By Nathan Carey
When you walk past the spice aisle in your local supermarket one can quickly become overwhelmed by the wall of small glass vessels filled with colourful powders, flakes and pastes. There are hundreds of spices used worldwide, in a number of amazing cuisines. This quick guide will provide you with the history and skills to use these flavour powerhouses effectively to level up your home cooking.
The first known record of spices dates back over 4000 years in India and East Asia, where black pepper, cinnamon and dried herbs were traded. Throughout the following centuries, many cultures adopted spices as remedies for illnesses with some even believing they had magical properties. Due to their use in ancient medicine, spices became some of the most expensive commodities and were in extremely high demand. Nowadays there are many forms of spices available for purchase, with the most common being pre-ground. While this form is convenient, it can dramatically lower shelf life and potency. Spices are able to pack so much flavour due to their high levels of volatile oils. When spices are ground up or smashed these compounds are exposed to oxygen causing them to oxidise and release their aromas, and so grinding spices to a fine powder exposes the most flavour. To get the most out of your spices it’s wise to buy whole and grind as needed. Spice grinding can be performed in a mortar and pestle, or more conveniently in a dedicated spice grinder. Using a spice grinder can also help in preparing spice blends for curries or soups. Another trick to maximise the flavour of your spices is to toast them before grinding. Toasting the whole seeds helps to accelerate the release of those volatile oils and accentuate the aroma of your spices. This can be done by placing your spices in a pan over medium heat for just about 2 minutes, you’ll want to keep an eye on them to ensure they don’t burn. It’s easy to tell when they are toasted enough as some of them may start popping in the pan and the smell in your kitchen will be heavenly!
When it comes to herbs, they have a history closely linked with spices with their first reported use dating back thousands of years. Medicinal and spiritual connections were also drawn to these aromatic plants. These days you can find a myriad of fresh and dried herbs in most supermarkets and they are relatively easy to grow at home. Whether you’re looking to build up complex flavours in your cooking or just add that final touch, the following herbs and spices are the perfect place to start!
The crown jewel of seasoning, pepper is the worlds most traded spice with over 1 million tonnes being produced in 2019. Peppercorns are the fruit of the pepper plant. These fruits can be picked when unripe and dried to produce classic black pepper. Through different processing methods, white, green and even red peppercorns can also be obtained. The distinct pungent flavour of pepper comes from the compound piperine that is released upon grinding. Pepper is one of the most versatile spices and is used worldwide along with salt to season most savoury foods.
Nutmeg is obtained by drying the fruit of the fragrant nutmeg tree until the seed inside pulls away from its outer shell. The best way to add this spice to your cooking is by grating it carefully, this produces small flakes that will meld seamlessly into any dish. Nutmeg has a beautifully sweet and warm taste that pairs perfectly with other spices like cinnamon and cardamon. It is often used in baking, adding warmth to cakes and puddings. Another great use for nutmeg is in white bechamel sauces, such as those used to make macaroni & cheese and other creamy pasta sauces.
Red Pepper Flakes
These are one of my all-time favourite spices. I add red pepper flakes to nearly every dish I make! I love the heat that these add to marinara sauces, hearty soups or even mixed through a tuna salad. These spicy flakes are those of dried red chilli peppers, most often peppers in the cayenne family. They definitely pack a punch so use it in moderation if you’re not a fan of heat. (Shoutout to my roommate Hugo who loves the heat!)
This classic spice is the result of dehydrating fresh garlic cloves to remove their moisture. The cloves are then pulverised into powder for easy use. This spice is essential for bringing a pungent savoury flavour to your dishes and pairs great with most cuts of meat and vegetables. This one is definitely a staple.
Cumin seeds are obtained from the Cuminum cyminum plant, a member of the parsley family. They are oblong shaped with small ridges. Cumin has an earthy flavour that compliments meat very well. For this reason, it is often used in dry rubs and can be found in some chilli powder mixes. Cumin is also used regularly in pickling and can even be found in some cheeses such as leyden from the Netherlands.
Here’s where I’d like to bridge the gap between spice and herb. The two are so often used in tandem and can complement each other well. Coriander can be both a spice and a herb! Its seeds are the dried fruits of the plant and are found in whole or ground form. This spice is a fundamental ingredient in many curry dishes and is part of the common ‘garam masala’ spice blend. The leaves of the coriander plant are another popular kitchen ingredient. They have an almost citrusy flavour and go great with curries, guacamole and as a garnish on tacos or bao buns. These leaves can lose their flavour quickly once heat is applied, so they are usually added just as a dish is being served. Interestingly approximately 10% of the population interprets the taste of coriander as a soapy flavour. This is due to a variation in a set of olfactory genes. If you experience this mutation, try crushing coriander into dishes instead of serving whole!
This fragrant herb has been used in Italian cooking for centuries, and for good reason! Its flavour is unmatched and can elevate the most basic dishes to new heights. Most varieties of basil can be grown at any time of year making it a great starter herb to try out. As long as you have a bright windowsill you should be good to go! I remember growing my first basil plant in my mid-teens and I was amazed at how easy it was to maintain and I felt very accomplished adding a few leaves to the top of my homemade Bolognese. The next time you’re making a marinara or Bolognese sauce stir in a few basil leaves, you’ll thank me later!
Mint gets its name from the Greek nymph named Minthe. As the story goes, Hade’s wife Persephone became overly jealous and transformed Minthe into a ground-clinging plant. Hades tried to return her to her true form but failed, although he was able to give her the ability to sweeten the air when her leaves were crushed. With a legend like that, it’s no surprise that mint is one of the most popular herbs worldwide. There are over 20 species with varying flavour profiles from spearmint to hybrid crosses like peppermint. While great with roasted vegetables and lamb, mint is also used in drinks like lemonade and even the classic mojito. Mint is also used in teas, such as Maghrebi mint tea from northern Africa where the preparation can take on a ceremonial quality when prepared for guests. Mint can be easy to grow at home but its root systems tend to be invasive, for this reason, it is often grown in an isolated pot.
Ultimately the list of herbs and spices could go on and on, but the ones I’ve covered today are a great start for a home cook. As students, we are often drawn to the most budget-friendly options and the pre-ground bottles at the supermarket are more than enough! However, if you have the extra time, grinding spices just before using them is guaranteed to provide more flavour and elevate your cooking to the next level. So the next time you’re roasting some meat or tossing up a salad, try adding some spices and herbs to spice up your life!