Spices and Herbs
Keep plenty of flavorings around to add interest to your meals. Spices and herbs are a great way to do this. Spices are the bark, seed, resin, root, stem, fruit, or bud of a plant, tree, or shrub. They count among their rank the familiar, such as cinnamon, mustard, ginger, licorice, juniper, and cloves.
Most are available whole and ground. They begin to lose their flavor and aroma as soon as they are ground, and the longer they sit on the shelf, the weaker they get.
The most economical and flavorful way to purchase spices is in whole form. Spices kept whole will last for years with little loss of flavor and can be ground as needed.
A mortar and pestle is the classic way to grind whole spices. There are also special spice graters and grinders at every gourmet gadget shop. But perhaps the easiest way to grind spices today is with a coffee grinder. Keep a separate grinder for your spices.
Some spices, especially seeds, benefit from light toasting prior to grinding to help release their aromatic oils. You can do this in a dry sauté pan on top of the stove. Keep the spices moving as they heat up, and remove them from the heat, and the hot pan, as soon as you smell the spice. Let the toasted spices cool down for a few minutes before you grind them.
Larger spices, like nutmeg and cinnamon, can be broken into smaller pieces before being ground. A meat mallet is a perfect tool for this. If you’re into gadgets, you can buy special graters designed especially for large spices.
To get their maximum effect in your recipes, add spices early in the cooking process. Because fat is a natural flavor carrier, adding your spices to oil brings out the flavors and permeates a recipe.
Herbs are green, leafy plants. With a few exceptions they have delicate, non-woody stems. If allowed to grow to maturity, herbs develop into flowers and seeds. Many of these seeds are then reclassified as spices when dried.
You can use herbs in fresh or dried forms. They are usually interchangeable, but they each have different characteristics.
Dried herbs tend to have stronger flavor than their fresh counterparts, but they lose their flavor very quickly. Ground and powdered herbs have an increased surface area that allows the flavorful oils to dissipate faster. Buy them in small quantities and store them in a cool, dry, dark space to maximize their lifespan.
When you’re ready to use them, rub them in your hands to release more oils. Be sure to add dried herbs in the last 30 minutes of a recipe for maximum effect. In cold recipes, like salads and marinades, the longer the herb is in contact with the food, the more intense the flavor will be.
When choosing fresh herbs, look for bright green leaves that stay on the stem. You shouldn’t see any bruised or dried leaves, and the stems should be straight. When you get them home, wash them right away, then drain them in a colander for a few minutes before refrigerating. Wrap them loosely in paper towels and store them in the produce drawer.
When adding fresh herbs to recipes, remember that you need more fresh herbs than dried. A general conversion rule is three parts fresh herb to one part dry. Chopping them very fine releases as much flavor as possible. Like any green vegetable, herbs discolor and loose nutrients when overcooked. Add them into recipes at the very end of cooking to maximize flavor and nutrients.