Fresh spices are the key to making delicious food. It is one of the worst places to go cheap, as the delicate aromas fade quickly in storage and less expensive spices are often older, less aromatic ones.
I am particularly picky about the spices we use. Mad Mex, Kaya, Soba, Casbah all draw from cuisines where spices figure predominantly. They draw from regions along the old spice routes, from ancient China and wild Indonesia to the diverse melting pot of the Caribbean, from the mysterious New World to the growing and colonizing nations ringing the Mediterranean; spice trade drove world trade for a millennium. To disregard that heritage and pour powdery dust into our delicious dishes would be heresy. We use the freshest, cleanest, most aromatic spices that we can find. Price always comes second in this area.
I follow the same logic at home. Why wouldn’t I? I like tasty food everywhere I go! Here are some of my spice rules:
1. Buy the freshest, nicest spices you can find! Look at the selections at the store. The discount brand looks a little limp, kind of grey. Worse yet are the canned spices, which you can’t even see to assess their quality. Next to them, for $1 or so more a jar, are the vibrant, tasty looking, organic or name brand spices. There is a difference. You can see it. And when you use them, you will taste it. And that extra dollar or two will be spread over many dishes. Buy the flavor.
2. The recipe you are using was written for fresh spices. The person who wrote that carrot cake recipe is either a professional chef and is using spices at a rapid rate and is accustomed to good, fresh spices, or is a dedicated amateur and has tested that recipe a number of times, blowing through at least a jar of spices in the process. That recipe is not written for the tin of ground cloves that you have moved three times since college.
3. Fight the bitterness – Most of the spices we use in cooking have a balance of delicious, volatile aromatic flavor compounds against some astringent notes. Over time, the delicate aromas fade, leaving just the bitter components. Like your memories of that last boyfriend… Don’t let it all fade to bitter.
4. Grind it! If you buy whole spices and grind them when you need them, you will have an amazing improvement in flavor. Once a spice is ground, it loses flavor rapidly. Buy a whole nutmeg and grate it to order on a nutmeg grater. Get a simple stone mortar and pestle and grind your cumin and coriander for your chili fresh to order. (A nice video about the mortar and pestle) And for bulk grinding, buy a grain mill for your stand mixer. Your mouth will appreciate you.
5. Six months is long, a year is too long. You should try to use up spices within six months to a year of purchasing them. Longer than that and they will lose most of their flavor. I write dates on my spices when I purchase them, unless they are types I know I will use up quickly. Red pepper flakes, fennel seed, and black pepper get used up quickly in my kitchen and I never label them. Baking spices move more slowly and get a date. “When in doubt, throw it out.”
6. Those old spices make some good potpourri. Pour the old spices in a small pot with water and place it over a very low burner on the stove. Your house will smell lovely as you extract the remaining aromatics form the old spices into the air of your house. And since you won’t be drinking the liquid, the bitter compounds are not an issue. BTW, do not use up old hot peppers this way. Sprinkle them on the tender flowers and vegetables in your yards to give the deer a little surprise.
7. Herbs… Fresh is best. I have thyme, sage, rosemary, and tarragon plants around my house. They are easy to grow and the flavor is so much better. You can keep one alive in a pot inside during the winter with minimal gardening skills. Occasionally I want the flavor of dried herbs (dried thyme in gravy is a perfect example) but usually fresh is a better flavor. The more tender herbs, like basil, must be fresh. If you are hesitant about buying fresh basil, buy one of the basil plants for sale in your produce department. Pop it in your kitchen window and use it for weeks.
8. Don’t buy in bulk! If you aren’t going to use up that quart jar of rubbed sage in the next six months, which you most definitely won’t, don’t buy it! The price per ounce looks great, but the mouth sadness you will encounter as you try to use it up over the next decade will never be worth it.
Attached is approximately the original Casbah Tagine recipe. We would change the fruit throughout the year. This version uses fresh pears. The salient feature is the use of Ras Al Hanout, a North African spice mixture. Make it fresh and use it up. It also goes great sprinkled on chicken before roasting.
Recipe: Lamb and Pear Tagine