Maybe you are like so many of us who are burdened by the constraints of limited counter or cabinet space, or perhaps you just remodeled your kitchen and are looking for clean lines, shiny stainless steel, or a natural wood finish to match the new decor. Whatever the motivation, just about everyone has, is, or will be looking to purchase a new spice rack complete with filled spice jars. But after the purchase, do you know how to use most of those spices? When was the last time you had a recipe listing caraway seeds as an ingredient? Thyme and savory and marjoram, oh my!
The unknown is a very intimidating place to be, and I know because I am a frequent visitor. I am comfortable, however, in the spice world. For that reason, I believe I can provide a general overview on a featured spice and a few tips on pairings, maximizing the utility of your spice rack and soothing some spice related anxieties. You are probably already sitting down, so just sit back and relax. There is no need to buckle up; this ride is going to move nice and slow. You remember the adage about “winning the race,” don’t you? Well, slow and steady is how we’re going to do this . . . together. We’ll start where all journeys begin, with the first step at the very beginning.
Taste Your Spices
I won’t attempt to describe something as complex as taste because, well, taste buds vary. A palate, in my opinion, is as unique as a fingerprint, with no two alike. Furthermore, if I used licorice as a taste reference to describe anise or fennel it would be meaningless to someone who has never tasted any of these. With that said, taste for yourself the unfamiliar spices. Now, that doesn’t mean start tossing dried spices into your mouth and swishing them around like a fine wine, you won’t get the full flavor effect. Moreover, if you start with, say, rosemary you will undoubtedly prick your tongue. Ouch!
What you can do, is sprinkle the spice into a glass of hot water, approximately ¼ teaspoon per 8 ounces should be more than sufficient, and let it steep for 6 – 10 minutes, similar to making a cup of tea. Also of note, the longer the spice steeps the more intense the flavor. After steeping and cooling to a tolerable sipping temperature, give your spice-brew a swig. Now try to imagine the spice with different foods: chicken, pork, mushrooms, flounder, shrimp, tomatoes, cheese, and so on. Odds are you have tasted this spice in some other dish (hopefully, this knowledge is a little comforting). Maybe the spice wasn’t a prevalent flavor in the foreground of something you’ve eaten before but it most likely was mingling somewhere in the background contributing its flavor complexity and adding depth to the dish. After all, that is what spices do.
I also like to use a neutral base for taste testing spices. What do I mean by a “neutral base?” I mean foods like white rice, mashed potatoes, biscuits and even scrambled eggs; foods so subtle in flavor that the addition of salt or pepper can be detected. This method is how I discovered I really like tarragon-mashed potatoes, which I will discuss in the next edition of Spice Wracked™. Oh, that reminds me! Stop by FeatureDish.com for future editions of Spice Wracked™as we explore the origins and pairing possibilities of those little jars o’ dried flavor – probably featuring one spice per edition, but one never knows. I do like spontaneity.
Fresh or Dried?
Is fresh best? Not necessarily. Before you get upset by my answer, please allow me to explain. Fresh herbs yield the best flavor in dishes with no or short cooking times, and as an addition during the last few minutes of longer cooking dishes (because of the quick release of their oils); rendering the herb’s fresh flavor and bright color to the dish. Dried herbs are best in longer cooking soups, stews, braises, etc. because of their slower release of concentrated oils and ability to stand up to the rigors of prolonged heat exposure.
Can dried spices be substituted for their fresh counterparts in a recipe? Absolutely, just remember to reduce the stated quantity by approximately half due to the concentrated flavor of the dried spice. For example, if a recipe calls for ½ teaspoon of fresh basil, substitute with ¼ teaspoon of dried. I also suggest to avoid use of dried spices on dried foods. In lieu of sprinkling dried basil on cooked undressed pasta, consider adding the basil to some extra virgin olive oil. In doing so, the basil will soften, dispersing its flavor in the oil allowing for greater ease of coating and flavoring every bite of the pasta.
Side note: Flavored oils are fabulous to have around for dipping bread, mmm, like when you go to the restaurants that serve hot rolls with a plate of dipping oil with all the spices swimming around just begging to hitch a ride on your warm roll en route to your mouth…you know the one! Delicious! A handful of ingredients and some marinating time, it couldn’t be easier to make for yourself or company at home! We’ll make that dipping oil together soon, I promise.
The last topic I want to cover in this edition is shelf life. Dried spices, in fact, do lose their potency with time and improper storing. Dried spices should be stored in airtight containers in some place cool, though refrigeration not required, and out of direct sunlight. Air, heat and light are the usual culprits of spoiling – except for with children, that’s usually grandparents. When properly stored, dried spices can be enjoyed for approximately 6 months, but not much longer. A helpful sign of required replacement is the spices look more muted gray than green.
If you’ve read this far, I feel it is only appropriate to provide a little information about myself. My disclaimer says it all:
I am not, and have never been gainfully employed as a chef, cook, caterer, nor was I ever a culinary student, for that matter. I am a person willing to share with you, my fellow Cooking Enthusiasts, the information I have acquired over the years from various sources i.e. personal trial and error, TV, cookbooks, friends, family, etc. Due to my lack of culinary training, I rarely use official cooking terminology and will expound as best I can on my meaning of the terms I provide.
As I mentioned earlier, we’re in this together. Please send questions, suggestions, feedback or whatever else is on your mind throught the site’s Contact form. We’ll meet again soon to explore the world of dried spices!
Roxanne’s column, Spice Wracked™ is ©2010 Copyright by Roxanne with publishing/display permission solely granted to FeatureDish.Com. Permission to make digital/hard copy of part or all of this work for personal use is granted without fee provided the copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers, or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permissions and/or a fee.