Spices are not only a great flavoring on their own, but can also act as a preservative and flavor enhancer for particular ingredients.
Many meals as we know them would be totally different without the use of spices, such as nutmeg on custard, saffron in paella, and sumac in za’atar. To be a good cook, it’s important to explore spices and know when to use them to your advantage.
A spice is usually defined as the seeds or pods (caraway, cardamom), flower or flower heads and stigmas (saffron), buds (cloves), aromatic berries (peppercorns), fruits (paprika), roots (ginger), stems or bark (cinnamon) and other parts of a plant. A herb is usually designated as the fragrant leaf and occasionally the green stems of a plant if it is young or has no woody stems (parsley, rosemary, basil, etc.).
- A number of plants are both herb and spice. For example, coriander (or cilantro) leaf is a herb, but the stems, flowers, seeds or roots of the same plant is typically referred to as a spice.
Different spices have different characteristics, with some having more than one virtue. Here are some of the qualities by way of example:
- Some are earthy (such as cumin, turmeric etc).
- Some are spicy such as ginger, turmeric, or chilies, wasabi, mustard, pepper and Szechwan peppers and give a warming sensation, and have powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
- Some are floral or sweet (such as vanilla, star anise, rose petals, etc).
- Some add color (such as saffron).
- There are many more spice flavoring qualities such as sourness, bitterness, an ability to make other flavors more complex and fragrant etc.
sweet spices typically go well with sweet things, such as nutmeg, cloves, vanilla, cinnamon, cardamon, allspice in cakes, cookies, stewed fruits etc so we normally classify them as a sweet spice. But tastes and fashions change and sweet can go with typically savory things, such as in stews, braises & roast vegetables (especially sweet potato) and curries that use sweet spices in what is typically a savory meal. There is no sugar added which makes the spice able to work for sweet dishes and savory dishes.
- The advantage with modern spice blends is they are made ahead for convenience, but the disadvantage is it can be hard to adjust them to your taste without some experience with spices. If you have not ever made a spice blend from scratch, or have experimented with spices before it can be very hard to correct or modify a dish should it not taste good, or not taste as good as it could do. The additional key benefit is sometimes a meal may be planned, but when a problem happens, such as an ingredient has passed its use-by date, or the dish does not turn out as planned, the use of spices can make the failed meal into an entirely different (and successful) meal.
Garlic for example if slowly roasted whole in the skin is quite mild and sweet, but raw finely minced garlic is quite spicy. If it’s “steeped” such as in a stew or broth, it can be quite rich in flavor, but it is very acrid if burnt.
- Some spices require grinding, some can be bashed roughly, some turn out more pungent when grated. It varies per type of spice, as some spices don’t taste as good if they’re not prepared quite right. Most dried spices tend to be ideal ground to a powder.
- Some are better or are different flavor when fresh, some are better dried (such as vanilla, cloves – which are a flower bud, paprika, etc).
- By knowing which spices are similar as well as their individual uses, it can be quite easy to substitute with a similar spice, or to create new spice mixes to your taste.
This sometimes is a lot more expensive (such as vanilla beans, rather than vanilla paste or extracts) or fresh ginger etc, but sometimes it is marginal such as cinnamon sticks, whole seeds and spices such as cumin, fennel, cloves, star anise or coriander seeds. It does make a large difference to the quality of the meal and whole chunky spices (such as star anise or cinnamon sticks) can always be removed prior to serving.
- This is because pre-ground spices tend to have a lot more surface area exposed to air so their essential oils or flavoring compounds are lost more easily. The also can be degraded due to exposure to bright light in supermarkets if they have been stored for some time. This means the spices are often stale, even when new. The rule of thumb is if any spice smells dull and not fresh, then it is stale and is not worth using. Grinding your own spices is a joyful experience in itself.
- Whole spices work best in dishes that are slowly simmered (some spices turn bitter after prolonged cooking, so slow cooking is important). Ground spices are easy to add to a dish at any stage of the cooking process.