Where to store spices

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Where to store spices is a good question, because they do lose flavor over time. But it’s also a bad question, because the answer depends on where you live. Some spices, like pepper and cinnamon, come from warm climates and can be stored in your kitchen cabinet. The others are all tropical, and need to be stored in a cool, dark place.

There is one good place to keep spices: in a cabinet with a small opening at the top. The beans and seeds will stay fresh, but because it’s hard to get them out, you’ll tend not to use them as much. In many cases, this is the only solution. For example, if you have a lot of cumin, you can start grinding only what you need for each recipe.

The more difficult case is when your spices are exposed to air. If you leave them in their original containers — jars or plastic bags — they will absorb moisture from the air, clumping together into a hard lumpy mass. This is especially bad for powdered spices. Making a habit of replacing them every six months will keep this from happening.

The worst solution is to buy those little bottles of “pantry” spices sold in department stores and supermarkets: they’re convenient but expensive, and they taste awful because they’ve been sitting around for months or years (though with the proper respect paid to expiration dates).

Spices are best stored in airtight containers, away from direct sunlight. The most common container used commercially is the “9x6x2” plastic box which holds about a pound of spices.

Spices are a lot more delicate than you might think. They must be stored in a dry, dark place with a constant temperature. You can’t keep them in the cupboard with the rest of your food, because heat and moisture will ruin them. If you live in a humid climate, the cupboard is probably the worst possible place.

If you want to store spices for longer than six months, you should get a proper spice rack — they’re cheap and they’re easy to use. The best ones have separate holders for whole spices and ground spices — whole cinnamon sticks, for example, can be ruined if they are ground into powder before you use them.

The cheapest spice rack has metal hooks that hang on the side of your cupboards; it’s better to get one that stands on its own. It’s made of plastic or metal mesh; stand it next to your stove so you remember to use your spices regularly.

Since you don’t need very much spice at once, buying in bulk is not really worth it. You can buy small containers of spices at most supermarkets; make sure they have an airtight seal or ask for some plastic wrap to cover the container yourself.

Make sure you label your spice jars clearly so you know what is what when

Spices can be expensive, but they are also really good at adding flavour to otherwise bland food. They are a great way to add variety. If you have some money, and you have the storage space, it is definitely worth it to invest in some spices. Here’s a list of the spices and herbs that I use most often:

– Nutmeg – Cinnamon – Cardamon – Ginger – Turmeric – Coriander – Cumin – Chili powder

– Paprika – Cayenne pepper – Curry powder – Oregano – Basil – Thyme

– Use them as much as possible in your cooking

When most people think of the spice trade, they picture the Arab caravans trekking across the desert with their fragrant cargoes. But the highest volume of spice trading was conducted not in Cairo or Baghdad but in Antwerp and Amsterdam, and most of it was done by ships. It was a trade in bulk spices: cinnamon, pepper, cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg, and turmeric.

What I want to know is what happened to all that stuff after it got here. Spices are heavy—it takes about a pound of ginger root to make an ounce of ground ginger—and bulky; a thousand pounds of nutmeg will fill a large barrel. So how did people use them? I know from reading LeViathan that middle-class households didn’t keep barrels of nutmeg around for sprinkling on their breakfasts. And spices don’t seem like the kind of thing you’d casually buy at the general store for a recipe or two—how many recipes call for an ounce of mace?

So I decided to go see if I could find some answers by visiting the Museum Herbarium and Library at the New York Botanical Garden. The curator there has kindly offered to show me around when I get there.

Spices are the only things that last long enough to be worth shipping over long distances. So it is no surprise that they were the first things European traders started looking for when they arrived in Asia. It is less obvious that Europeans did not then start growing spices.

Tastes change, and markets shift. Today the spices Europeans like best are turmeric, cinnamon, and vanilla; none of them can be grown in Europe. But two thousand years ago, the most desired spice was pepper, which grows in Europe as well as India; it is a key ingredient in what we now call “salt.” And in Europe, it was as valuable as gold.

The Romans grew some pepper. But by the time of Christ, there were signs that Roman tastes were beginning to shift away from pepper. The Roman writer Pliny complained about the high price of pepper; three hundred years later, his complaints had become more extreme: “It is not merely an article of luxury,” he wrote, “it is not merely a matter of expense; it is complete madness.”

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