An Introduction to Spices
Spices are essential to add flavour and depth to food. They also boast a wide range of health benefits. Consider this an introductory guide to spices; how to store them, use them and target certain ailments.
Like food, spices can go off. This manifests itself as a weaker flavour and, whilst this won’t pose any health risks, the vibrancy of spices is integral to their value, so aim for the freshest possible. The easiest way to achieve this is by buying whole spices, i.e. cinnamon sticks instead of grown cinnamon. A pestle and mortar are the most traditional ways to grind spices, through a coffee grinder proves just as effective. Convenience dictates that ground spices are often preferable; buying smaller amounts of ground spices and storing them in airtight containers away from direct sunlight, heat or moisture will ensure longevity.
In regard to herbs, tougher leaved varieties such as Rosemary and Thyme can be kept in the freezer for a number of months. Simply add them at the beginning of cooking and proceed as normal. Leafier, more delicate herbs like parsley are to be used fresh or dried. To dry at home, tie the herbs with a rubber band at the stem then hang them upside down away from any moisture or sunlight until their leaves are a crisp texture. For best effect, dry herbs individually and do not mix types.
If you’re nervous about using spices and herbs, a classic bundle of French accompaniments is a good place to start. This typically includes nutmeg, garlic, bay leaves, thyme and rosemary; a restrained sprig, pinch or grating of any of these ingredients will add depth and sophistication to savoury dishes, from pasta sauces to stews and soups. As an added bonus, rosemary has been proven to contain anti-inflammatory properties, which appear to suppress nasal congestion and some allergies and garlic has a plethora of medical benefits, including combatting common sicknesses such as colds.
You may have come across the term ‘bouquet Garni’, this literally means ‘garnished bouquet in French and is simply a bundle of herbs tied together to introduce flavours in a practical way (the bouquet is fished out of the dish before serving). There is no generic recipe, but thyme and bay are featured pretty consistently.
This spice group is perhaps the most familiar to the Western palette, containing comforting, autumnal spices like nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, clove, star anise suited to both savoury and sweet. These flavours form the base of mulled wine, Christmas pudding and pumpkin pie and evoke a holiday season feel. If you are a keen baker, these spices are useful to have on-hand.
To experiment, Caribbean cuisine makes use of these spices in savoury dishes, adding allspice and garlic powder to the mix. This is wonderful when used as a simple meat BBQ rub.
Ginger, be it fresh (which can be kept in the freezer for a month or two) or dried, has added health benefits. One gram has been proven to lessen many types of nausea. Other studies have demonstrated its anti inflammatory and pain reducing qualities. Similarly, cinnamon has been proven to lower sugar levels quite significantly, on an effective dose of 1/2-2 teaspoons per day.
Indian cuisine is built on carefully constructed layers of spice, including, but not limited to: bay leaves, cardamom (green and black), cayenne pepper, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, ginger, paprika, saffron and turmeric. This nation truly understands the complexities of spice, and consider no meal complete without them (yes, even breakfast)!
As a rule of thumb, all whole spices are toasted in a hot but dry pan until they begin to release their aroma, then cooled and ground before being added into the dish. Pre-ground spices such as cayenne are added after the whole spices and garam masala (a spice mix of many of the aforementioned) is added 5-10 minutes before the end of cooking.
Indians use their spices for medicinal purposes, and all have a positive effect on your body. Turmeric is a particularly valuable ingredient; studies have shown it to reduce the risks of cancer, heart disease, relieve arthritis and massively reduce inflammation.
North African spices are often similar to those used in Indian cooking, think slow cooked Tajine. Moroccans tend to accompany these spices with dried fruits to bring a rich, sweet flavour to their dishes, and lemons to add fresh acidity.
Whilst many cuisines use spices solely in cooking complex dishes, there are certain spices that can stand alone. Za’atar is one such spice mix, popular in Middle Eastern cuisines. This blend of herbs, sesame seeds and salt can be sprinkled over a chicken or more simply, drizzled over flat bread with olive oil, then baked for a unique, savoury snack.