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Volume III
October 21, 2011

Weekly Home / Cook'n & Eat'n

6 Spices No Cupboard Should Be Without!

By Alice Osborne

Holidays are on their way and that means so's the baking. And if you study holiday recipes you'll notice they tend to call for spices - 6 in particular: cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, cloves and ginger - spices no cupboard should be without!

To help us make the most of our baking spices, the pros have a few tips for us. The folks on the cable TV show, Cook's Country (along with every other professional chef and baker around), say we should be using fresh ground spices.

We know preground spices are convenient, but the problem is that flavor fades fast. We should label them with the purchase date and then store them in a cool, dry place and try hard to use them within a year (and that could mean a LOT of baking). Otherwise, we should buy whole spices and grind them ourselves. I use a small inexpensive, electric coffee grinder that I also use for grinding my golden flaxseed.

Now let's look at these 6 indispensible spices, one by one, to see what the pros have to say about them:

Cinnamon: It's the American classic. We love cinnamon and use it freely in favorites like apple crisp, sticky buns, pumpkin pie, and so on. I usually add it to my green smoothie each morning because of its heart-health benefits. And who doesn't steam a pot of cinnamon water on the stove now and then to freshen up a stinky kitchen?

Most cinnamon sold in the U.S. is cassia, not true Ceylon cinnamon. Both are the dried bark of tropical evergreen trees, but the bolder, spicier cassia is cheaper to process. Cook's Country chefs like to mail-order their cinnamon from Penzey's (from

Nutmeg: It's considered the eggnog essential. It's heady and powerful and is a hard, brown seed that comes from a tropical tree. It's often used in dairy-based savory dishes. I always add a dash to my spinach souffle - the flavor is incredible. It's used in all sorts of cakes. The Cook's Country chefs compared fresh with preground and found that in dishes where nutmeg was the sole spice, grinding it ourselves would be the best thing to do. They did say, though, that in a recipe with several spices, preground nutmeg would be fine.

Mace: This is known as nutmeg's other half. It tastes like a more pungent nutmeg, and for good reason: It's made from the lacy membrane that surrounds the nutmeg seed inside the fruit. Dried, whole mace comes in "blades," but the ground form is more common. Cook's Country chefs compared it to nutmeg and found that we can substitute one for the other by using half as much of the more potent mace as we would nutmeg, or twice as much nutmeg in recipes that call for mace. Good to know.

Allspice: It tastes like a combination of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, hence its name. Ground allspice is used in sweets such as mincemeat pie and gingerbread. It's the hallmark of Caribbean cooking and jerk seasoning. Cook's Country chefs like to add ground allspice to melted butter and then add the spiced butter to dough or batter. They say this technique brings out the flavor of the spice. Let's try it.

Cloves: These are the pungent, peppery dried, unopened buds of an Indonesian tree. They look a little like nails - in fact, the word "clove" comes from the Latin word for nail, clavus. Ground cloves are potent, so most chefs use them sparingly in baked goods. Whole closes are a nice addition to the poaching liquid for fruit, and on the savory side, they are terrific when studded into a baking ham. I like to add lots to my cinnamon water that I steam on the top of my stove.

Ginger: Ground ginger is just the ginger root ground up. The fresh root cannot be substituted for dried, ground ginger. They taste different (fresh is more floral, dry is spicier), work differently in baking (fresh is moister), plus fresh is less potent. Ground ginger is sometimes reinforced with fresh grated when making gingerbread, however. I add a 1-inch chunk of fresh ginger to my green smoothie each morning because of its medicinal effects (Candida Albicans HATES ginger). And who would even think of making pumpkin pie without ginger?

Now here's an idea: Let's go through our cupboards this coming week and check our spices for expiration dates and toss all the old ones. It'll be fun and a good thing to do, to stock up on fresh whole spices. Then, if you don't already have one, get yourself an inexpensive coffee grinder (Toastmaster, Braun, Breville, etc.) so you can grind your own spices for this year's holiday baking. Freshly ground really does make a difference and friends and family will appreciate the extra effort we've gone to!

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