Spice Buying Guide
Spices can add heat, sweetness or even freshness to dishes. Before the cooking begins, the first step is deciding whether to go dried or fresh. A good rule of thumb is to use dried ground spices at the beginning of the cooking process, so they'll have time to dissolve fully and blend into the dish. Fresh spices are often added at the end for maximum flavour. Spices are similar to herbs as both add flavour to food, but spices come from the roots, bark and seeds of plants, while herbs are the leaves. You'll take your cooking to a whole new level once you've mastered the basics of flavouring with spices.
Types of Spices
Allspice will add kick to your next meal. It tastes like a combination of nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and pepper. Allspice goes great with fruit desserts and chutneys and is also used in pickling and Jamaican jerk seasoning. You can easily find allspice in the grocery store as whole berries or ground.
Anise is popular during the holidays for flavouring cookies, cakes, fruit, desserts and breads. Although it tastes like licorice, it complements sugars and butters quite well. You can purchase anise whole or ground.
Caraway seeds give breads, cheeses, sausages and veggie dishes a sweet, nutty flavour. They're sometimes used in pickling and brining. You can buy caraway seeds both whole and ground.
Cardamom provides an exotic flavour to curries, baked goods, meats and breads. You can also use it to flavour coffee. Cardamom seeds are dark brown and encased in green, black or white pods. Look for it in pod form or ground.
Ground cayenne pepper will add serious heat and a peppery taste to your meals. Cayenne goes best with chilies, curries, stews, sauces and spice rubs for meat.
The strong celery flavour produced by these tiny brown seeds is ideal for dips, sauces, soups or stews. Celery seeds are usually sold whole, but can be found ground. Both types have a very similar flavour.
Chili powder consists of one or more types of chili ground into a fine powder. All chili powders deliver on the promise of heat, but some mixes are hotter than others. This bright, orange-red spice is a staple of Indian cuisine. You can use it anytime to punch up a wide range of recipes, including those for marinades, casseroles and, of course, chili con carne.
Cinnamon gives baked goods and meat dishes a warm, sweet flavour. It can also be used in apple cider and French toast. Cinnamon is sold in dark brown rolled sticks or ground.
Cloves are hard brown buds sold whole or ground. They have a strong warm taste that adds sweetness to food. Whole cloves are popular during the winter holiday season for spicing ham and apples for cider. You can use ground cloves to spice desserts such as cakes and pudding.
When crushed, coriander seeds have a lemony-citrus flavor that complements curries, curry powder, pickles, sausages, soups, stews, and ratatouille. You can heighten the flavor by roasting or heating them in a pan. Coriander is sold as both whole seeds and ground form. Ground coriander loses flavor quickly, so it’s best to grind whole seeds shortly before use.
Types of Spices Continued
An ancient spice with a deep, smoky flavour, cumin has a long history of shaking the dust off boring dishes. You can use it to enhance the taste to soups, quinoa, hummus or rice. It's sold both as whole seeds and ground. The seeds, which are long and slender, become more flavourful when roasted lightly or sautéed in oil.
Often used in Indian and Italian dishes, fennel seeds are long, green and aromatic with a distinct, licorice-like flavour. They're usually sold in their dried form. When lightly roasted, fennel seeds release a delicate sweet aroma that complements fish, meats and vegetables. Fennel is also consumed as a digestive aid. When used for this purpose, it's either roasted and chewed or lightly crushed and brewed as tea.
Popular in Asian dishes, ginger root is caramel coloured with a bulbous shape. It's typically purchased fresh and imparts a strong citric spiciness to marinades and stir-fries.
Everyone knows mustard as the bright yellow condiment splashed liberally on hot dogs and hamburgers. But the mustard seed is a versatile spice that's great for adding heat to many dishes. There are three general varieties of mustard seeds: white-yellow, black and brown. Each offers a different taste experience, from the milder white to the sharply pungent brown. You can buy mustard seed whole or ground. Raw mustard seeds are bitter, but they develop a complex spicy heat when lightly roasted.
Nutmeg has a sweet, nutty flavour that enhances fruit desserts, baked goods, puddings and sauces. It also goes well with pumpkin, spinach and cheese dishes. During the winter holiday season, you can spice up your eggnog by a sprinkling a little nutmeg on top. Nutmeg is sold whole and ground. Whole nutmeg, which is brown in colour and resembles a fruit pit, has more flavour. To create a powder, grate whole nutmeg or scrape it with a paring knife.
Paprika, known for its smoky flavour and deep red hue, appears in a variety of cuisines across Europe and the Mediterranean. Sold as a fine powder, it's made from ground-dried chili peppers, ground-dried bell peppers or a mixture of both. Paprika is most commonly used to add colour and flavouring to stews and sausages. It can also be sprinkled as a garnish to add a lively shock of colour to any plate.
Pepper tastes best when it's freshly ground from whole peppercorns. Peppercorns release a sharp, aromatic flavour that will enhance virtually any savoury dish. The peppercorn berry comes in several colors, including black, white, red and green. The main difference between them is their colour. Some recipes specify the colour of the peppercorn to be used, so the specks of ground pepper will match the colour of the food.
Red Pepper Flakes
Red pepper flakes add spicy heat to stews and chilies. The flakes come from dried, crushed chili peppers and are red, yellow or orange in colour.
Sea salt is considered to have a softer taste than table salt, making it a preferred choice for seasoning food after preparation. Produced from the evaporation of seawater, sea salt consists of coarse, white crystals several times larger than table salt crystals. It's ideal for sprinkling over potatoes (fried, roasted or baked), roasted veggies or red meats such as pork or beef.
Spice Buying Tips:
- Spices such as garlic and ginger should feel firm and plump
- Check expiry dates and stay away from old, dusty containers
- Ground spices should not appear clumped
- To ensure freshness, buy whole spices and grind them yourself
- Avoid buying ground spices in bulk in case you don’t use them before their expiry dates
- Beware that ground spices may contain small amounts of other ingredients like salt, rice or flour
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Spice Storage Tips:
- Store ground spices in a dark, cool area to prevent premature expiry
- Avoid storing spices near a stove or other heat source as heat depreciates flavour
- Keep ground spices away from sources of moisture such as a dishwasher to avoid clumping
- Protect spices from moisture by storing them in airtight containers such as glass jars
- Refrigerate red-coloured spices like chili powder and cayaenne pepper to slow down colour and flavor loss
- Oil-rich seeds like poppy and sesame are best refrigerated or frozen to prevent them from turning rancid
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