One of the biggest complaints I receive about my recipes is that there are too many seasonings required to make it. I totally understand the apprehension of a mile-long ingredient list, but using spices in your cooking has health benefits that aren’t worth passing by. We move three times a year and one of my first tasks upon moving in is stocking the spice cabinet! The key to using spices is to know what they taste like and what tastes good together. The best way to do that is to start experimenting! Today I’ll give you some basic benefits of spices and groups of spices that pair well together for different cooking or baking needs. My pictures are courtesy of my cousin Jay, who recently travelled to Istanbul and took beautiful pictures at the famous spice market. Thank you Jay! Make a goal to buy something new once a month and test it in a recipe! You will feel more educated in the kitchen and when you look at a restaurant menu.
Adding spices to dishes helps develop flavors in any food. Spices like cinnamon and cumin add a warm and earthy taste, basil and oregano add a savory touch, and ginger adds a zing to nearly anything! On top of better food, spices help your body function at its best. Cinnamon decreases cholesterol levels. Ginger and turmeric help arthritis patients by reducing inflammation. Heat from chili peppers helps increase heart health and stops ulcers. Garlic prevents artery blockage and oregano has 4 times the antioxidants of blueberries! How can you argue facts like that? To boost, adding spice usually decreases the need for salt. Excess salt leads to high blood pressure and decreased bone density. I always add salt at the very end of cooking. I tend to use less this way and let the other flavors of a dish shine.
How do you know what to buy dried and what to buy fresh? Whenever I can, I always try to buy fresh. My list of essentials to buy fresh includes: basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley, cilantro, garlic, and ginger. Basically, if it’s green or starts with a “g” you should buy it fresh! There’s nothing that replaces the taste and freshness of green herbs. Freshly chopped basil brings life to any marinara sauce; guacamole just isn’t the same without zesty cilantro. The taste and texture just simply don’t compare. Fresh herbs should only be used at the end of cooking or in uncooked dishes; they don’t hold up over a long cooking period. If you need them for a roasted chicken, use the dried variety. Never used fresh ginger? It is my favorite secret ingredient in a lot of my dishes, including my Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble. The best way to describe its flavor is that it adds a zing to anything from Thai curries to fresh desserts.
Are they all expensive? Spices seem expensive as you walk through the grocery isles, but they are actually well worth your money considering the use you’ll get out of them. Spices from the grocery store normally come in tin containers or glass bottles that contain 1 and 4 ounces of product. Spices will stay fresh as long as they are kept in a sealed off container. This can mean YEARS OF USE for rare or seasonal spices like turmeric and nutmeg. I tend to buy everyday spices like garlic powder, onion powder, and chile powder in larger containers because I use them nearly everyday. If the costs are still overwhelming, try to buy your spices in bulk at a local market or Whole Foods. The costs can be much cheaper; the only downside is having lots of little bags in your spice cabinet. I tend to make a mess using that system but it works well for other people.
Now that you have the spices at your house, it’s time to use them! Here are some basic world food regions and the spices you’ll most likely use in their recipes. Let this be a guide to help get you started in the kitchen:
- Italian: basil, oregano, rosemary, and garlic. Use the dried variety for Homemade Calzones and the fresh variety for Sizzling Scallops.
- Thai: Thai cuisine uses a lot of curry powder, fresh chiles, ginger, garlic and coconut milk to make it’s signature dishes. Push your culinary boundaries by making my Vegetarian Red Curry.
- Indian: my favorite cuisine! The sky is the limit with the amount of spices used in this region. Curry powder, cumin, coriander, ginger, garlic, chili powder, turmeric, and saffron are a good start. The development of flavor you can achieve with these spices is incredible. Try them out in Masala Popcorn Mix or Tandoori Burgers.
- Mexican: cumin, cilantro, garlic, paprika and chiles (fresh and dried) are most commonly found in Mexican food. Heat up your palate with dishes like Adobo Chicken Tacos and fresh Guacamole.
- Baking: you’ll find cinnamon, nutmeg (use it fresh!), all spice, and ginger in many fall desserts. Experiment by making Banana Bread, Pumpkin Spice Coffee Cake, or Zucchini (Avocado?!) Muffins.
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