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THE (FLAVOR) BOMB! ROUND 2: SPICE IT UP!

Fire Bomb 2!

Ok, for this week I wanted to keep the flavor bombs dropping (sorry I know I'm cheesy but can't resist) by following up with how to use the other major category of flavor bombs, Spices!! With a few exceptions, spices are pungently flavored seeds or bark of distinctive plants and come in either Whole or Ground form. While this is an extremely diverse category in terms of flavor, for the most part, spices are all used similarly and have similar characteristics for how they react in food. There will be outliers and exceptions to some of the things I'm about to say, but generally these best practices hold across the spectrum. And as I've said before, don't get bogged down with all the information out there about food that you may not know! Just learn as you go and the more time you spend learning, cooking and thinking about any aspect or ingredient of cooking, the deeper your understanding will become. This is just an intro to get you started down your very own spice road.


No Herbs Here


While dried herbs are typically found in the spice section, I wanted to note that most of the things I am going to say about spices do not apply to dry herbs. Please take a look at the last blog post about Herbs for how best to use dry herbs because they are slightly different from how you use spices. It’s good to know the difference in cooking technique because you don't want to burn your dry herbs by using them exactly like you would spices.


Getting Oily!


One of the most important things to remember about spices is that the flavor components in them are oil soluble (with the exception of Saffron and Lavender which should be treated like dried herbs). What this means when cooking is that if possible, you should put them into your food when there is oil present before adding any other type of liquid! This allows their flavor to expand and explode into your dish. By adding your spices to the oil you’re cooking with, the oil will then become flavored which carries flavor throughout the entire dish, not just where the little speck of spice is. Spices will flavor the liquid as well as the oil, but it is much more powerful when put into the oil. In practice, this simply looks like tossing in the spice(s) into the pan when you are sauteeing your veggies/protein just before adding any sauce, stock, or watery veggies. Adding liquid will change what's happening in your pan from a dry heat cooking method (sauteing) to a moist heat cooking method (simmering).


Toast, Grind, and Be Quick


One of the reasons that spices love oil so much is that they actually contain oils themselves. So, to bring out the flavors in the spices themselves (before adding them to anything you are cooking) toast them briefly before using them. Whole Spices are easiest toasted in a dry (no oil) saute pan on medium heat. When doing this, you must keep them moving in the pan so they toast evenly and don't just burn on one side. This only takes a minute or two and you know they are done when you can begin to smell them. As soon as you do, transfer them to a heatproof plate or bowl (or carefully directly to a spice grinder) so the residual heat of the pan doesn't over-toast (read- burn) them. Then, grind them either in a handheld coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle. You can toast them in the oven, but it's harder to control and constantly checking/opening the oven seems a little inefficient (read- Pain In The Arm...;). For ground spices, simply toss them into the pan of whatever you are cooking briefly before adding any watery items as discussed above. I want to emphasize "briefly" because ground spices are so small that it doesn't take long (like 30-60 seconds depending on heat) to burn them and impart bitterness into your food. But as long as you know what to look out for it is a quick and easy way to add big flavors to whatever you are cooking!


Don't get lost in the technicalities


Spices should be stored in a cool, dry place (not above your stove!). And the textbook answer for how long they are good is 6 months. But I can tell you that they last MUCH longer than that!! I have spices that are years old (like 10+ for a few) and they are perfectly fine. Yes, they do lose a little bit of potency over the years but I've had a handful of people tell me that they don't want to buy spices because they "go bad" in 6 months. Screw that! Buying different spices little by little is how you build out your spice cabinet without feeling like you need to spend a ton of money in one go. Don't worry about them getting old because you can use a pinch more after about 5 years or so of having them on hand. As you try new recipes and cuisines, slowly stock your spice cabinet so you have more and more flavors in your cooking palate.


Building Intuition


Now for the million dollar question, "but how do I know which ones to use?" This is the one question where there is no easy answer but I can give you a handful of pointers to help you along your spice journey. Firstly, use the spices you know and think about different cultures where the spices originate!! Everyone eats meat, starches, and vegetables but it's the spices (for the most part) that differentiates the cuisines! Cumin, paprika and chile powder make it southwest/latin-ish... Nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, ginger make it Pumpkin Spiced... Paprika and garlic take it a little more Spanish... Allspice and clove take it a little caribbean... Cardamom, turmeric, cayenne, ginger are used heavily throughout north africa across to india and into asian cuisines. Star anise, white/szechuan pepper, cinnamon are all found across asia... These are all sweeping generalizations, but that's how you start to learn cuisines (and spices) before spending time getting more specific. And trust me, it's ok to cook something Asian-ish while you are learning about the cuisine. It's not bastardization or appropriation if you just want to taste those flavors without spending hours learning how to make it fully traditional. That comes with time, but hopefully this gives you a place to start. Start looking at recipes and noticing the spice combinations and you'll start to see repeated combos. Take note of what you see again and again and you'll start building your intuition as to what tastes good together! Explore, Eat, and Experiment as you get more comfortable using these wonderful and powerful flavor bombs!! Tastier Food Awaits!

Hopefully this will help you start to open and build out your spice cabinet! These are truly to a cook what paint colors are to a painter. You just have to experiment and quicker than you realize, you'll be making your own spice blends and combos!

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