A Guide to Spices
by Linda Hayes
With the right spices, it's a cinch to cook flavorful, healthy meals.
Imagine apple pie without cinnamon and nutmeg. Curried vegetables without coriander and cumin. Chili without cayenne pepper. Or bratwurst without mustard. Cooking — as well as eating, for that matter — without spices would be, in a word, bland, bland, bland.
Very simply, spices are pungent or aromatic seasonings from the bark, buds, fruit, seeds or stems of plants. Most spices are grown in tropical or subtropical climates around the globe. Used individually or in blends, in whole-seed or powder form, spices serve to add color, flavor and overall pizzazz to everything from aioli to zabaglione.
For as far back as history has been recorded, spices have played a valuable role in world culture. In addition to culinary purposes, they have been used as medicine, in perfume and even as religious offerings.
Around 3000 B.C., what is known as the spice trade began on the Arabian Peninsula. Spices were brought by camel caravans from India and the Orient. By the Middle Ages, spices were in such high demand that they became powerful commodities. When Venice, Italy, took control of the European spice trade, expeditions to seek new sources for highly coveted spices eventually resulted in the discovery of the New World.
Today, spices from all corners of the globe are available everywhere, from your local natural foods market to catalogs to spice merchants accessed via the Internet. As a result, cuisines such as Thai, Indian, Moroccan and Mexican are becoming as popular as French, Italian and Chinese. Restaurant chefs and home cooks alike are experimenting with a bounty of ingredients and creating new "fusion" cuisines.
"People's taste buds are becoming more and more sophisticated," says Keith Keogh, president of the California Culinary Academy (CCA) in San Francisco. "They're craving a higher level of flavor. Spices give food an identifier tag. Chicken is chicken and beef is beef. But if you add curry — it gives it a certain ethnicity."
While learning how to best use spices may take a bit of experimenting, certain approaches are tried and true. Todd English, owner-chef of a collection of restaurants around the country, including Olives in Charlestown, Mass., believes that spices should work in collaboration, like a symphony. "You don't want just the violins to stand out, or the bass or the trombones," he explains. "Working together in harmony, spices have a big effect on the outcome of a dish."
To allow spices to reach their full potential, English recommends incorporating them into the cooking process as early as possible. He will often grind fresh spices in a coffee mill, or brown or toast them in a cast-iron skillet to bring out their flavors, before sautéing them with onions and garlic, or using them as rubs.
At the CCA, Keogh conducts taste tests with his students. "We simply add spices to individual batches of cream cheese or butter," he says, "and let everyone taste and analyze the flavors one by one. You can learn a lot about the properties of spices and how they work together and alone."
Spices will not "go bad," but they eventually lose some of their flavor and aroma (especially in the ground form). To help preserve freshness, buy spices in small quantities, grind whole spices only as needed, and store in airtight containers in a dark, cool space.
To help you round out your spice cabinet, as well as assist you on your journey into the world of international cuisines, we've put together the chart at left. Whether you're making meatloaf or mulligatawny, it will help you find your way.
Linda Hayes is food editor of SKI magazine and travel editor for Mountain Living magazine.
Photography by: Joe Hancock