantities of more spices since I overbought before. Hope that works out better.

  13. 27
    Joseph

    While normally I buy my spices from Penzey’s, I have found one specific grocery store brand that stands out from the rest. Certain Morton & Bassett Spices are amazing. You can tell the difference in their Black Peppercorns and their Bay Leaves how much better they are then other brands.

  14. 28
    Michael

    Erin, if at all possible grow your own spices. A lot of them don’t take up too much space, nor time. Alton did a great spot on drying your own herbs using a box fan and AC filters as well. And as an aside, don’t be afraid to ‘go wild’ – a lot of the weeds in your lawn and garden are actually the original herbs and spices. Pick up a guide to wild edibles, and see what you may have handy!

      • 32
        Mary

        Mountain Rose Herbs is a great place to get stuff, though typically not in small quantities. Maybe team up with some friends to split the goods?

    • 33
      Krit

      Try your local Farmer’s Market. There maybe a spice shop near there. In Detroit, the best one I have come across is Rocky’s near Eastern Market.

    • 35
      Sue L

      I buy all my spices at Penzey’s. I started buying from them in the late 1980’s mail-order. Now I’m lucky enough to have a store within a 30 minute drive. The best spices ever! I’ve slowly replaced everything and only use Penzeys.

  15. 36
    Eric Larsen

    Speaking of whole spices – why do stocks call for whole peppercorns? Can you really get all the flavor out of them, even given that long cooking time, without at least cracking them? Is it just to keep the liquid clearer?

    • 37
      Crystal

      It’s pulls out the oils of the peppercorn berry it’s self. So it’s not lending a whole ton of pepper flavore but just a hint of it. That’s why recipes call for a number (5-10) too much and all you’ll taste is pepper!

    • 38
      drthmik

      To make stocks calls for extracting the flavors from meats, vegetables, herbs and spices and then removing them once they have given up their goodness. Ground pepper is hard to remove and can often leave fine particles in the end product

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