Spice Facts and the Brilliance of Blending

We receive many questions about the world of spices, and in particular what makes a truly wonderful spice blend. The following article answers those questions, and we hope provides much more useful information.

Spice Essentials

In spices, we are fortunate enough to have a hobby that is also our passion, our business, and our livelihood … and it’s something that other people also find interesting. While green, leafy herbs are reassuring and familiar, there is an edginess about spices, a rawness, an element of danger that fascinates and lures.

Our late friend and radio broadcaster Alan Saunders, once commented that the difference between herbs and spices is this: herbs you can grow at home in your garden and on your window sill, spices you have to go out for. And the ancient traders went out for them in spades. Out to the East Indies all the way from Holland, England and Spain. Out to the West Indies, out to China and India, out to fascinating, dangerous, foreign, exotic lands.

Two thousand years ago, most known spices were a luxury only the wealthy could afford. As new spices such as cinnamon were discovered, their origins were surrounded in mystery and fantasy by spice traders, who were keen to maintain their exclusivity and high prices. The spice trade was extremely lucrative, with single voyages yielding profits ten times the original investment, fostering a breed of swashbuckling adventurers who went on tortuous journeys of discovery to bring home these precious commodities. But had it not been for the fact that spices store well once dried, and can be readily transported and traded, there may never have been a spice trade at all.

The 15th and 16th Century explorers Bartholomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan were searching for faster and safer routes to the sources of spices when they went on their voyages of discovery. Christopher Columbus was sailing west to find a shorter way to the Indonesian Archipelago when he bumped into the Americas and discovered allspice, chillies and vanilla (as well as chocolate, tomatoes and potatoes). The spice trade was so significant by the end of the 16th Century, that The British East India Company was founded in 1600, and by 1602 The United Dutch East India Company, the largest corporation in the world in these times, was formed.

So what is it about these ancient commodities that continues to captivate the imagination, thousands of years after humans discovered that nothing quite titillates the taste buds like spices? What would those traders have thought if they could have gazed into a crystal ball and seen that all these centuries later, we are still seeking out these highly desirable prizes? How amazing and fantastic it is that, although they have remained unchanged in their own attributes and characteristics for millennia, they still relate perfectly to our modern cuisines.

In the 21st century we are all extolled by every second lifestyle magazine to ‘Spice up our lives’. Towns that aspire to being a dot on the culinary map, hold a ‘Hot and Spicy’ food festival. Star chefs base their success on an ability to amaze the taste buds with their spice craft. Spices have made their way into more and more items on the supermarket shelves – not only hiding in traditional products like pickles and Worcestershire sauce, but in mustard-seeded mayonnaise, poppy seed and cracked pepper water biscuits, lime and chilli salad dressings, ginger-spiced marmalades … the list is endless, and growing!

Arguably, the most misunderstood aspect of spices is the vast and varied range of tastes they present to us, and that is the most likely reason why we continue to find them so irresistible. Thinking of spices only in terms of ‘hot and spicy’ would be like thinking of colour as only red, and ignoring the amazing spectrum of hues that we encounter every day. It would be like thinking of music as middle C with no other notes!

When you read about each spice in The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition, you will discover that their attributes and personalities are as varied as the colours of the rainbow. They have the ability to create as many different taste sensations as all the works of the great composers have done with music. What makes spices really exciting though, is that to appreciate them fully you don’t have to be the culinary equivalent of Rembrandt or have the genius of Beethoven. Everyone can use spices in everyday cooking, and with more practice, one can only look forward to more satisfaction.

So what are spices and what makes them so different to herbs? For the purposes of a broad definition, herbs are the leafy parts of edible plants and spices are generally the buds, bark, roots, berries, aromatic seeds and any other edible part of a plant (except the leaves) that is used, mostly dried, to flavour food. All encompassing isn’t it? There’s certainly more to spices than what you find at a chilli festival!

While many uses for herbs require them to be fresh, the majority of spices are dried. This is because drying activates naturally occurring enzymes in spices that ultimately create their flavours. Vanilla beans are tasteless and odourless when harvested, black peppercorns are green and cloves are devoid of pungency when picked. Nearly all seed spices have dried naturally on the plant by the time they are gathered, and nothing enhances the incredible complexity of flavours in a chilli more effectively than simply drying it.

Spices, until a couple of centuries ago, were used only by the affluent. Just think, that a collection of ingredients, used relatively sparingly by a minority of privileged diners should spawn such an enduring industry.

There are two myths about spices that need to be dispelled, here and now.

Myth 1: Spices Mask the Taste of Rotten Food. This misconception most probably developed because it has always been desirable to enhance the flavour of very bland foods or make meats with strong flavours more palatable. An old joint of mutton with overpowering lanoline flavours, benefits greatly by slow cooking in a selection of aromatic spices. Our interpretation of events is that some journalists, who reputedly tend to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, began to refer to this use of spices in somewhat colourful terms, feeding to their readers images of yokels gnawing at rotting bones on picturesque hillsides. The fact is that anyone so poor as to try and survive on rotting food (which although it may be relished as a delicacy by our dog, will most likely kill people) would not be able to afford spices anyway. And food poisoning is food poisoning, regardless of how many spices are added between the pot and the plate.

Myth 2: Spices are Preservatives. This second myth has a stronger basis in logic, as many spices do possess anti-microbial properties, however we have never encountered a herb or spice that has preservative qualities per se. The most common forms of food preservation in ancient times were by dehydration and using salt or acid (usually vinegar) to preserve wet products. As salt and vinegar have extremely pervasive tastes of their own, the addition of spices helped to make foods preserved with them more palatable. The anti-bacterial qualities in garlic and mustard seeds were a bonus in the preserving process and even today, many manufactured food products owe their stability to the use of spices in conjunction with established preserving techniques.

Do You Like Spicy Food? Spices are now so much a part of our lives that it would be hard to imagine a world without them. And next time you hear someone say “I don’t like spicy food!” just ask them if they like cinnamon donuts or vanilla ice cream, which are both flavoured with spices. We don’t think anyone will make such a claim after using the recipes you’ll find on our website.

Buying and Storage

Spices are an agricultural commodity, and like any other food that is grown, harvested, processed, traded, blended, packaged, stored, distributed, sold and ultimately consumed, huge variations in flavour and appearance will occur. Once you have tasted food prepared with the very best quality spices, you will never again be dismissive about the importance of quality in spices.

Over the years, we’ve spent many hours in many factories and warehouses in many parts of the world, seeing what factors determine quality. Our purpose here is to pass that experience and knowledge on to you, so that you can differentiate between good and bad when you are buying.

Growing is naturally where it all begins. Soil, climatic conditions, plant varieties and harvesting techniques will all contribute to the quality of a spice; the problem is that you have almost no way of identifying any of these factors. Spices are now grown in many tropical and temperate regions around the world, and while conventional wisdom may indicate that the best spice is one grown in its country of origin, these days that is not necessarily the case. Pepper vines are native to the South of India, and Indian pepper has a distinctive flavour characteristic that many pepper lovers prefer. However black pepper from Lampong in Indonesia has light, lemon-like notes that have their own attraction while pepper grown in North Queensland, Australia has a pleasing mild fruitiness that others prefer. So just like wines, spices can give us distinct varietal differences. Where country of origin can make a significant difference to the flavour of a spice, the spice seller should make some reference to this on the label. Sweet paprika from Hungary has a different flavour profile to mild paprika from Spain. Each is equally as good in its appropriate cooking application, it is just that they are different, so it helps in some cases to know where the spice came from.

The importance of processing after harvest will vary depending upon the spice. For most seed spices the process is relatively simple, whereas with vanilla it is highly complex and if it’s not done correctly it could render the final product useless. Processing usually involves some sort of grading and cleaning. With whole spices it is very easy to see if you are getting some extra pieces of sticks and stones, all charged at the same price as the spice!

The flavours and aromas of spices are contained in the volatile oils held in their cell structure. A cinnamon quill may not have much aroma when you smell it, however when you break it, the cells are ruptured and they release these volatiles, filling the air with the sweet fragrance of warm, spicy oranges. Volatile oils are destroyed rapidly by heat, and even a slight increase in the moisture content after drying, will cause the oils in a spice to oxidise more quickly. So you can see that storage and transportation conditions also affect quality.

What has to be remembered is that all herbs and spices will deteriorate over time as the volatile oils gradually evaporate and the flavour and aroma dissipates. Don’t be tempted to just use twice the amount of a spice that is well past its best before date, as this will only double the strength of the deep, base flavours and not compensate for the loss of fragrant, volatile top notes that have been lost.

The best advice when buying spices is to look for reputable brands (eg Herbie’s Spices!) that are packed in high-barrier packaging. This may be either clear laminate plastic with a re-sealable zip seal, or glass jars. When stocking your pantry, try not to buy quantities that are too large. You should definitely try to use a spice by the “best before” date on the pack – don’t keep it any longer, even if there is a little left.

Never buy spices in cardboard, paper or low-grade packs, although the lower price might be tempting. These cheaper packs allow the volatile oils to escape and oxygen gets in to the product, so it is already deteriorating by the time you take it home, and it’s false economy. Some people like the romantic notion of scooping out their spices from bulk bins, however these spices have been exposed to a considerable amount of air, insects and possible contamination from other ingredients such as allergens stored in close proximity. Sadly, the result is an inferior flavour and shorter shelf life, so take home a photo of the charming shop full of open sacks, but buy your spices somewhere else.

For those who like to have herbs and spices on display in a spice rack, make sure they are placed so they don’t have sunshine directly on them, and use the rack for either whole spices or your favourites, which are used frequently. When you spring clean, don’t hesitate to throw away any herbs and spices that have passed their Best Before date. It’s simply not worth it to add to a meal something with hardly any flavour left. When you work out the cost of herbs and spices and the small amount used in a recipe, they are really very economical.

We are often asked if spices should be stored in the fridge or freezer. Spices do store well for long periods in the freezer, however when the spice is removed from the cold environment, condensation will form, and that introduces moisture, something that accelerates deterioration. Therefore, if you want to store a spice for a long time before you use it, the freezer is an option. But, if you will be putting it in and taking it out several times, we would not recommend fridge or freezer storage.

Another tip to make sure your spices last well is to avoid shaking or pouring the contents over a steaming saucepan. The steam will condense around the inside of the pack, and the moisture will make the spice go hard, allow the volatile oils to oxidise more rapidly, or worse still, it may go mouldy.

When you’re wondering whether your spices are still good to use, simply smell them and if you can detect some aroma and pungency in your ground spices, they should be alright. Have a little sniff of any spice you are adding, (be careful if its chilli) each time you cook with it. You will become very familiar with the aroma, and this helps you get a feel for what flavour is best to add, and at the same time you will develop an understanding of good and poor quality.

If you want to check the freshness of whole spices, you will need to either break the piece (say for cinnamon sticks or cloves) or for a spice like nutmeg, scrape it with a knife or grater to release the aroma.

Using Whole or Ground Spices

Whether spices are used in their whole form, or ground to a powder, depends on the cooking method and the most effective way to get the best flavour out of them. A whole piece of cinnamon quill may be added to fruit during stewing, so the flavour is infused and the liquid remains clear. If ground cinnamon were used, the liquid would be muddy-looking. However when making a curry, mixing spices with flour for cakes and biscuits, or rubbing spices onto meats before cooking, ground spices are always used so they mix readily with other ingredients, or impart their flavours more rapidly, having been crushed.

Some cooks say that you should always buy spices whole and grind them yourself. This is not a bad idea if you’re not sure of the quality and freshness of ground spices. And if you’re an infrequent user, whole spices have a longer shelf life than ground ones. On average, whole spices, when stored as suggested above, will last for up to three years or more, while ground spices will start losing flavour after twelve to eighteen months. Good quality, freshly ground spices are as flavoursome as those you have ground yourself, so if you use a lot of ground spice, don’t be put off by the convenience of ready ground.

Grinding spices yourself can be extremely rewarding, especially if you do them in a pestle and mortar, (the pestle is the bit you pound with and the mortar is the bowl), so the aromas waft up as you pound away. We are often asked if there are any good spice grinders as an alternative to a pestle and mortar. Sadly, spices vary so much in size, hardness, texture and oil content that it is nigh on impossible to find a domestic grinder that will handle them all. Seed spices, like pepper, can be ground in a normal pepper mill. Then again, you can use a coffee grinder, but electric grinders can generate excessive heat that can destroy some of the lighter volatiles, so don’t over-grind. And if you don’t want your coffee tasting of cumin and fenugreek, the easiest way to clean any grinder is to grind a dessertspoonful of uncooked rice in it. Rice flour is gritty and cleans the contact surfaces effectively while absorbing residual oils, leaving the mechanism quite clean. So when it comes to all those other spices, take heed of the trendy television chefs, and use the trusty pestle and mortar that has been a cook’s most useful implement of choice for thousands of years.

Roasting Spices

Some cooks may tell you that roasting spices brings out the flavour. Wrong! Roasting spices changes the flavour. So in the same way that a slice of toast tastes different to a slice of bread, so a roasted spice tastes different to an un-roasted one. Spices are roasted to create greater depth of flavour and robustness, often when used with red meats. The majority of Indian curries are enhanced when roasted spices are used, however one would never roast cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and ginger before adding them to a cake. We also prefer to use un-roasted spices in fish and vegetable dishes as the more delicate, fresh-tasting top notes are still recognisable, and compliment these foods better than robust, roasted flavours.

Spices may be dry-roasted when they are whole or ground. Heat a heavy-based pan on the top of the stove until it is almost too hot to touch. (If it is too hot the spices may burn, turning them bitter.) Then put your spices into the hot pan and keep them moving so they don’t stick or burn. When fumes begin to emanate and the colour starts to darken, they are sufficiently roasted and should be tipped out of the pan ready for use within a day or two. We do not recommend storing roasted spices for more than a few days, as after roasting the flavours deteriorate quite rapidly. Many cooks like to roast them whole for the same reason as buying spices whole. Similarly, good quality, freshly ground spices will roast perfectly well.

Spices Found in Popular Cuisines:

Thousands of books have been written on the nuances of many cuisines and the extraordinary variety of ingredients that contribute to their character. So it may seem a gross over-simplification to identify a combination of herbs and spices that represents the flavours perceived as dominant in a particular cuisine. However the fact remains that for the majority of popular foods from different cultures there are certain herbs and spices, which, with the readily available ingredients of those regions, contribute to their unique character.

Therefore when the following herbs and spices are incorporated into even the most basic of meals (stir-fries, grills, barbecues and curries to name a few) a flavour will be imparted that is distinctly reminiscent of that cuisine. The spices are shown in descending order, so the first item is the ingredient used in greatest quantity.

Indian: Coriander seed, turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, fenugreek, ginger, pepper, chilli, cloves, tamarind, cardamom and saffron.

Moroccan: Coriander seed, turmeric, paprika, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, pepper and chilli.

African: Coriander seed, cumin, allspice, ginger, pepper and fenugreek.

Middle Eastern: Paprika, pepper, cumin, coriander seed, sumac, thyme, cassia, cloves and cardamom.

Indonesian: Coriander seed, cumin, fennel seed, cassia, turmeric, lemongrass, galangal, ginger, pepper (black, cubeb and long), cloves and chilli.

Malaysian: Coriander seed, cumin, fennel seed, cinnamon, turmeric, pepper, chilli, ginger and galangal.

Thai: Coriander leaf, kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, green chilli, garlic, galangal and ginger.

Chinese: Star anise, fennel seed, cassia, Szechwan pepper, cloves and ginger.

Japanese: Sansho (green Sichuan pepper), black sesame, mustard seed, salt, wasabe, nori and various other types of dried seaweed.

Mexican: Paprika, cumin, oregano, chilli, coriander leaf.

Spice Blending

There is enormous pleasure to be had by combining individual flavour characteristics to create completely different tastes. Spice blends are convenient and effective, and making your own combinations is simple with just a basic understanding of how to mix a variety of spices together.

Spice blending is an art as much as a science, and every spice blender will have an individual approach to making a blend. The way of achieving a blend may vary considerably depending upon the user’s requirements. A multinational food company wanting a spice blend to use in fast food outlets will be concerned about cost, a flavour profile that does not offend anyone and uses readily available, consistent quality ingredients. In the mid-20th century, the majority of these blends were high in salt, sugar and monosodium glutamate. By the 1990’s things started to change. Still high in salt, wheat flour as a filler to keep the weight up and the price down, and free flow agents stopped the powdered blends going hard if kept for too long.

Like the people in your neighbourhood, spices all have different characteristics. Some are strong and could be even described as unpleasant when tasted in isolation, others (like one of our favourites, cinnamon), are a delight to experience even on their own. In making a spice blend, we seek to create a different taste that can only be achieved by putting a combination of spices together. Sometimes a spice blend bears little resemblance to any of the individual spices used, in other cases a few characteristic spice flavours may dominate, for example in mixed spice where cinnamon and cloves are often the first aromas one might detect. Although the following guidelines will help you make spice blends, there are really no rules as such, and you can use your own creativity and instinct to create a range of different tastes.

The art of making a good spice blend is to bring a range of different tastes and textures together so they create an ideal balance that tantalizes the taste buds. Just as when cooking a meal we balance the sweet, salty, sour and bitter taste elements, when combining spices we balance their different attributes. For this purpose, the spices are grouped into five basic categories: sweet, pungent, tangy, hot and amalgamating.

Sweet spices are those that have varying degrees of inherent sweetness and are associated mostly with sweet foods such as puddings, cakes and pastries. It is worth remembering though, that these sweet spices have a role to play in balancing savoury foods as well. Among the sweet spices are cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and vanilla.

Pungent spices are unmistakeable as they have very strong aromas that may be camphor-like and astringent. Spices such as cloves, star anise and the cardamoms fall into this category. Australian native herbs and spices such as bush tomato (akudjura) and wattleseed would be grouped here as well. The pungent spices are valuable because even in small proportions they contribute a freshness of flavour to food that may otherwise be lacking. Use all pungent spices sparingly; the chart at the end of this section indicates the proportions in which each of these spices should be used. This is only an approximate guide, as even within the pungent group, ground star anise for example is stronger than ground caraway seed, however grouping still helps one gain an instinct for the relative strengths of different spices.

Tangy spices make an important contribution to the balance of spice blends in the same way that sourness is important in balancing meals. The astringency of tamarind is usually added at the cooking stage, as it is a messy spice to handle and would not blend readily with dry spices. However sumac with its fruity lemon-like freshness makes an excellent tangy addition to a dry spice blend, as does amchur (green mango) powder.

Hot spices, when added judiciously, can make or break a dish. This collection of relatively few spices is essentially responsible for the overused reference people make to ‘spicy’ food. Hot spices such as pepper and chilli stimulate the palate, causing the release of endorphins, those chemicals produced by the body that give us a sense of wellbeing. Spicy heat in food makes it appetizing and often only needs to be used in tiny amounts to have the desired effect.

Amalgamating spices are often unsung heroes. They make a very important contribution to spice blends, which is often underestimated. There are only a few regularly used amalgamating spices, however they are found in the majority of spice blends. For example, with coriander seed it is almost impossible to use too much. Sweet paprika is similar in the amount you can use. Strangely sweet paprika is a member of the chilli family but it has no heat, and is used with gay abandon in the famous casserole ‘Hungarian Goulash’.

The following chart is a basic guide showing the most commonly used spices in the five groups just mentioned. The quantity in teaspoons at the bottom of each column gives an approximate indication of the proportion (by volume, eg. spoon or cup) that you would find in a typical blend. For example a tasty meat seasoning to sprinkle on steak before grilling may contain:

 

2 teaspoons                     ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon                     ground ginger

1 teaspoon                        amchur powder

½ teaspoon                      ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon                      ground chilli

5 teaspoons                       ground sweet paprika

Plus salt to suit one’s personal preference. Note that although pepper and chilli are both hot spices, the relative differences in their flavour and heat strength makes some variation in quantity appropriate.

Simply remember that these proportions can be varied as you experiment and become familiar with the spices. The following suggested quantities are a good starting point, so keep this little table handy to help avoid disaster!

Some Spices and Their Five Basic Flavour Categories

 

Sweet Pungent Tangy Hot Amalgamating
Allspice Ajowan Amchur Chilli Coriander Seed
Cassia Asafoetida Sumac Mustard Fennel Seed
Cinnamon Bush Tomato Tamarind Pepper Paprika
Nutmeg Caraway Poppy Seed
Vanilla Bean Cardamom Sesame Seed
Cloves Turmeric
Cumin
Fenugreek Seed
Galangal
Ginger
Juniper
Licorice
Mace
Nigella
Star Anise
Wattleseed
2 teaspoons ½ teaspoon 1 teaspoon ¼ teaspoon 5 teaspoons

Don’t panic if the spice mix or curry you made today answers to ‘harsh’ when you were hoping for ‘mellow’. Spice blends round out and become better balanced after about 24 hours. So tomorrow, the complexities will have amalgamated, smoothing off the rough edges … providing, of course, all the proportions of sweet, pungent, tangy, hot and amalgamating spices were balanced in the first place.

You can see a complete range of Herbie’s Spices spice blends at this link: http://www.herbies.com.au/product-category/herbs-and-spices/spice-herb-blends/

We hope it brings you as much enjoyment as making these has brought us.

For more information about individual herbs and spices, making spice blends, and delicious recipes see The Spice & Herrb Bible 3rd Edition by Ian Hemphill with recipes by Kate Hemphill, published by Robert Rose Inc. Toronto, Canada.