Spices and herbs in brief
Spices and herbs offer incredible flavour and health potential that we miss out on if we don't use them properly. Herbs are the leafy part of plants whereas spices include any part of dried plants aside from the leaves, such as seeds, bark, or stems. Spices and herbs let us explore cuisines from around the world while adding bold flavours, vibrant colours, and delicious smells to food. Their story goes way back, including the middle age spice trade and traditional medicine, but today we still treasure spices and herbs for their role in cooking and nutrition.
While spices and herbs are culinary superstars, they're also packed with health-promoting properties such as antioxidants. Using them can add delicious flavours to food without the need for excess oil, salt, or sugar. Spices and herbs also help fight disease and inflammation, and may even influence our metabolism.
Antioxidants are found in many foods, but it's spices and herbs that top the charts with the highest levels. In fact, when measured per 100g, they can provide 10 times more antioxidants than fruits and vegetables! This means that adding a small amount can be a convenient way to boost the taste and nutritional value of our food.
Navigating the world of spices and herbs can be overwhelming with so many options to choose from. Becoming confident with using them takes time, and it often helps to get comfortable with just a few basic spices and herbs first. In our search, international grocery stores offer a variety of high-quality spices and herbs often at a lower price. Choosing a store with a high turnover is especially helpful because the shelves are freshly stocked with new products more often. A fresh spice or herb will have a vibrant rather than faded colour, a rich aroma, and won’t be beyond the “best before” date if packaged.
Elevating our culinary journey
There are a few tips we can use to add more depth to our dishes.
Strategize spice timing
Whole spices take longer to release their flavour into dishes, whereas ground spices offer a quicker and more even dispersion of flavour. Adding whole spices early in cooking is recommended to allow them enough time to release their flavours. Ground spices are typically added later on in cooking.
Consider using spice blends
Part of the art of spices and herbs is combining them to create new food experiences. Spice blends offer delicious convenience as a single scoop loads any dish with plenty of flavours. Some common spice blends include:
For inspiration by dish, the following picture has some ideas:
Many cuisines feature signature spice and herb pairings, such as:
If there's a combination of spices or herbs that we use frequently, we can premix it ahead of time.
Bloom to deepen flavour
Blooming gently heats spices and herbs in oil to deepen their flavour. This process extracts fat-soluble flavour compounds that coat our tongues and elevate the flavour of the dish. Blooming is also called tempering and there are three main steps:
- 1 - Add oil to a pot. If using whole seeds, add them to the pot and cook for 2 minutes, stirring throughout. If not using whole seeds, add onions and garlic.
- 2 - When the onions and garlic appear transparent, then add the powdered spices.
- 3 - Cook in the pan for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Stir continuously. Then add the remaining ingredients, including liquids.
Let dishes sit
Dishes infused with spice and herbs taste more flavourful when we give them time to sit and meld. After making a dish, consider letting it cool and enjoying it after the flavours can really settle in.
Grind whole spices closer to using
While ground spices are convenient, opting for whole spices can level up our cooking for more experienced chefs. The oils in spices are part of what gives them their unique flavours, but ground varieties lose this oil and flavour faster than whole varieties. By grinding whole spices closer to when we use them, we get the freshest flavour. A mortar and pestle or high-quality coffee grinder can work to grind whole spices and herbs.
Preserving their power
To store spices properly, it's important to keep them away from 4 things: air, light, heat, and moisture. Therefore, it's best to store them in airtight containers in a cool, dry, and dark environment. For example, in glass jars in a cupboard away from direct light and heat from the stove or oven, or moisture from a dishwasher.
Optimal storage time
Spices and herbs can sit in our pantries for longer than we realize. A loss in colour or aroma is a sign the spice or herb won't add as much depth to our dishes. Under optimal conditions, they stay fresh for different times based on their form:
- Whole spices: freshest in the first year, but can last up to 3 - 4 years.
- Ground spices: freshest in the first 6 months, but can last up to 2 - 3 years.
- Dried herbs: freshest in the first 6 months, but can last up to 1 - 3 years.
- Spice and herb blends: freshest in the first 6 months, but can last up to 1 - 2 years.
Spices offer us a chance to explore new cuisines and elevate the flavour, aroma, and colour of food while also offering beneficial antioxidants. While it may take some time to become comfortable with using spices, doing so opens up a whole new realm of flavorful and nutritious possibilities.