A dash of this, a pinch of that…
Published February 19, 2014
The old saying goes that a little sugar and spice make everything nice. Well, there’s no doubt we’ve got the sugar thing down pat; but are we really taking advantage of the amazing flavors that spices can add to our cooking?
Many chefs in metro Detroit would argue that home cooks aren’t as well-versed in the world of herbs and spices as we could be — but we’re getting there. Susan Baier is a chef instructor and program coordinator for the culinary studies program at Oakland Community College. She explained that the beauty of spices is that they can evoke flavors that are familiar or exotic, depending on what we’ve been brought up with.
“I know, in my home, we grew up using a lot of dill weed because I’m Scandinavian. Others might use a lot of tarragon, perhaps because they’re French,” she said. “As a cook, we want to know how they all work together. Some blend and some don’t.”
She said her students learn the ins and outs of spices early on in their culinary education, starting with what exactly a spice is.
“A berry, root, seed, pod and rhizome (are) all spices. An herb is just the leafy part of the plant,” explained Baier. “Herbs are commonly fresh or dried out, where spices are almost always dried out and sometimes ground.”
For maximum flavor, however, Baier recommends cooks steer clear of ground spices at the store. Buying whole spices certainly gets you more bang for your buck.
“Keep a little mortar and pestle, and grind them as you use them. They’ll stay fresh longer, and they’ll be more potent. You can also try dry-toasting them. It brings out different flavors,” she said.
Getting the freshest, most potent spices was the task Jim Yaw was faced with a few years ago when his wife, Nancy, set out to cook an Indian dish that called for a spice she didn’t have in her pantry. She needed fenugreek seed, and the spice cost more than $8 at the market for a full bottle, but she needed only a tablespoon. With that, the Spice Miser was born.
Every week, Yaw said, “mostly experienced cooks” head to his spice booth at Detroit’s Eastern Market to grab up some of Yaw’s super fresh spices from 21 countries. The best part, he said, is that many of the spices can be purchased in cost-effective small packets to ensure they stay fresh.
“The whole concept is fresh. We’re timely in that sense. We keep product flowing in a very timely fashion, so it’s not sitting in some warehouse waiting to be out on shelves,” he said.
Yaw and Baier agree that the hottest new spice these days is smoked paprika, which typically comes from Spain. They explained that it can give barbecue sauces, chili and other rich foods a smoky essence without much effort or added heat.
“If you’re looking for smoky heat, you’d want to go for a chipotle chili, like a jalapeño that’s been smoked,” said Yaw.
The history of spices is about as old as each culture they originated from, so it’s not hard to understand why most home cooks are slow to learn about the many options available to them. Baier said small steps could help even the most novice chefs learn how to liven up their dishes with new tastes.
“I try to get my students to plant herb gardens, especially chives. They’re very forgiving and come back every year,” she said, adding that oregano and basil are harder to care for but pack a lot of punch in the kitchen. “They can look beautiful, too. Add some flowers and it just looks like a garden.”
She also said that cooks should learn the differences between an herb with a woody stem, such as rosemary, and one with a softer stem, like basil. The tender stems tend to yield milder flavors, so you’ll need to adjust portions accordingly. The same goes for dried herbs versus fresh. The dried stuff is more potent, so you’ll need about two to three times more, if you’re using fresh.
The quickest way to get in the spice game, said Yaw, is to head over to the library and start reading.
“That’s the best way to learn about herbs and spices. It’s really an amazing story — and I say story because, from beginning to end, there’s really an amazing history, geography and climatology there,” he said, explaining how long humans have been using spices to cook with. “Really, they’re just plants, herbs and weeds, and they happen to taste good.”
More tips on using herbs and spices
• Buy small: Light and air begin to break herbs and spices down almost as soon as they’re opened, so, realistically, you’ve got less than a year to use them.
• Know when to use them: Spices can permeate into dishes throughout cooking, while herbs should really be added near the end. Baier said that adding herbs to some dishes with more than 1/3 of cooking time left to go, there’s a chance the flavors could turn bitter.
• Make your own: Most restaurants have their own house seasoning, and there’s no reason you can’t do the same. Play around with flavors you like — salt and pepper, maybe a bit of bay leaf, a hint of mustard or garlic or onion — and keep the concoction on hand for everyday use.
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