Spices vs. herbs, what are the differences?
Spices are the buds, seeds, bark, berries, or roots of plants that have been dried for use, while herbs are the plant leaves, which can be used fresh or dry.
Often times, it's the drying process that develops the important flavor profiles of a spice. Vanilla is a perfect example. It's harvested as a green pod from the orchid plant, and through a curing process that can take months; the pods are heated and cooled to develop the complex flavor components that make it such an alluring spice.
Spices are classified according to the plant parts used
Purchase whole spices when you can
Whole spices have a much longer shelf life because there's less surface area exposed to the elements. That results in less evaporation of the spices' essential oils, which keeps the aroma and flavor intact. Once ground, the complexity of the flavor components begin to dissipate, leaving you with an identifiable, but much less interesting spice.
Buy from a store that sells a lot of spices
Specialty spice stores often have the best selection because they search the world for their special inventory rather than buying spices as a commodity. If you don't have access to a specialty spice merchant, you can find many online.
Keep your spices fresh
Only buy up to a six-month supply of whole spices, and a two-month supply of ground spices to ensure freshness. Often the minimum purchases are more than you'll use in that time, so make a spice buddy and share your spices. Or divide your purchases into multiple portions and give spice kits to friends as gifts. They might even cook you something delicious in return!
Store your spices in airtight containers to prevent the volatile aroma compounds from evaporating. Spices are often altered when exposed to oxygen, light, heat, and moisture, and a well-sealed container is the best way to preserve your spice investment. When cooking with spices, avoid pouring directly into cooking food as the steam from the pan will introduce moisture to the storage container and degrade the longevity of the spices.
Resuscitate your spices
Occasionally you'll need to use a spice, even if it's been in your collection longer than you'd like to admit. In a pinch, a little heat will help you get the most out of what it has left to offer. Heat your spice in a skillet over low heatjust enough to encourage the oils to come to the surface, but not enough to toast the spice. In just a minute or two, the spice will release its aroma. Remove it from the heat and proceed with your recipe. If you plan on grinding the spice, let it cool first.
How to choose the best grinding techniques
Cook's note: to create more fragrant and flavorful food, it's best to grind your spices as needed.
A small electric coffee grinder does a great job of grinding spicesjust brush or wipe it out between most uses. But if you've ground something particularly pungent, grinding a bit of white rice removes the strong flavor. The only challenge here can be trying to grind a very small quantity, which can result in the spice flying around the cylinder without getting broken up. One solution is to add other ingredients from the recipe (such as sugar) to create enough volume for an effective grind.
A mortar and pestle is also an excellent tool for grinding spices, especially when you only need a small amount ground. There is something rather Zen about grinding spices by handthe wonderful aromas wafting up, feeling the texture of the spice through the pestle. Most spices break down into a lovely powdery consistency very quickly, but selecting the right mortar and pestle is key. Look for one that is deep enough so the spices don't fly out during grinding. A rough surface on the interior of the mortar, along with a nice heavy pestle will aid in breaking down the spices quickly.
Dried herbs don't need to be ground, but by simply breaking up the leaves with your fingers or palms, you can release more flavor and aroma into your dish.
Change the flavor of your spices through toasting
Spices can be toasted in a dry skillet on the stovetop, but it's important to keep them moving in the pan so they don't burn. Alternatively, spices can be toasted on a sheet pan in a low temperature oven and stirred frequently for even toasting. The level of toasting depends on how much flavor you're looking for. Experimentation is the best way to determine preferences for different dishes. Some foods will benefit from a nice dark roast, while a lightly toasted spice may best compliment others.
Cook with whole spices or ground?
It's really the cooking method that drives the decision to use a spice whole or ground. Quickly cooked items won't have enough time for whole spices to impart flavor into the food, but ground spices work perfectly. Some small whole seed spices, like cumin or coriander, can be left in quickly cooked dishes and they will release their full flavor when bitten into.
Just for fun, take a small amount of cumin, coriander or mustard seed and toast some of them. Taste a toasted seed and then an untoasted seed; you will quickly understand the transformation of flavor that toasting has on a spice.
Whole spices are more perfectly paired with slow cooked foods because they have time to release their flavor throughout the cooking process. Plus, it's a delightful way to impart flavor without the extra texture or sediment other ingredients can add. Whole spices can be also steeped in liquid and then removed before serving, as in cider, poaching liquids for fish or fruit, spiced iced teas, and mulled wine.
A nice touch for slow cooked foods seasoned with whole spices is to add some of the same spices in their ground form as a finishing accent. This highlights the delicate aromas of the spice that most likely cooked off during the long exposure to heat.