There is much that can be said about the complexity, flavour, wholesomeness and aroma given to meals when whole spices are used. From spicy Indian cuisine to Mexican, Italian, Thai and many other types of food styles, herbs and spices have been used to prepare tasty food since the dawn of time.
Spices and herbs also offer a number of health benefits that give them even more value in cooking. And, for those trying to live a healthier life, adding some freshly ground spices is a simple (and delicious) way to reduce the need for added salt and sugar.
The secret to getting the most from the spices you use in food however lies firmly in how spices are sourced, as well as how they are stored and used.
How to Buy Whole Spices
Buying pre-ground spice from the supermarket may seem like the easiest way to get your dose of spicy goodness. But sadly, there are no guarantees of freshness or quality when it comes to mass produced spices that often sit on the shelves for long periods. Even whole spices may not be fresh.
With that in mind, some of the things to keep in mind to ensure that you buy the best possible spices (without breaking the bank) include the following:
- Take the time to visit local spice shops, markets and other outlets that specialise in spice. Shops that focus on sourcing quality spices from around the world have a far better understanding of variety, shelf-life and usage. You will often have a much greater variety to choose from, with ground and whole options on offer in various quantities. It’s often cheaper to buy your spice this way, too.
- Buy smaller amounts rather than bulk. As spice can easily go stale (even when whole!), buying more than you need is a waste of money and spice. Rather choose smaller amounts and get more when those are running low. This way, you can experiment more easily without wasting or ending up with stale product that ruins your food.
- Grow your own herbs whenever possible. Or, source your herbs from anyone you know who grows their own. Herbs are easy to grow, even in a small kitchen. Once your plant has a decent yield, you can cut and hand bundles of herbs upside down and dry them, filling jars with the dried leaves and grinding small portions as needed.
Storing and Using Your Whole Spices
Once you have a good selection, you will want to make sure that you store and use your spice properly. Inside each individual plant, seed or leaf are volatile oils that start to vanish as the spice molecules break down. When this happens, they lose their flavour and complexity, becoming less aromatic and tasty. This happens to whole and ground spice at some stage – even if whole spices have a longer shelf life.
Light, heat and air can all hasten the evaporation of these precious oils. This means that you should never keep spice near your stove. Transparent containers should be kept in a drawer or somewhere away from the light. Do not be tempted to keep them in the fridge either, as they do not need to be kept cold – the light from the fridge could also ruin them.
A good way to store them is in tins that are labelled and then kept somewhere that is within easy reach and sight. Forgetting about spices that are not often used is a sure-fire way to end up with stale spice, so having easy access to your selection will ensure that they are not forgotten about. You may even consider labelling your containers with the date of purchase to ensure that they do not go past their ‘best by’ date.
Last but not least, one of the best things that you can do is invest in some type of spice grinder. These tools help to release all the goodness and flavour easily, allowing you to enjoy your carefully chosen spices to the max. With a little thought and effort, you can get the most from your whole spices and ramp up your cooking in the process, too.