They say that variety is the spice of life — and that’s a good thing. So spices must be important. Spices have literally brought people together for centuries as explorers left homelands long ago to search for these substances. Today, we use spices in everything from cooking to medicine.
Spices and herbs make up a single culinary category but they are different. In general, herbs come from leaves and stems and spices come from bark, seeds, roots, bulbs, and other parts of the source plant. Spices can be brined, crushed, chopped, fermented, or roasted and their usage can make or break a meal. Here are some tips to increase your spice IQ:
Storing and Prepping Spices
Most spices have shelf lives of one year or more provided they remain in whole form. Once they’ve been crushed or ground they lose their flavor pretty quickly. Store all your spices in an airtight container either at room temperature or colder. If you have a spice that you don’t use often and you’d like to preserve its freshness, consider storing it in the refrigerator or freezer where it can remain almost indefinitely. If you are uncertain as to whether a spice is still usable, open the container and take a whiff. If you can’t detect a fragrance, it’s time to toss it and buy some more.
Fresh vs Dry Herbs
As a general rule, dried herbs are added to dishes during the cooking process and fresh herbs are added at the very end. Dried herbs need time and heat to infuse flavor into food whereas fresh herbs can be stirred in at the last minute and still add a flavor boost — like adding fresh mint to iced tea or fresh basil to a pizza just minutes before it comes out of the oven. When substituting in a recipe, the ratio of fresh to dry is about 1.5:1. (1 tsp dried thyme = 1.5 tsp fresh) When substituting one for the other, always use less than you think necessary. Remember, you can always add more but once you’ve put it in, you can’t take it out.
Benefits of Spices
Today’s health conscious cooks know that using a variety of spices in place of salt is one way to reduce sodium intake and the negative health risks associated with overconsumption of salt. For centuries, though, numerous other health benefits have been attributed to spices including improved digestion and memory, increased energy and libido, and weight loss.
Interesting Spice Lore
Because they have been around for so long, some herbs and spices have stories to tell. Such as…
Saffron, one of the most expensive spices in the world due to the labor-intensity of the harvesting process, and is also deadly in doses as small as 3/4 tablespoon.
The name for the Argentinian spice blend Chimichurri is literally translated as “a mix of many things, in no particular order.”
Sumac is the only spice plant that is native to all 48 contiguous United States.
The nutmeg tree is the source of both nutmeg (from the seed) and mace (from the seed coating). Too much nutmeg can cause hallucinations, delusions, and an impending sense of doom.
Cilantro is the leaf of the plant from which coriander seed is derived. Scientists have recently discovered a gene that causes this spice to taste like soap to individuals who carry it.
Mints are often served at the end of meals to freshen the breath but also because peppermint can calm gastric distress from overeating.
Spice it up!