No kitchen is ever complete without spices. They come fresh or dried, fine or coarsely ground, powdered or paste, in oil or water. Choosing which type to use would depend on the kind of dish you’re making, and the flavors that you want to bring out. Here are some tips on choosing spices and storing them to keep their flavors at their best for longer periods.
Fresh versus dry spices
Some spices, like garlic, ginger, and lemongrass, are used best when fresh. But you simply can’t do without the dried variety, whether whole or ground, for its intensity and concentrated flavor, or when making a spice mix.
Dry spices naturally have the longest shelf life, but they need to be properly stored to preserve its natural oils and aroma. Commercially mixed spices make easy work of dishes like curries, barbecues and roasts, though you can always find joy in putting together your own flavors to use as marinades and dry rubs or add directly to the dish while cooking.
Always put the lid tightly over bottled spices. Exposing spices to air dissipates its flavor faster, and causes powdered spices to absorb moisture, resulting in clumping and hardening. If you’re being practical and prefer to buy spices in packets, simply transfer them to an airtight container. Do the same with finely ground spices, like onion and garlic powders, as keeping them in their original bottles does not prevent them from hardening after some time.
Heat is another flavor-killer, so keep your spice rack away from the cooking range, even if you have to take a few more steps to reach for a bottle, and from your refrigerator where heat from the compressor can reach them. Don’t just think cool but also dry to keep humidity out, so anywhere near the sink is not the place for spices. Using ceramic or dark colored containers instead of see-through bottles will also help keep contents fresh longer.
Speaking of heat, you don’t expose spices to steam rising from a pot on the stove. Sprinkle over your hand or a small plate instead of tipping the bottle over the pot. Spices quickly absorb the heat and steam rising from the food, and will soon develop mold when you put them back on the rack.
Whole versus ground
If you have a choice between whole or ground spices, choose whole, like peppercorns, nutmeg, fennel and bay leaves, because their flavor and aroma are locked inside. This requires the extra step of crushing, grinding or grating, but the end result of releasing its concentrated oils and aroma right at the point of cooking trumps the convenience of using powdered spices by far. Having said that, do get spice powders if they’re the only ones at hand because no spice is no good.
Photo from rajasthanvisit.com