What's Your Spice IQ?
"How do I know which spices and herbs go together?"
This is a question I've been hearing with increased frequency over the past few months.
It's one thing to learn how to salt and pepper your food, which is an art unto itself; it's quite another to take the seasoning quotient to another level and infuse it with flavors that represent cuisines from different parts of the world.
It got me thinking how I first learned to use herbs and spices (by trial and error) and how I attained a higher spice IQ (practice and study). Still, some of the most enthusiastic cooks remain tripped up by the mysterious contents of those glass jars, and all too often, stick with what they know, using the same old spice combinations for every dish. To that end, I'm dedicating today as the first day of the rest of your spice-y life with a new regular feature called "Spice Rack" that will appear twice-monthly in this space.
To get started, let's get a few basics out of the way.
An herb is defined as the leaf of a plant. Examples include: basil, chervil, cilantro, dill, lovage, marjoram, oregano, parsley, thyme, rosemary, and sage. They are used in both their fresh and dried states. For the most part, I'm an advocate of fresh over dried herbs, as dried tend to be less intense in flavor and take on a saw dust quality. Exceptions to this rule, particularly during cold months, are oregano and thyme, but of course, much depends on how you store the stuff (we'll get to that in a minute).
A spice, on the other hand, is defined as every other part of the plant -- the fruit (star anise, nutmeg, chiles), root (ginger, turmeric) seeds (cumin, coriander), berries (allspice, peppercorns), pods (cardamon, vanilla) or bark (cinnamon). They are available either in whole form or ground.
While ground spices offer convenience, whole spices pack in the flavor, resulting in more ka-pow at the table. One exception to this rule includes chiles, which offer heat and intensity of flavor in all forms.
We can't talk about herbs and spices without talking about storage. Fresh herbs have different life spans when kept in the refrigerator crisper, a concept many home cooks understand and respect. But once herbs and spices are tucked away into those little jars, we lose our spice smarts, enchanted by some myth that dried herbs and spices live forever, and it's okay to perk up a pot of minestrone with a teaspoon of dried oregano from the Nixon era. People, people: dried herbs and spices start to go after six months, and that's if you're storing them away from light and heat (yes, that means even the the Lazy Susan out on the counter by the stove.)
Because I have more spices than I can count, I keep all of mine in the freezer, on the two-leveled inside door. This eliminates both the light and heat issues, and over the years I've noticed it really does extend shelf life. I only recommend this if you've got the room (and the permission) of those sharing the refrigerated space; otherwise, you could have a culinary mutiny on your hands.
So tell me about your spice life. How do you manage your inventory of glass jars? Are you confident with your cumin or fearful of fenugreek? Curious about asafetida? And while we're at it, tell me what you'd like to see in this feature so I can add it to the list.
Today is chat today; talk to me today at noon ET for What's Cooking.
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