Facts & Hints
Most spices are grown in the tropical regions of the world, with some thriving in the cool misty highlands. Many of the seed spices come from more temperate areas, such as coriander seed, which is grown in Northern India, Africa and the wheat producing areas of South Australia and Western New South Wales.
The majority of spices are still harvested in the way they have been for centuries, by hand! Most of the developments in the spice industry have been with respect to growing and post harvest treatment such as grading and cleaning.
Through spices, nature provides an incredible variety of colours, textures, aromas and flavours that add interest and depth to our meals. The many and varied flavours in spices are held in the volatile oils that naturally occur in spices. Some of these flavours are apparent in the fresh spice, for example in ginger. Other spices either change or only develop their true flavour on drying. One dramatic example is vanilla, a green tasteless bean that grows on a tropical climbing orchid. It is only after drying and curing that the enzyme reactions which take place actually form the vanilla flavour. In a similar manner, when peppercorns are picked green, the enzyme reaction that occurs upon drying turns them black and creates the pepper flavour we all know so well.
Spices are the buds, bark, roots, berries and aromatic seeds that are harvested for use in flavouring cooking. Herbs are the leaves of plants, so when we use coriander leaf we refer to it as a herb, however when we use coriander seed we say we are using a spice. Even the tiny filaments of saffron are referred to as a spice. Saffron is the stigma which is hand plucked from a small mauve crocus native to Kashmir.
Typical examples of spices are cloves (buds), cinnamon (bark), turmeric (root), peppercorns (berries), vanilla (the bean from a tropical orchid vine) and cumin, coriander, dill and fennel (seeds) to mention just a few.
Because the flavours in spices and culinary herbs are held in the volatile oils, it is essential that they are stored in the correct way so that the flavours do not escape. Firstly, spices must be packaged in high-barrier, good quality materials. This applies to all spices whether whole or ground, however the quality of the package is most critical for ground spices as the grinding process has begun the release of flavour - that is why ground spices are often more convenient to use.
Never buy your spices in thin plastic bags, cellophane packs or cardboard canisters. These packages all allow the volatile oils and thus the flavour to escape.
- Your Herbie's product has been packed in a top quality, high barrier bag with a resealable zip seal, so make sure that it is always properly zipped closed after use. Alternatively, you can buy Herbie's spices in an attractive glass jar which features a top quality metal cap with a compound seal to keep the flavour in.
- Ground spices lose their flavour quicker than whole spices. At Herbie's we pack the ground spices as soon as possible after grinding, to seal in the freshest flavour for you.
- Herbs and spices will fade in bright light, especially sunlight. If you want to display your collections in a spice rack, mount it in an area which is away from direct heat or sunlight. Delicate herbs such as chives are particularly sensitive, and should be kept in a cupboard for the best colour retention.
- Your Herbie's spices have been dehydrated. So never use a wet spoon to measure the spice from the pack. If you do, the moisture will affect the product it touches, and cause hard clumps to form. If the weather is extra hot and humid, it might even cause mould.
The herbs and spices you add to a meal constitute a minute proportion of the total cost, so its worth it to always use the best quality available.
Often and with enjoyment! When you have a basic understanding of the various spice flavours and how they complement different foods, you can use your own creativity and taste instincts to experiment with a whole range of combinations. There are also some simple application methods which, depending on your level of confidence and how busy you are, make the daily use of spices rewarding and satisfying.
Spices can be grouped into five basic categories. These are; sweet, pungent, tangy, hot, and amalgamating. The way we use these and the amounts we put into cooking are governed by these characteristics. Examples of the different types of spices are;
Sweet: cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, vanilla
Pungent: cloves, star anise, cardamom
Tangy: ginger, tamarind, sumach, kokam
Hot: pepper, chilli, mustard, horseradish
Amalgamating: coriander seed, fennel seed.
Then most of the herbs (such as thyme, sage, marjoram, oregano, bay leaves, mint and rosemary) are referred to as savoury. The herbs do have varying degrees of flavour intensity, however not as dramatic as with spices.
Start by using a recipe that sets out the specific quantities of each spice, smell it as you add it and be conscious of the contribution it is making to the recipe. When you eat the meal, think of the spices you added and see if you can recognise them in the final taste. You will be surprised at how quickly your awareness the spices used will develop.
Alternatively, you can experiment by adding spices to familiar dishes. This is especially handy for the busy person who has a host of favourites and wants to create many variations on a familiar theme. When doing this, think of the flavour you would like to achieve and then use spices from one or more of the five basic categories to create your own taste sensation!
Say you want to give four lamb chops a Moroccan flavour. Start with small amount of a pungent spice that is characteristic of Moroccan cuisine, a teaspoon of ground cumin seed. To this add a little tangy spice to tantalize the taste buds, a teaspoon of ground ginger. Next we want a little heat, but not everyone likes hot food, so add a quarter of a teaspoon of mild chilli powder.
Now, to make these spices all work well together and to balance the mix, add four teaspoons of ground coriander seed. Mix well and add a pinch of salt if desired. Rub the mix generously onto the lamb chops, squeeze over a little lemon juice to moisten the coating and allow to dry marinate in the fridge for half and hour. Grill, barbecue or pan fry in a little oil. Squeeze a little more lemon on just before serving with rice and lightly spiced vegetables.
So how would one spice the vegetables?
Because the flavours of vegetables are less robust than meats, we will avoid the pungent and hot spices, yet add an appealing spiciness with sweet and tangy spices. Toss the steamed pumpkin in a little butter, sprinkling with a quarter of a teaspoon each of ginger and nutmeg. To the peas, add a half a teaspoon of mint and serve with this delicious saffron rice.
To one cup of rice add eight saffron strands, soaked in warm water for five minutes. Then add two green cardamom pods, four cloves, half a teaspoon of whole cumin seeds. Break off about two centimetres of whole cinnamon quill. Add the spices to the rice, cover with water and cook by the absorption method.