The history of spices goes back as far as the history of
civilization, and maybe then some. Trade wars, territorial battles, fortunes
made and lost, all have characterized the spice trade over the centuries.
Originally, spices were important to cover up the flavor
of spoilage, since before refrigeration and fast transportation it was very hard
to keep food fresh. I guess it shows that even when you have to gag it down, it
might not kill you. But we would rather use spices other reasons.
Spices come from the tropics, and are made from various
parts of plants: seeds, flower buds, flowers, bark, roots, and fruits and
berries. The flavors might be sweet or peppery, and the intensity will depend on
the freshness of the spice. Many cooks appreciate the bold flavor of fresh
spices, and grind their own from the whole berries or leaves, using mortar and
pestle or spice grinders. Most of us, however, use ground spices as they come in
little cans and bottles.
Some can substitute for each other, like cinnamon and
nutmeg. You decide which you like better, or you can alternate for variety. The
amounts in recipes are only guidelines, and you need to realize that you can
vary the spices and the amounts to make yourself happy. When you find what you
like for a particular recipe, write it down.
Here's a list, which is not complete yet, but will give
you an idea of which spices are useful for what kinds of uses. If your budget is
limited, as I explain in the Pantry page, just add to your collection from time
to time. They are usually pretty inexpensive.
Contrary to what some
people think, allspice is not a mixture of a bunch of spices. It is made from
the fruit of a tropical tree that belongs to the myrtle family. The flavor,
however, does seem like a mixture of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. It is very
good used in dishes that cook a long time, like stews. It's also used in baking;
no pumpkin pie should be made without it.
red seeds are from a shrub that grows world-wide in warm climates. It is used
both as a dye and as a spice. It is used in Mexican and Spanish (achiote),
French (roucou), Italian (annatto), Phillipine (achuete), Agrentine (urucu),
Indian (latkhan, sendri) and Caribbean (bija, foucou). The Mayan Indians used it
a war paint. It's used as a food coloring agent in butter, cheeses, rice, and
cooked dishes, like Cooking Dude's Chicken Loco.
It has a warm peppery flavor with a little hint of nutmeg. For most cooking
applications, the seeds need to be ground up into a powder.
Cardamom is made from
the seeds of a plant native to India. It is an important part of curry powder.
However, it is in wide use throughout the world. Scandinavians use it in baking,
and in meatballs and cabbage rolls. Arabs serve cardamom seeds to put in their
coffee. If you want to experiment with it, add a little to sweet potatoes. It is
sometimes also combined with almonds for flavoring pound cake. It's also good in
gingerbread and in spicy pickles.
This is the bark of an
evergreen tree, which has loose bark like a birch. You can either buy it in the
form of little bark rolls, or, as more common, ground into a powder. A variety
of cinnamon called cassia is usually what we actually buy, because it is
stronger in color and flavor than cinnamon. Cinnamon goes well with chocolate,
so adding a pinch is usually a good idea. I fondly remember cinnamon toast as a
kid; Mom would sprinkle a little sugar and cinnamon on buttered toast for a real
breakfast treat. It's also good on applesauce, or sprinkled on a glass of warm
milk before bed.
Cloves are the dried
flower buds of an evergreen tree. Ground cloves doesn't retain flavor very well,
so the buds themselves are generally used. If you need ground cloves, grind them
with a mortar and pestle or an electric spice grinder. Putting cloves in a baked
ham is probably the most common use, but there are many others. Some people like
ground cloves sprinkled in ice tea or cold cranberry juice. Cloves are also good
with baked apples and boiled onions. Sweet potatoes and squash are improved with
a pinch of cloves.
These are the seeds of
the cilantro plant. It is one of the flavorings (in
addition to juniper berries) in gin. It is also one of the ingredients in curry
powder. Coriander is used to flavor soups and stews, particularly goose and
pork. You will also use it if you make homemade sausage.
There are many
recipes for curry powder, and in India, housewives and cooks frequently make
their own from a favorite family recipe, and sprinkle some on almost all foods.
If you want to make curry powder, start with this recipe and then modify it to
Ginger is the root of a
plant native to China, and is one of the most important spices used in Chinese
food. Pieces of the root are peeled and dried, and then grated as needed in
recipes. In some markets, particularly oriental markets, you can buy fresh
gingerroot, and peel it and grate it yourself. It is much more pungent and
flavorful this way. Since you don't use very much at a time, you should consider
freezing it. Then as you need some, you can cut off a piece, peel it and grate
it without even waiting for it to thaw. In addition to Chinese recipes, you use
ginger in gingerbread. When the recipe calls for one or two teaspoons of ground
ginger, you can use 1 teaspoon of fresh grated gingerroot to replace it. Ginger
is also good on buttered carrots and with white sauce served with fish.
Mace is the covering of the
kernel that holds the nutmeg seed. It naturally has a nutmeg flavor, and can be
substituted for nutmeg if necessary.
Nutmeg is the dried seed
from the fruit of an evergreen tree. It adds flavor to bland foods like custard,
milk, eggnog, and tapioca. In France, chefs use it with fresh spinach. Because
freshly-ground nutmeg is so much better, nutmeg grinders that hold five or six
seeds are common now in cooking supply stores.
Here we are referring to
the seed of a tropical vine, not the vegetable family that includes bell peppers
and chile peppers. This is one of the oldest and most important spices, with a
history that goes back more than 5,000 years. Both black and white pepper come
from the same vine, the difference being the time spent on the vine before
harvesting and drying. You can buy pepper in whole berries, or peppercorns,
which you use either whole in recipes or in your pepper mill. You can also buy
fine ground and coarse ground pepper. Cooking removes some of its flavor, so you
normally add pepper later in the cooking schedule. White pepper is not quite as
potent as black pepper, and you can use it where you don't want the pepper to
show too much, as in mashed potatoes. In general, although it adds its own
flavor to some extent, its main function is to bring out and enhance other
flavors in the dish.
Saffron is made from the
dried stigmas of a crocus flower. It is the most expensive spice, and you'll
notice that the saffron bottle in the spice section of the market usually has
the saffron threads in a little paper envelope inside the bottle. But you also
use it sparingly; a very small pinch will flavor and color a dish of rice, for
example. It is mainly used in rice and seafood dishes, such as Spanish paella
and French bouillabaisse.
These are the seeds from
a tropical herb. They are used in baking, and are often found sprinkled on top
of hamburger buns. They are also very good toasted in the skillet and sprinkled
on salads and baked potatoes. Oil made from the seeds is important in oriental
cooking, and a lighter version is used in the Middle East.
Turmeric comes from the
rootstalk of a plant related to ginger. The stalk is dried and ground into a
powder. It's been used for centuries as a dye, and to add color to mustard and
pickles. It is also an important ingredient in curry powder. Turmeric can be
used in recipes to replace saffron for color, but the taste will be different. A
little turmeric mixed with flour before roasting or barbequing chicken will give
it a beautiful golden color and a pleasant taste.
Vanilla comes from an
orchid native to Mexico. It's fragrant blossom only lasts a day, and then comes
a cluster of long green pods containing the vanilla beans. Cortez brought it to
Europe from Mexico, and everyone started drinking hot chocolate flavored with
vanilla. We mostly buy the extract in bottles, but the beans in the pod are also
frequently available. Vanilla is one of the most popular flavorings in the
world, and is used by most home bakers and cooks as well.