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.

Variety is the spice of life: (in clockwise order) cardamom pods; nutmeg; cloves; coriander seeds. (Kim O'Donnel)

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.

By Kim ODonnel |  January 15, 2008; 10:08 AM ET Spice Rack
Previous: Bridging a Gap With Paella | Next: Chat Leftovers: Cookbooks for Meatless Reasons


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We also keep spices in the freezer as we buy in somewhat bulk from Penzey's. My husband calls it "the strategic spice reserve"

Posted by: alexandriamom | January 15, 2008 10:23 AM

I learned from watching Madhur Jaffrey on the BBC that Indian spices need to be awakened in a dry skillet or in hot oil to reach their full potential. What other cuisines have similar methods to enhance the spices and herbs in their dishes?
I also learned from Delia Smith to replace my spices each year (not that I do, but I do not move them to a new house). She suggested February, but I think just before the winter holidays is better so the special foods benefit. When are spices harvested? Is there a season for them as there is for herbs?
How do we know the herb/spice we are about to purchase is fresh?

Posted by: repatriated expat | January 15, 2008 10:40 AM

Just an FYI Kim, but ginger and tumeric are actually not roots. They are rhizomes, which are stems that grow underground. I learn so much from Alton Brown!

Posted by: Sweetie | January 15, 2008 10:44 AM

I discovered fenugreek through a recipe clipped out of a magazine (forget which one now!), and love it. It has a celery-like aroma to me. My father-in-law is allergic to celery (do you know how hard it is to cook basic stuff without celery?), and I throw some fenugreek in to stand in instead. Love it!

Posted by: fenugreek | January 15, 2008 10:56 AM

Sweetie, you're absolutely right, but to be fair, a rhizome is a hybrid. Here's the definition from Merriam-Webster:

a somewhat elongate usually horizontal subterranean plant stem that is often thickened by deposits of reserve food material, produces shoots above and roots below, and is distinguished from a true root in possessing buds, nodes, and usually scalelike leaves

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | January 15, 2008 11:16 AM

How do I manage my spices? I don't, and it's a mess. The jars are in a cupboard. It's a struggle to find anything. Help!

Posted by: Fran | January 15, 2008 11:47 AM

I am familiar with some of the more mainstream ethnic combinations of meat/veg/spice/herb but need help with more obscure combinations. I would also love to read your take on a 'trip around the world with herbs and spices' and how you can alter a dish's ethnicity with just a couple changes. Maybe jazz up our mid week chicken or veg dish so we don't get deja vu every other day!

Posted by: stovetop traveler | January 15, 2008 12:04 PM

I used to do the lazy susan by the stove. But now I moved all my spices to the cupboard except for the handful we use very frequently. Those are still within arms' reach of the stove! I figure I use chili powder so much that I'll go through it before it loses its power. I'd love to get into using more whole and fresh spices. I want to do an herb garden again this year - when I have done so in the past I have loved the fresh flavor. Otherwise, I'll try to start buying whole once I get a good grinder.

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | January 15, 2008 12:09 PM

People do really believe dry spices last forever. I have an Uncle who swears the crushed red pepper flake he has from 1980 is still good and hot. Unfortunately I had to inform him over the holidays that he did not hold the record for oldest red pepper flake still in use.

While visiting my father-in-law during Christmas I needed to spice up some not so good pizza. I went into his spice rack and pulled out the red pepper flake. First thing I noticed was the color, a weird red-black. Then after shaking the bottle to dislodge the solid block of a substance it contained I turned it over to discover it was manufactured at McCormick Spice company in 1975!!!!

Question: Whats the best way to store fresh herbs in the fridge to prolong the life? Can you freeze them?

Posted by: spicyspice | January 15, 2008 12:09 PM

Kim: We buy all of our spices from Penzeys, and I've heard that their products last longer than the average grocery store product. That being said, we are unfortunately guilty of keeping ours on the counter and the walls of our kitchen in spice racks. Some of them that we do use on a regular basis are older than 6 months but seem fine... How do we know when they should just be tossed? Is there a fool-proof way or is there a spectrum?

Posted by: Jessie | January 15, 2008 12:10 PM

I have the hardest time finding berbere. It is a sort of chili spice used in Ethiopian cooking. I did not see it when I did a search on Penzey's.

Posted by: Catsluvr | January 15, 2008 12:26 PM

LOVE LOVE LOVE the spice/herb idea! I am trying to incorporate more spices and herbs into my cooking so I appreciate the info! Since you need to store spices out of heat and light, are spice racks on counters a bad idea? I would love to see a post on starting an herb garden. Mine would have to be in pots since I live in an apt. but I would love the advice on how to go about this! Thanks so much for the help; it is much appreciated!

Posted by: Southern Gal | January 15, 2008 1:07 PM

Epicurious notes that berbere is hard to find, and provides a recipe for making your own. Even provides storage instructions.


Posted by: Berbere source | January 15, 2008 1:26 PM

I second Stovetop Traveler: I'd love to have some common combinations by region/cuisine. You could even talk about each region/cuisine's mire poix.

Additionally, can you discuss when to add spices/herbs? For example, I know you should add fresh basil at the end of cooking, but what about other fresh herbs?

Posted by: Anonymous | January 15, 2008 1:33 PM

For berbere (and just about every other herb/spice you can think of) try World
Spice Merchants in Seattle. http://worldspice.com/home/home.shtml

Posted by: Seattle | January 15, 2008 1:52 PM

Kim -- love this new part of the blog! Looking forward to it, and would love to learn more about flavoring vegetables.

Posted by: Dupont | January 15, 2008 2:10 PM

I have a "spice drawer" where I keep all my containers of herbs and spices. When I pull out the drawer, I can instantly see where everything is and grab what I need, plus it's dark and relatively cool.

Posted by: K | January 15, 2008 2:24 PM

Oh my! What a touchy subject. I am a felon for keeping jars and jars of spice in my cupboards. Until one month ago when I tried cooking tilapia with Parsley flake, I was convinved spices lasted an eternity. Well, I knew they didn't but b/c they're so expensive and are packed in amounts you can't get rid of in 6 months (unless you cook 7 days a week with spices like basil, oregano, cumin, etc...), I figure I'd keep them. Since that flake Parsley did my culinary expertise a disservice (only in comparison to fresh Parsley), I have not changed my approach to keeping spices. Everything is now in the fridge. I try to buy whole instead of ground and try to find smaller packs vs. plastic containers. As for cumin, I put that in just about everything! It's very common in Latin food, much like curry to Eastern foods. I'm glad you touched on this matter.


Posted by: FlaNBoyant | January 15, 2008 2:57 PM

ooh - I like the freezer idea. But I have mine in all these gorgeous glass jars my Nana gave me! But I guess if they are tucked away in the cupboard you can't see them anyways. Guess I need an excuse to get a chest freezer or something to keep all my other frozen stuff in since I am going to take over the freezer door!

Posted by: NCC | January 15, 2008 3:18 PM

I read in a previous Cooking Light issue that you can rub dried spices inbetween your fingers to check their "freshness." If a rich aroma comes out, then they are still good, if not, then they need to be replaced

Posted by: Anonymous | January 15, 2008 3:28 PM

I too am a fan of Penzeys and am so glad that there are now two stores in our area (Falls Church and Rockville). They say in their catalog that the idea of getting rid of spices after six months may be a bit of a myth for some things that are only harvested once a year anyway. Though in thinking about it, some herbs are probably grown year round in California or in hothouses so I wonder if the herbs are constantly harvested or harvested just once a year. Anyway, I try to buy my herbs in small containers and I write the date on the container when I open it. If something is older than six months, I'll just add a little extra if necessary. I buy spices as seeds or in their whole form and then I grind them myself in a coffee grinder reserved for this use. The grinder can be cleaned by either grinding up a bread end or a tablespoon of uncooked rice. If I'm really ambitious, I'll toast the seeds and allow them to cool before grinding. This really kicks up the flavor profile!

One thing I have seen in Amanda Hesser's columns and on Alton Brown is a spice called "grains of paradise." It's not available at Penzeys and I'd like to know where I can get it around here.

Posted by: Sean | January 15, 2008 3:29 PM

I keep my spices (and I have tons of them) in a cabinet in the kitchen, and I have this super-cool extendo-tiered-shelf thingy that keeps them all in view. Plus, I always put them in the same place, so now I don't even have to look at the label, I can grab blindly.

I buy the 8 ounce bags from Penzeys (SO MUCH CHEAPER per ounce than the grocery store junk!!), and I keep whatever doesn't fit in my cabinet jars in the freezer.

And like Ted said on Queer Eye: Dried parsley flakes might be good as confetti, but they're pretty much useless in food. ;-)

Posted by: Divine Ms. K | January 15, 2008 5:27 PM

Love the freezer idea, but how to edit down enough to make it work well? We have a shelf full of spices that we try to weed out periodically but it's always full and a pain to find anything. How about doing a "Top 20" list of herbs/spices that everyone should have on hand? That way people could add in a few other particular favorites and still have everything fit in the freezer door.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 15, 2008 5:40 PM

I learned this from my mother, the trained librarian. I keep mine spices and herbs on 5 lazy susans in the cupboard. Alphabetized, of course! (ground comes before whole...) And then have to yell at the husband for putting the pepper back just indiscriminately! The cupboard is attached to an outside wall so I'd like to think it's cool w/ no light. ??? Though I bet there are so oldies and not so goodies up there....

Posted by: Spice 'o life | January 15, 2008 5:54 PM

I write the month/year I purchase the spice in Sharpie on the label. I don't necessarily replace spices every six months, but at least I notice if something is getting ridiculously old.

I don't alphabetize them, but they are grouped roughly according to how I use them--"Italian," baking, other savory, etc. I keep them in a shoebox and label the tops with abbreviations so I can slide the box out and find what I need by the top label.

Posted by: marian3 | January 15, 2008 6:15 PM

I, too, write the month/year on the top of my spices, and replace when they seem "ridiculously" old.

I love the idea of a "Top 20" - it seems that were it not for the specialty spices that some recipes require that I would rarely purchase or replace the ones that I have.

And, I did have enough presence of mind last summer to roughly chop, and then freeze via an old ice cube tray, a bunch of parsley and a big bunch of basil. They're stored in labeled ziploc bags in my freezer and they're still tasting okay, in January.

Posted by: harerin | January 15, 2008 6:50 PM

Like a number of posters, I'm a big Penzeys fan and was delighted to see them come into our area. I especially love the peppercorns and soup bases.

A short fenugreek story. My wife loves Saag Paneer and I got into Indian cooking while we were dating. [I lived in England for awhile and fell in love with curries.] I bought an Indian cook book that has been a hit with nearly every recipe I made. [Art of Indian Cuisine by Rocky Mohan.]

There wasn't a Saag Paneer recipe, but something fairly close called Methi Chaman. Methi is the Indian name for Fenugreek. The recipe calls for a 1/4 lb. of fenugreek leaves. I double the spinach in the recipe and cut the butter (ghee) and red pepper. Friends swear it's the best Saag they've ever had.

Fast forward several years and we have newborn twins. Low and behold I learn that fenugreek is one of the principle ingredients in drops to encourage breast milk production. My Saag had never been more popular!


Posted by: Fairlington Blade | January 15, 2008 10:22 PM

I, too, have more herbs, spices & blends than I would take time to count. I store them in an antique oak icebox in my kitchen. it is dark and insulated as much as they insultated ice boxes in the early 20th century. I have some which are probable purchases when my daughters were small (now 45 & 41), and I do get hard-hearted and discard some occasionally when I think they may be so old they would be detrimental to one's health. (Then go right back out and buy a new container). We cooks get attached to our herbs & spices it seems. It also seems to be a common attachment, lots of us have it.

Posted by: Steubenville | January 16, 2008 10:53 AM

Hi Kim--
I would suggest that you highlight one herb or spice each post and really get into describing its history, harvesting, and uses in world cuisines to the extent possible. I made the paella last night (wonderful!) and now have a newfound regard for saffron. In the past I'd bought saffron at a Latino market around the corner but never felt it added much to my risotto really. I honestly just figured it was a taste I couldn't distinguish. But then I bought the medium grade saffron from Penzeys and what a difference even a half teaspoon made! The paella smelled so fantastic as it cooked, and for the first time I got what the big deal is about with this seasoning! It smelled so awesome that we got a bit impatient really and served up the paella a few mintues too soon, but it was soooo good!

Posted by: Sean | January 16, 2008 1:26 PM

Thanks for starting such a fantastic discussion Kim. I think you'll have lots of fodder for future Spice Rack features.

One awesome spice rack/organizer is SpiceStack. It holds 27 spices in a relatively small space in your kitchen cabinet (I actually heard that freezer moisture is bad for some spices!). The drop-down drawers allow me to find the spice I need quickly while cooking. Best of all, I can stack the half-size spice bottles from the grocery store when I want to try a new spice without buying a huge bottle! I like to alphabetize my spices, but some people arrange by genre. Check out SpiceStack at www.SpiceStack.com!

Posted by: Lauren | January 16, 2008 2:55 PM

The best place to buy your herbs and spices is at a health food store from the bulk jars. You measure out how much you want into a plastic bag, so you don't have to buy a 5 year supply. They are unadulterated, fresh and much, much cheaper than Supermarket spices. The larger health food stores are busier, so they have a faster turn over of herbs and spices so their's are fresher.

Posted by: Jeanne | January 17, 2008 11:17 AM

I also buy my spices in bulk from the health food store. It's the best! (Although I'm curious to try Penzeys.) I can get just enough of an unusual herb/spice for a recipe or get a lot of something that I got through quickly (in a few months). I find that the herbs/spices are much fresher (and therefore last longer)... it's amazing how much better they taste than the jarred stuff.

If I'm making something in bulk (like for gifts) and I need a LOT of a particular spice that is expensive, then I hit the local Indian/Asian markets. The spices seem to be relatively fresh and much cheaper.

I keep most of my spices in re-fillable glass jars in my kitchen drawers. My "top 20" are in an almost hidden drop-down drawer (Ikea used to carry it, but no longer) that is installed under my cabinet, within reach from the stove. (Not a very cool place, but not a very hot spot either - and it's all the spices I go through quickly).

Posted by: Anonymous | January 17, 2008 11:54 AM

Berbere is available from Amelie Michel http://www.ameliemichel.com/spices.html. I haven't tried their spice mixtures (and the mixtures aren't certified organic), but the paprika looks intriguing enough that I submitted my name for the 2008 harvest.

Posted by: Ballantine | January 17, 2008 1:32 PM

Great ideas. I keep the spice alphabetically, which reminds of the Anne Tyler character who stored everything alpahbetically, so that the ant spray was between the anise and arrow root.
I got some achiote recently, and I love the earthy flavor. Other than rubs, what can it be used for?

Posted by: Howard | January 17, 2008 3:19 PM

If anyone is interested in making berbere at home with your own whole spices, here is a source with a few different recipes: http://www.fooddownunder.com/cgi-bin/search.cgi?q=ethiopian

Posted by: Sean | January 19, 2008 6:59 AM

does anyone know how to store vanilla beans? i bought a bunch a trip in the middle east and dont know if i should freeze it, keep it in a cool dry place or what? please advise. thanks.

Posted by: paula | January 22, 2008 3:04 PM

Well, I am happy to report that a friend brought me back berbere on her last trip home to Ethiopia and I am very happy!

Posted by: catsluvr | January 23, 2008 10:00 AM

You can find "grains of paradise" on the web.

Posted by: Washington | January 23, 2008 10:04 AM

Hi! I'm John Strass and i like your site!
Thank you!

Posted by: vacation | January 28, 2008 8:00 AM

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