How to Buy Spices and Herbs
An outstanding and very unique feature of many international foods is the inclusion of aromatic and exotic spices and herbs. For example, foods from the Middle East, India, Far East, Europe, Mexico, and other countries are well known throughout the world for their fragrance and unique flavor.
Fresh spices and herbs complement and enhance the properties of the other ingredients, creating savory meals. Freshly ground spices provide better results than dried spices, but may not always be available. As a bonus, many spices also provide health benefits.
How to Stock and Store Herbs and Spices
Herbs come in fresh and dried forms and can be pungent in flavor. Spices are almost always dried and can vary in taste between hot, sweet, or spicy. Follow the guidelines below to properly purchase and store herbs and spices.
These leaves of plants and shrubs with nonwoody stems can be found in abundance, either potted, cut, or dried. Keep the most commonly used herbs on hand for cooking; such as basil, bay leaves, dried dill weed, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme.
How to Purchase
Choose fragrant herbs that have a bright color and fresh-looking leaves that are free of brown spots. Fresh herbs are highly perishable so buy only what you will need. Many are available year-round at the supermarket or, better yet, grow them in your garden or in a pot on the windowsill. When you buy dried herbs; select small containers so you can use them up within a year.
How to Store
For short-term storage, cut a 1/2 inch from the stems. Stand the herbs upright in a small jar with some water. Cover the leaves loosely with a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Change the water every 2 days. Discard wilted leaves as they appear. Do not refrigerate basil because it may blacken.
If your recipe specifies using the fresh herb, but it’s not practical to buy a bunch when only a teaspoon is needed; substitute dried instead. To do so, use about one-third of the amount the recipe calls for. When you’re substituting ground herbs for dried leaf herbs, use about half the amount.
When using fresh herbs; finely snip the leaves beforehand. Before using dried herbs, crush them with a mortar and pestle; to release their aromatic oils and provide the maximum flavor to your finished dish. If you don’t own a mortar and pestle, use a small bowl and the back of a spoon instead.
Or if you prefer, rub the herbs between your thumb and two fingers.
Spices come from the seeds, bark, roots, fruit, or stems of a variety of plants and trees. They are used to enhance both sweet and savory dishes. Some cooks prefer their spices whole rather than crushed or ground for a more intense flavor. Stock some of the most popular, such as chili powder, ground cinnamon, ground cloves, cream of tartar; cumin, garlic powder, ground, and fresh ginger, dry mustard, nutmeg; onion powder, paprika, black and cayenne pepper, and salt. Spice blends, such as Mexican seasoning, Italian seasoning, and five-spice powder, are also available.
How to Purchase
You can judge the freshness of the spice by the color and aroma. When fresh, most spices have a bright, rich color and a strong aroma. Always purchase in small quantities to ensure that you are using fresh spices. Replace old spices once a year.
How to Store
Keep your spices tightly covered and store them in a cool, dry place. Whole spices stay fresh for up to 2 years while ground spices have a 6-month shelf life. Store red spices, such as paprika and red pepper, in the refrigerator. They will hold their color and keep their flavor longer.
How To Stock A Spices Cabinet
Stocking a spice cabinet can be a little overwhelming; simply for the reason that there are so many spices out there. It may be tempting to stock up on every exciting seasoning insight. But these things do have an expiration date, and you can end up with a cabinet full of flavorless; expensive powders that need to be replaced.
But nobody likes bland food, and there are a few spices that I recommend everyone has on hand. Once you have these basics, you can supplement with the other spices that routinely come up in your favorite recipes.
A Spices Cabinet
It makes other flavors pop. Get a box of Kosher salt for cooking and a box of Maldon for finishing.
Skip the pre-ground stuff and get a grinder with whole black or rainbow peppercorns. (Extra credit: Get another one with white peppercorns for times when you need to increase the funk.)
You’ll need whole sticks for infusions and teas, and ground for baking and sprinkling into savory dishes. It may sound weird, but adding a pinch of cinnamon to my beef stew changed my life.
Freshly ground nutmeg is the “secret ingredient” in a whole slew of recipes. Yes, it’s great in baked goods; but it’s also fantastic in any sort of cheesy dish and pairs well with hearty meats and starchy vegetables.
Cayenne pepper; a versatile heat-bringer used in a variety of cuisines. And just a pinch can add a nice kick to a vat of beans, or take your spice rub up a notch.
It is the bright red pungent powder you may have seen on top of deviled eggs. It can be mild, sweet, or hot, but it should always be Hungarian. Beyond deviled eggs, you can use it to finish any dish that needs a bit of pungency; or use it in spice rubs, marinades, and dressings.
I am obsessed with cumin and it’s a sweet earthy warm flavor. It makes meaty dishes taste “complete,” and absolutely sings in both Tex-Mex and curries alike. When tasting a dish and think it needs “an extra something,” that something is usually cumin.
Fresh herbs are great when you can get them, but you should enjoy thyme’s woodsy flavor all year round. It’s a staple in Mediterranean and Italian cooking and adds subtle flavor to a whole slew of savory dishes.
Like thyme, oregano has year-round applications, and spaghetti sauce wouldn’t be the same without it.
Bay leaves are like the perfect backup singer and provide harmony without being distracting. Their subtle, savory and vaguely medicinal flavor; makes rice, soups, and stews taste better without making them taste like much at all.
Crushed red pepper flakes:
Made from a blend of dried, crushed chilies; these spicy little guys add a slightly fruity spiciness to anything you sprinkle them on, such as pizza.
Of course, spice cabinets will vary from person to person; depending on the type of food cuisines one cooks, and that’s a beautiful thing.
How to Buy Spices and Herbs
The chance of finding all the spices at your local store is slim. Although somewhat pricey, there are certain benefits to shopping from a whole foods grocery or a specialty store, such as a Mediterranean Store, Far East or Middle East Store if one is available near you.
- You can obtain specialty spices and ingredients quickly
- Spices will be fresher
sure to visit them first before ordering online in order to compare prices.
You can also consider purchasing your spices from reputable online spice stores. Due to the volume they sell, the quality of these spices may surpass what you find in grocery stores. Specialty spices from your local grocery store may sit on their shelves sometime before they sell.
Additionally, online stores don’t have the same overhead as brick and mortar stores, allowing them to offer their products at more competitive prices. Additionally, their selection is far greater than any grocery or specialty store.
If you prefer fresh herbs, and especially if you grow your own organic ones
here is a tip to help you enjoy them all year long:
- Chop your herbs as fine as you like.
- Take a quart size freezer bag, pour 1-2 tablespoons of olive in the bag.
- Drop the herbs into the bag and massage gently to cover all of them with the oil.
- Label your bag with a permanent marker.
- Starting at the sealed end of the bag, roll it up, expressing all the air in the bag.
- Zip it up and place it in your freezer.
- When you want to use some, simply massage the bag slightly to loosen them up; (they will not freeze together because of the oil).
- Take out what you need and reseal the bag as airtight as possible to prevent freezer burn.
- You can do the same with store-purchased fresh herbs and spices
While fresh herbs are nice, there are several quality brands of dried spices and herbs to choose from. Additionally, there are many smaller companies that offer a quality selection at value pricing.
Check your vendors carefully; making sure to check for any recalls for the product that may be affected by spores or contaminants.