Learn a Bit About Spice… It will Make your Food Nice!

My husband and I celebrated our 12th wedding anniversary last month. For our anniversary date, we went to an amazing Thai restaurant. As I sat there eating my delicious bowl of mango curry, I was trying to figure out how I could recreate this dish at home. I am definitely a long way from knowing how to create restaurant-quality Thai cuisine at home, but I am convinced so much of Thai food—and so many other foods—lies in the perfect combination of spices. I realized that I still have a lot to learn about spices! So, this article is an attempt to share with you some things I am learning about spices.

First of all, do you know the difference between spices and herbs? Well, just in case you don’t, I’ll tell you. Spices most often come from seeds, roots, fruits, berries and bark. Herbs generally come from leaves, stems, and flowers. Spices tend to have a more dramatic flavor, while herbs are more subtle. Most spices are used in their dried form, while herbs are often better fresh. There are a few spices like ginger, garlic, and lemongrass that taste better fresh.

There are some things to consider when buying and storing spices. You will get the most flavor from your spices if you buy them whole and grind them yourself right before you use them. This will help the spice retain its oils, which create so much of the flavor. When storing your spices, the best option is to store them in multi-laminate, high-barrier, zip-seal bags with the air removed before sealing. Glass jars with secure lids can work too, but it’s best if they are not completely air tight. Also, keep in mind that even though spices don’t really “expire”, they lose their flavor over time. It is better to buy small quantities that you know you will use before they sit in your pantry for too many years.

To finely chop spices, it is recommended that you first “slice the spice, then dice.” Fresh spices can be grated using a fine citrus grater. There is also a great kitchen tool for grating spices that comes from Japan called an oroshigane. Some fibrous spices such as ginger, will grate best when frozen. Still, most people who grind their own dry spices swear by a traditional mortar and pestle. This allow you to have more control on how much the spice is broken up.

Some recipes require you to fry your spices in a little bit of oil. It is important that you don’t burn the spice or the flavor will be bitter. You may want to test a few seeds of the spice first. It should sizzle in the pan and brown quickly. Remove the pan from the heat, add the additional ingredients, and then return to the heat if needed.

I think the beauty of spices often relies on our ability to perfectly combine them to create unique spice blend flavors. Here is a recipe for a Garam Masala spice blend from India…

Garam Masala

3 green cardamom pods

1 ½ T coriander seeds

1 T cumin seeds

½ tsp peppercorns

2 cloves

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

1 dried bay leaf

1 tsp ground mace


Place cardamom pods in a pre-warmed pan. Add coriander, cumin, cloves, pepper and bay leaf. Keep pan moving until the spices give off a rich aroma. Immediately poor spices into a cool container. Remove seeds from the cardamom pods, discarding pods and adding seeds back to the other spices. Add cloves to the spice mix. Grind all spices to a find powder. Mix in the cinnamon and mace last.

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A couple of notes about spice blends: spice blends are best 24 hours after blending them. They tend to separate over time. You should remix your spice blends if they have been sitting for a while. Start small when adding spice blends to your food…you can always add more.

I would love to hear about some of your successes with spices! And I just have to end my article by showing you the awesome spice rack my husband installed on my pantry door recently. No more hunting through the cupboard for spices! This will make me have a happy new year.

  •   Spices: A Window on the World, SpiceBox Books, 2014

    Cristina Duke
    Monthly Newsletter Contributor since 2014
    Email the author! cristina@dvo.com

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