Can you imagine a world without spices? I wouldn't want to. From basic salt and pepper, or cinnamon or cumin, it would be a pretty bland universe of food if we didn't have spices to make meals more appetizing and to identify different types of global cuisines. Spices can completely transform a recipe. They give us aroma or a kick of sweetness or a touch of heat. Believe it or not, spices that we conveniently pick up at the market were once literally worth their weight in gold. Wars have even been waged over spices!
Using spices and seasonings in your recipes may be a bit intimidating at first, but they encourage us to step out of our culinary comfort zone. Once you begin to practice with and utilize new ingredients you'll identify flavors that you love and you'll find that you're craving dishes that teleport you to other countries and cultures.
As with every ingredient you use in cooking, the quality of your spices is incredibly important. Sure, you can buy pre-packaged and pre-ground spices, and I think they're very good. But if you can get the whole spice: the cinnamon or allspice or nutmeg, and then grind them, it makes a world of difference. It's absolutely noticeable. The aromas just explode when you grind fresh spices!
To take this a step further, if you toast the fresh spices prior to grinding, that gives them a whole other dimension. I would encourage the foodie in you to experiment with spices--and to grind them fresh.
But of course, as with everything, moderation is key! Take, for example, our most common and go-to spice: salt. (Although, if you want to get technical, salt isn't really a spice, it's a mineral! The only rock we eat!) If a dish is a little bland, we add salt. But you don't need a lot. If you use too much, all you'll taste is the salt. You won't be enjoying all of the other components and ingredients in the dish. There's definitely a tipping point when using any spice.
Thanks to the celebrity chef movement and food television, we Americans are getting much better at using spices. We're far more interested in making globally inspired dishes, and there's a growing appetite for exotic spices. We're developing a palate for such organic gems as curry, turmeric, ancho chili, coriander, fennel, anise and saffron. It's a really big game changer for home-cooked meals.
Fortunately, today most food markets generally have a good fresh selection of these spices. One thing that I think you should be aware of is that, contrary to what many think, spices don't last forever. It's funny, when I was growing up I can remember there were three spices in the cupboard: oregano, basil, and dried mustard. And years later they were still there! Spices do have a shelf life. Once they're past their expiration date they become flavorless.
How can you detect whether they're still good or not? It's all in the aroma. If you're not getting a really strong fragrance from your spices then they're probably past their prime. Cinnamon should have a really good cinnamon burst and when you open up a container of oregano, or green herbs, you should get a real strong pop. Also, look at the color. The greener spices tend to lose their color as they age.
I encourage you to make sure that you're using fresh spices. If properly stored, they'll last for about 6 - 9 months. And here's the best way to preserve the life of your spices. Grind them and then store them in Fido jars with lids that clamp down on rubber gaskets. They keep the contents airtight. Mason jars are good too. Anything with a strong seal will be just fine. You may also want to write the purchase date on the jar.
Here's to flavor in some many wonderful ways!