Spice noun Spices (plural noun).
...an aromatic or pungent vegetable substance used to flavour food, e.g. cloves, pepper, or cumin.
I make no assumptions as to whether you are new to the kitchen or someone who no longer needs a map to get there, arriving for the first and many subsequent times can be a daunting experience. In many ways it could be likened to arriving in a new country and being required to speak the language, allow me to elaborate. Learning how to correctly season food is similar in that you begin with a few words, easy ones, unfortunately ones that can lead you into a false sense of security. But given time, exposure, and willingness to learn you soon bring those words and phrases that exist in a separate dialect together and apply them to your surroundings, and one that you simply have to tap into.
The difference between spices, herbs and minerals is not as clear as perhaps it should be, at least, not on the face of it. However, both spices and herbs enhance flavour within food, herbs are borne out of the process of using fresh, or drying leaves of a plant. Salt is a mineral. That leaves just the humble spice which is derived from fruit, berries, seeds, flowers, root, bark, twigs, kernels, or pod of a plant. The aromatic properties contained within these spices come to the fore when they are crushed, grated, toasted or ground into a powder for use as is, or to form a paste.
Why Buy Fair Trade?
Whilst no longer being the case spices once dictated and helped shape our civilisation. The spice routes led to the discovery of new lands, and in turn, the New World. But it wasn’t all wonderment, colour and fun, these were violent times. Wars were fought over the possession of such treasure. People have died because of spices, people on the brink of death have been brought back to life due to their alleged healing properties. They have been used as currency and often influenced and determined the building of infrastructure projects throughout the centuries; as a direct consequence, not all spice merchants are created equal.
In this day and age I would hope, and like to think that whilst most of us love to bag a bargain we also care for the wellbeing of growers, suppliers and the little man. That often means paying a little more, for a far better product. I’m not talking a high end premium, but just something that makes life a little easier for some and less profit for multi-million pound companies. The following is simply a list of 10 headings of reasons why you should buy Fair Trade, I have included this so that you may, should you wish, do your own research, this list pertains to any product, not just spices:
- Fights Global Poverty and Hunger
- Empowers Workers
- Positively Impacts Communities
- Ensures Safe Working Conditions
- Prohibits Child Labour
- Protects Women’s and Minorities’ Rights
- Promotes Environment Sustainability
- Keeps Indigenous Cultures Alive
- Supports Ethicality
- Meaningful Impact
Quality of Merchandise
Where is the best place to buy your spices, should you choose a supermarket, an online marketplace, a convenience store aka a corner shop or direct from the grower? Each of these offer a solution, and most likely each at a different price point. The question should be what do I want to get in return for handing my money over, is it the right thing to do, and ultimately, is it the right thing for my pantry?
If you choose a supermarket you should bear in mind that the average shelf life of ground spices is around six months, the chances of your selection having already been in the building for longer than that are fairly high and you are, in general, limited to a range of two or three choices which includes own brands. So what of the online marketplace? This is a strange beast, as it opens up, not to whole of market, nobody could ever do that in the true sense of the phrase but this is the closest you shall get. That said, anything is available, at a price. If you choose not to opt for fresh or whole spices you still have the shelf life issue of an already ground spice but the chances are that it is fresher than a physical shop can supply in your home town. The shelf life issue remains once purchased and home safely in your pantry, over time, oxidation occurs and aromats evaporate and deplete.
To the corner shop we head, prior to leaving empty handed. You are not likely to find what you require here. What is on offer has usually been purchased from the supermarket and sold on at vastly inflated prices, if they’re even still in date. That then leaves us with the final choice and that is purchasing directly from the grower. Again, we hit a stumbling block in that we don’t just want Asian, South American or European spices and short of resourcing individual growers for each region we’re scuppered. This final act of defiance in the great spice challenge leaves me with my favourite and preferred go to option of the online marketplace. I can buy in bulk, I can buy anything, I can research the company providing the marketplace and I can easily research the value versus the price point.
Keep your spices in a sealed container, in a cool dark place, not the fridge. From time to time check the cardboard seal under the lid for signs of imperfections or rips, replace if required. However much of your chosen spice your recipe calls for it is best to avoid adding directly to your pan. You cannot control the amount accurately that goes in, and therefore you cannot determine or recall a benchmark for the next time you make the recipe. Personally, I don’t measure the amount but then again, I’ve been doing this for years and these are my rules.
Another valid reason not to pour directly over a pan is the steam could easily enter the jar or pot and by virtue of something so simple what you hold in your hand is no longer considered a truly dried spice. Any steam that enters the chamber, jar or pot could also cause dampness, clogging and even develop mold spores if left too long, if you get to this stage then your only option is to throw the spice away and also the container if there is no option to return it to its former glory and begin once again.
To toast or not to toast? That really shouldn’t be the question. To toast many spices increases the depth of flavour that each one is willing to give off, although not all can benefit from being toasted, but those that can, include:
- Cumin seeds
- Fennel Seeds
- Coriander seeds
- Star anise
- Mustard seeds
To toast simply place the seeds, only one variety at a time in a dry frying pan, place the pan over a low to medium heat without moving it for the first 30 seconds then shake the pan every few seconds for 1 to 2 minutes, remove the toasted spices and transfer to a spice blender or ideally a pestle and mortar.
Experiment With Tried and Trusted Ideas
Live a little dangerously, after all, you are seeking to learn and wanting to make those informed choices that I wrote about yesterday. You may have a recipe that you enjoy and could create with your eyes closed, trusting just your palate to guide you, so recreate that recipe but add something new, making careful note of what and how much, then the next time replace it with something else new and compare your notes. Is there anything you could leave out that would enhance these new flavours? Is there anything else that you could add to take the dish to the next level?
Think Outside of The Box For Each Usage
If you have read this far then you are ready to begin to stand on the courage of your convictions, think outside the box for each spice. You may know the aroma of a Chilli con Carne but did you know 95% of what people believe to be a chilli is simply cumin? If you turn that on its head that doesn’t mean that cumin should be used for 95% of the time in a chilli. Start to think about how to cross pollinate regions by using a little crushed cumin over a roast potato or sprinkled atop a crisp gem lettuce for instance. You will start to trust your instincts and you will achieve to succeed.
From the outset select the correct storage jar or container. Spices can turn quickly due to oxidation and hence it is vital that they get to enjoy an airtight environment. Use some form of oxygen absorption, as alluded to earlier. When you put spices in an airtight container, there will still be oxygen present and this oxygen will cause the spices to go bad gradually. Keep the containers somewhere cool and dark. Even if kept in an oxygen free environment, spices will degrade from heat and light. Create your own blend and mix of spices to cut down on storage requirements, this will only really come to fruition once you fully understand what spices you desire and in what ratio.
In a later article we shall cover the basic pantry spice requirements. For now, there is nothing stopping you from getting out there and meeting this challenge head on.