Spice Rules: The Dos and Don’ts of Cooking with Spices
October 27, 2020
From mulled wine to spiced baked goods, the fall and winter months are full of opportunities to expand your spice portfolio. In the test kitchen, we love experimenting with more unusual ingredients in classic dishes, like adding peppery grains of paradise to apple pie, freshly ground star anise to homemade pumpkin spice mix, or Aleppo and za’atar to comforting roast chicken.
So, what exactly are spices? Generally, they are the seeds, pods, bark, dried roots, dried berries, and flower parts of various plants that, when utilized wisely, can introduce new and exciting flavors and aromas to foods.
While experimenting with flavor can be exciting, the procurement, placement, and preparation of said spices is crucial to culinary success.
Here are a few rules of thumb to help you get started:
- Buy whole spices whenever possible.
- If you have to buy ground, purchase small amounts from a reliable source. In the test kitchen, we typically procure ours from The Spice House.
- Buy an inexpensive blade-style electric coffee grinder. I never use these for actually grinding coffee, but rather spices and spice-like things. This is called a xenotasker, or a tool that is really bad at its purported purpose, but really good at something else…in this case, grinding spices.
- 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. Don’t display them in those countertop turntables or magnetic storage bins that stick on your fridge. Oh, and make sure you label your glass jars to keep everything straight.
- Gently toast whole spices in a pan over low heat or in the oven just before use…or use another xenotasker, the popcorn popper! Let cool completely before grinding.
- Build a pepper drill: 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.
- Buy spice sets just because you like the packaging…or for any reason, actually.
- Buy spices in grocery stores unless you absolutely have to.
- Think that vanilla beans aren’t spices. They are…botanically speaking. Treat them well.
- Buy spices in bulk unless you’ve got a darned good reason, like you own a restaurant, or you like to barbecue competitively.
- Store spices where you can see them. Basically, just don’t buy a spinning countertop spice rack.
- Keep ground spices for longer than six months.
- Assume that spices are always safe to consume raw. They can carry food-borne illness, such as salmonella. Always buy from reliable sources and toast or cook them when you can.
- Forget that the strength of spices, especially whole spices, can increase over time the longer they’re left in a dish. Fresh spices also have a much stronger flavor that what you might be used to…especially if you’ve only ever bought them at the grocery store.
Test out our Spice Rules with a few sweet and savory (and potable) applications:
A rum-based liqueur that tastes like winter baked goods by a warm fire…with a kick.
Congealed Cranberry Sauce
Candied ginger brings sweet heat to Thanksgiving-ready cranberry sauce.
Spiced Bread Pudding
Perfect for holiday entertaining, this comforting bread pudding gets a fall twist with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and crystallized ginger.
Turkey Tikka Masala
Seared turkey thighs and spices make up the basis of this international stew that just so happens to also summon the flavors of fall.
Cacio e Pepe
Freshly ground black pepper makes all the difference in this classic cheesy pasta dish.
Chocolate Syrup: Reloaded
Black cardamom adds depth and rich chocolate flavor to this revamped chocolate syrup recipe.