We caught up with six spice experts in London, LA, NYC, Boston, Toronto, and Calgary to get expert tips and tricks when selecting, cooking and storing spices.
SPECIALITY STORES ARE WHERE IT’S AT
Philip Erath, Director of The Spice Shop in the Notting Hill neighbourhood of London, offers some great spice advice - know the importance of speciality stores and their understanding of the market. “We spend a lot of time thinking about where the spices come from, the ethical treatment of workers and sustainability of the industry. There is an immense difference in quality when it comes to artisan spices grown naturally versus their mass produced and over processed counterparts laden with chemicals.” says Philip. "Furthermore most mass produced spices have had their essential oils extracted, which are the most valuable part of the spice and will then get used as flavourings in other products. What you are left with afterwards is essentially coloured powder with a bit of an aftertaste!”.
BUY SMALL & BUY WHOLE
Claire Cheney, Owner & Founder of Curio Spice in Boston recommends buying small amounts of spices and always from a reputable source. "Your best bet is to buy whole spices and grind as you go whenever possible. You can use a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. They will be vastly more aromatic this way, which really enhances your cooking."
THE DETAIL IS IN THE LABEL
Claire also recommends taking note of the label. "The more information is better. For example, if you're choosing between 'cinnamon,' 'organic cinnamon,' and Indonesian Korintje Cassia Cinnamon, the best bet is the latter.” Jacqueline and her team at The Silk Road in Calgary, Canada agrees. “Always read the ingredients to avoid fillers and anti-caking agents.”
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LET THE NOSE & THE EYES GUIDE YOU
Peter Bahlawanian, Master Blender and Owner of Spice Station in LA and Montreal, rated one of Food & Wine’s Best Spice Markets in the world, uses his nose to guide himself. "You should always be able to smell the spice and let your nose guide you. The colour is also important. Make sure it doesn't look faded, dull or dusty, because this would mean it's been exposed to the sun. Sun damage will effect the quality of your spices.”
TRY A NEW SPICE
You don't need to buy every spice on the shelf, but it’s fun to experiment with flavours to find nuances to your own dishes. "I think Mace is an underrated spice,” says Atef Boulaabi, Owner of SOS Chefs, also rated by Food & Wine Magazine as one of the Best Spice Markets in the World. It's a more delicate flavour than nutmeg and is excellent with all types of meat and poultry dishes. Claire from Curio Spice agrees. "Mace is the lacy outer covering of the nutmeg and when dried is a pale orange color with soft, spicy citrus aromas. It's beautiful in baked goods, with lentil salad, or braised meat.”
IF IT'S TOO CHEAP, IT'S FAKE
"Know the price point of what you're buying," says Jacqueline of The Silk Road Spice Market. "Certain (but not all) spices can be expensive based on availability, labour involved in harvesting and other factors... If vanilla, saffron, truffle, cardamom or other pricier spices are cheap - you can bet it's fake."
WHAT ABOUT PEPPER? GROUND OR WHOLE?
"Anything that gets ground releases oils that brings a higher level to the flavour profile. Once it's ground though, you have to use it quickly to get the most out of it. The longer it remains, to more it loses its element.” says Peter. Atef whose NYC shop sees an influx of high profile chefs agrees. “For restaurants going through high volume, ground pepper or other frequently used spices can be practical - but some spice sources grind the spices and keep them for years. We grind them when needed to keep them freshest”.
TOAST ‘EM UP
"Depending on the dish you’re cooking, some spices benefit from dry roasting in a pan first.” says Phillip from The Spice Shop. "By heating them you are activating the essential oils and changing the flavour profile. Roasted curries, for instance, benefit from the nutty edge of gently pan-fried coriander seeds."
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE LAYERS
"Depending on the spice and method, adding spices later in the cooking can add to a more pronounced flavour of that spice, and a fresher, sharper note - all depending." says Atef of SOS Chefs. " Some should be added throughout the cooking - like salt and pepper. Chile and garlic can mellow over long cooking, so the addition at the end can bring those flavours to the front."
Peter from Spice Station uses his pasta sauce as an example, "When I sauté my onions, I add some spices, when I add the meat, I add some spices, and finally when the tomato paste is added, I add another batch of spices. It creates a much deeper taste to the dish.”
SPICE UP YOUR COCKTAIL
Phillip of The Spice Shop has noticed several trends in the spice world, including in home cocktails, "We have a seen renewed interest in spices and their health benefits. On the culinary side, people are opening up to lesser known world cuisines more than ever. Home cocktail making in London has become increasingly popular and a popular trend is making spice infused cocktails.”
KEEP THEM (IN A DARK PLACE) ON THE COUNTER
You should always keep your spices in a dark place to avoid sun damage, but why hide them? "Keep your favourite spices in a darker place on the counter not shoved in the back of the cabinet. Having ready access to them means you'll use them more - just like salt and pepper - and your meals will be all the better for it," says Cheney. "Most ground spices should be used up within a year of purchase, and whole spices within 2-3 years. Think how often you clean out old food from your fridge. Just because spices are dry doesn't mean they last forever”.
OLD SPICES, NEW USES
Allison, owner of The Spice Trader in the St. Lawrence Market district in downtown Toronto, gives great advice for anyone unsure of whether their spices are still good. “Think of spices as having octaves of flavour. Over time they only have 1 or 2 notes left. It won’t matter how much of that spice you add if it’s been sitting around, you will never get the depth of flavour of your original spices.” Allison suggests these tips for anyone who feels wasteful, “Let old spices bring out a new way to BBQ. Soak wooden planks for barbecuing. Simply place your spices in the water, then soak your plank for a minimum of 30 minutes. In that time, you’ll be able to eek out whatever flavour is left. You can also mix them in with your wood chips and use them in your smoker.”
WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, MAKE A MASK
Atef of SOS Chefs has one more suggestion for those old spices lingering in the cupboard, "Depending on which spice it is, we suggest to use them cosmetically for scrubs, masques and tonics".
LEARN TO COOK WITH SPICES
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