Hello, I’m Bruce Beck. Welcome to my blog about spices and their uses.
I’ve been cooking for most of my life. As a child, I loved helping my mother with the family meal. Even then, I was fascinated with spices and how they could change the taste of dishes. As a teenager, two of my first jobs were in restaurants. These experiences only increased my interest in spices. Every day I used a wide variety of herbs and spices to give our meals a unique flavor.
Now, as an adult chef working at a high-end restaurant in San Francisco, I still love experimenting with spices each day. My job is not only to create great meals for our customers but also to develop new recipes for them to try at home. To do this well, it’s important to understand what makes a good spice and how to use it effectively in your cooking.
The spices have existed since the beginning of time, and they have been an important part of the evolution of human civilization. Spices have been used to heal, to season food, and to preserve food. In fact, it is because of the preserving nature of certain spices that allowed ancient mariners to travel the world. Spices were also so valuable that they were used as money in many ancient civilizations.
The present day uses for spices are many and varied, but I would like to focus on how to use them in cooking. There are two things that spices do when added to a dish: they enhance the flavor of a dish by bringing out the natural flavors; and they add their own unique flavors which sometimes can be very strong or subtle.
Depending on which spice you choose, you may want to use more or less depending on your recipe. The intensity of flavor depends on when you add them to your dish. For example, some spices need to be added at the beginning of cooking; some need to be added at the end of cooking; some should be added just before serving; and some should be used as garnish. It all depends on what effect you want from a particular spice.
Spices are to cooking and cuisine what light is to painting or photography. They color the palette of our food, just as light colors the palette of a painter or photographer’s medium. They can even be used to create beautiful effects, just like light.
First, spices are not herbs and herbs are not spices, though both are part of the group known collectively as seasonings. Spices come from the bark (cinnamon), bud (cloves), fruit (allspice), root (ginger), seed (nutmeg) or berry (peppercorn) of a plant. Herbs come from the leafy green portion of a plant. In other words, if the seasoning comes from the interior of a plant it is a spice; if it comes from the exterior it is an herb.
Second, you don’t have to be an expert chef to use them well. Most cooks rely on only a handful of seasonings in their daily repertoire – salt, pepper and garlic powder for most Americans – but there are literally hundreds of different seasonings available in most grocery stores today. A little knowledge can go a long way when it comes to using them to enhance your meals!
Third, understanding how spices work together is key to creating exciting new flavors in
It’s easy to want to impress someone with your cooking. We all want to make the best food possible and we hear all the time that adding just a pinch of this or that can really bring out the flavors in a dish. But when you don’t have much experience cooking, learning how to use spices can be daunting.
If you’re intimidated by spices, learning how to use them doesn’t mean you need to know everything about them right away. You don’t need to know what each spice tastes like or look like, or where they come from, or anything else. Learning how to use spices comes down to a few simple principles:
* Buy spices whole whenever possible, not pre-ground.
* Use fresh spices within 6 months of buying them.
* Never cook with stale or old spices; they’ll only ruin your food!
* Always toast your whole spices before grinding them (or using them whole).
* Keep your spices in airtight containers away from heat and light.
* Never store your spices in the fridge or freezer; it will dry them out!
When I was young and learning to cook, a friend gave me some advice that changed my life. Well, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but it did make me stop cooking with all the spices that were in my cabinet and start over.
The advice was: Start with seven essential spices and then add more as you get more comfortable. That way, you will learn how to use the basic ones well before you move on to more complex flavors.
I followed her advice, and though the actual list of spices varied depending on whom I asked, once I had seven spices that I used all the time, I stopped worrying about expanding my spice collection and started worrying about using them well.
Since then, I’ve found that seven is kind of a magic number for recipes too (see: Seven Essential Cooking Techniques). Whether it’s seven spices or seven ingredients or even just seven steps, keeping things simple is often the key to cooking success.
Spices are the soul of Indian cooking. They are used in their whole form or in the form of pastes and powders. Turmeric, coriander, red chillies and cumin seeds are used nearly every day, so much so that they are called the holy quadrangle of Indian cuisine.
Spices are in fact very good for you, as most of them have medicinal properties. For example:
Cinnamon helps control blood sugar levels. Cloves help fight toothaches. Fennel is a digestive aid that reduces flatulence, bloating and colic. Garlic is a natural antibiotic, lowers cholesterol and helps prevent colds and flu. Ginger is an anti-inflammatory that helps soothe migraines and arthritis. Mustard seeds help clear sinuses and prevent asthma attacks. Nutmeg reduces nausea and vomiting and can be used to treat insomnia, dizziness and depression. Turmeric has been shown to reduce inflammation in people with arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
The first thing to realize about spices is that there are no hard and fast rules. I’ll try to provide some guidance here, but ultimately, you have to make your own decisions based on your own taste.
That said, we can break down the use of spices into three categories: