Whether you’re new to cooking or a seasoned pro, one thing that will change the way your meals turn out is the use of herbs and spices. While you may think this means getting out that jar of chili powder that’s been hanging out in the back of your pantry for ages, in actuality, there are much better ways to add flavor.
For decades, home cooks have been taught that they must buy little jars of powdered spices to use in their recipes, and many people may not know that those powders started from a whole nut, seed, or bark.
Times have changed however, and now it’s becoming increasingly common for seasoned chefs to grate fresh nutmeg into their pumpkin dish, or use a whole vanilla bean in their dessert. The reasons are many. First of all, once dried and ground, spices have a tendency to lose their flavor quickly, no matter the quality. Many powdered spices are also packaged with added ingredients to make them last longer, but these change the flavor significantly. Whole spices also last much longer, which means they can be more economical.
Before you run out and replace all your ground spices with whole, it helps to know a few things about using them properly to ensure you don’t waste money on something you don’t know what to do with. The following tips should help.
Be Careful Where You Buy Them
Like most plant foods, the quicker you can get your hands on your spices after they are harvested, the more flavor they’ll have, and the longer you’ll be able to use them.
Whether you’re buying ground spices or whole pieces, you should buy from a reputable source that goes through spices fairly quickly. The reason is pretty simple: Spices that sit on a grocery store shelf for months are losing their shelf life as they sit. In general, stores that specialize in spices, or that have a lot of turnover are best. Buying the cheapest jar of something from your drugstore is going to guarantee a flavorless product pretty fast.
If you don’t have a gourmet market or specialty store near you, try ordering from one of many online shops specializing in whole spices. You’ll have to pay a little extra for shipping, but you’ll save money when you get several more months of use out of them.
Always open your spices and take a big whiff of them when you get them, to see how potent they are. They should smell very strong and fragrant. If you get something online and it doesn’t, immediately send it back. If you buy from a store, return it and don’t buy spices from there any longer.
Buy in Bulk if You Can
If you have the ability to buy in bulk, you should always do so. It’s much more economical, and in general, if a place sells bulk spices, they are probably selling a lot of them.
Being able to buy a few cinnamon sticks that you need for a specific recipe means you won’t have an expensive jarful around to lose flavor while you try to figure out how to use them. This is especially helpful when buying spices that you don’t use often, but want for a particular dish.
Store Them Well
The key to making your spices last as long as possible is storing them well. For most things, you want to store them in airtight containers away from extreme heat. In other words, don’t store them near your stove, even though this seems like the best place for them.
Light, heat, and air will all degrade your spices quickly, so a cool, dark spot is best. Even whole spices will not last long in the wrong environment. Some spices you can freeze, but it’s best to check on the individual spice before just assuming it will be okay. Vanilla beans, for example, should not be frozen, but dried chili peppers should be fine. Especially with expensive spices, you don’t want to ruin their flavor by trying to prolong their shelf life in the wrong way.
Want to get even more flavor out of your spices? Try toasting them. Toasting usually works best for ground or broken spices, but you can toast whole ones as well if you’re using them to infuse flavor.
To toast spices, simply heat a dry skillet over medium heat and add your spices to it. Stir constantly until the spices are very fragrant and strong smelling, but not burnt. As soon as they begin to smell toasty, remove them from the pan. Do not let them sit in the pan while you decide how to use them; the hot pan will continue toasting them until they are burnt.
Use the Proper Tool For the Proper Spice
There are various ways you can use your spices. Sometimes you can simply put them in a soup or stew whole to infuse amazing flavor, but often you’ll need to grind or break them up. None of the tools needed are overly expensive, but using the wrong one will prohibit getting the most flavor from your spices.
A mortar and pestle is used to smash or break up seeds and pods, a coffee grinder will grind peppers and other spices, and a small grater like a microplane is perfect for nutmeg and cinnamon sticks. If you’re going to use whole peppercorns (and you absolutely should), you’ll need a pepper grinder.
Remember That Nothing Lasts Forever
Your spices won’t go bad to the point where they’ll make you sick, but once they’re bad, they certainly won’t be doing you any favors. If, when you open the container, you don’t get hit with the smell of the spice, you might as well throw it out; no aroma equals no flavor. The spices will smell most potent when you first get them, and slowly lose that smell as time goes on, so you don’t have to worry if the smell isn’t as strong as it once was. You can still use it if you’d like, but don’t be surprised if you don’t taste that particular spice in your final dish.
Most whole spices will last at least one year if stored properly, so if you cook regularly, don’t be afraid of buying too much of something you use once in awhile. However, bulk buying is a great way to buy those you only use once or twice a year.
Don’t get rid of everything in your spice cabinet yet. While whole spices are generally a better choice, there are some times when the ground stuff is useful. If you need large quantities of something, measuring ground chili powder is definitely easier and will still add the heat you’re looking for.
As long as it’s still potent, there’s no reason to throw something away, but as you begin to replace things, think about what you’re using them for. Nutmeg for example, offers an amazing difference in flavor, is easy to grate, and a little goes a long way. Use your head as well as your personal preferences when choosing which to buy ground versus whole, but remember, if flavor and freshness is important to you, whole spices win every time.