"Whole spices have a much longer shelf life, but if your chipotles haven't seen action since Bill Clinton's presidency, out they go."
It continues to baffle me how little attention is given to spices today. Maybe it's because we're told to eat local (they rarely are) or organic (they're usually not). Spices seem to still have a reputation of being slapdash cover-ups for mediocre chicken—and far too often they are—but they don't have to be.
We've all sampled from international cuisines that employ thoughtful, vibrant, and delicious spice blends—why not try making them at home? Yes, spice hunting requires a little time, effort, and money (though less than you think), but once you start using fresh spices in your cooking, you may just find yourself addicted.
This column will focus on a single spice, chile, or herb every week: some background, how to use it, and most importantly, how to re-use it in a variety of applications so it doesn't languish in the back your cabinet. But the most important part of using spices starts well before you ignite the stove: they need to be well-sourced, well-stored, and properly prepared. Here are some tips to begin your own spice hunt.
Go Through Your Spice Cabinet
If you can't remember the last time you've used something, you should probably chuck it. Ground spices in particular go stale fast. After eight months (and that's with optimal storage) they're probably just pleasantly-scented dust, and whatever you put them in will taste more like ground-up bark than anything else.
Whatever the form, spices are pods of complex volatile oils that begin to evaporate as soon as the pod is broken down. They lose their complexity and become mere memories of their former flavors. And while you could always just add more of the stale stuff to whatever you're making, how much ground-up bark do you really want to eat? No matter how much you add, stale spices won't taste like they should. On the other hand, whole spices have a much longer shelf life, but if your chipotles haven't seen action since Bill Clinton's presidency, out they go.
Organization Will Set You Free
Once you've thrown out the duds, organize your spices so you can see them. If you can't see them, you'll forget they're there. I try to keep mine roughly organized by how I use them, so when I make spice blends it's easy to grab them all.
Also think about how you store your spices. Light, heat, and air all encourage the evaporation of spices' volatile oils. So move your spices far away from your stove—nothing kills them faster.
I use a combination of cheap tins from the hardware store, old jam jars, and small plastic bags with as much air pushed out as possible. Spices don't require refrigeration, and the light exposure a fridge receives when opened all the time could do more harm than good.
If you're using transparent containers, move your spices to a cabinet or a drawer—anything insulated from light or obvious heat sources. Bonus points if you label everything with its date of purchase to keep an eye on freshness.
Get Ye to a Spice Merchant!
Spices are like any other produce: they should be purchased fresh from reliable vendors. Grocery store turnover of spices just isn't fast enough to reliably ensure freshness, and quality isn't the first thing on their minds. I'm not saying they're flavorless, but we can do better.
And sometimes cheaper—the prices at spice retailers are often lower than the high-end brands in grocery stores, where a good chunk of your dollar pays for packaging. A retailer that just sells spices will have an incomparable variety of whole and ground spices, dried herbs, and chiles, and can sell them to you in whatever quantity you need.
Look for a store that grinds its own spices on a frequent basis if you want to buy them ground. But the best part about spice retailers is their selection of whole spices, which retain their flavors if stored properly for two or three years. I buy whole spices and chiles whenever possible, though some, like paprika and many custom spice blends, only come ground. If you go to a real store, they'd be more than happy to offer advice (and talk your ear off) on whatever you're cooking.
If you live in Chicago, you can't do any better than The Spice House, my personal favorite for all the reasons above. For their cinnamon alone (they have three kinds), they'll make anything you cook or bake so much better. I've never paid over $5 for 4 ounces (which is about the size of a small fist) of anything, and you can buy as little as an ounce for rarely-used spices.
Penzeys is another great merchant with locations around the United States. And if you live in Canada or want to buy organic, The Spice Trader has a good reputation as well (full disclosure: I haven't shopped there).
All these stores also sell online, and while buying several spices at once may be a little costly, think of them as investments in your long-term cooking. But a little goes a long way—buy in small batches as needed and your spices will always be at the peak of freshness, not to mention cost you relatively little.
Ethnic grocery stores are also great sources for spices and at incomparably low prices. Two bucks at Patel Brothers bought me a lifetime supply of nutmeg (which, if left whole, has an exceptionally long shelf life). These groceries will also be your best source for hard-to-find fresh herbs like lemongrass, curry leaves, and kaffir lime leaves.
Buy Yourself a Grinder
Whole spices carry better flavor for longer, and are usually cheaper than their ground counterparts. While some small spices like cumin don't usually require grinding, larger ones will, and grinding your own spices on an as-needed basis will elevate your cooking to a new level.
I use a cheap coffee grinder that's been my best friend. It's less than $15, has a retractable cord, and has a deep bowl that can handle large and small quantities. If you already have a coffee grinder, don't let it pull double duty unless you want all your coffee to taste like cardamom (though cardamom-flavored coffee is a beautiful thing). I've found shaking a grinder up and down creates a finer grind faster, which is important (you don't want grit in your food). And don't grind more than you have to—the blades create heat which can evaporate the spices' oils.
To clean your grinder, toss in a couple tablespoons of rice and whizz them to powder, then wipe out whatever sticks with a slightly damp cloth before air-drying. Grinding your own spices may seem like a pain, but it's the best way to get the most out of them, and after a while it becomes just another kitchen ritual. If you like, you can grind a larger quantity of spices at a time and store it in an airtight container. It'll still be better than most pre-ground stuff you can buy, but be sure to use it quickly.
Fresh spices, herbs, and chiles are the souls of some of the world's best dishes. There's no other way to add so much complexity and novelty to a meal with so little. Whether you use them in time-tested combinations or in new creative ways, spices will transform the way you cook. It's time to give them their due.