Spices are so much a part of our lives today that it would be hard to imagine a world without them. We take for granted the easy availability of spices. Once they were highly priced, expensive commodities and difficult to get in past centuries.
They've been used in cooking and for medicinal purposes in many cultures throughout history. It is hard to imagine that these fragrant bits of leaves, seeds, and bark were once so coveted and costly.
Today spices are used in almost everything we eat, and costs are relatively low compared to the process of growing and harvesting them. Most kitchens are stocked with cinnamon, nutmeg, and other herbs or spices, which we normally use in everyday cooking, and with more practice one can only look forward to more satisfaction.
So what are the spices and what makes them so different from herbs?
The difference between the herb and spice families is that herbs grow in temperate climates while spices come from the tropics.
Herbs are the leafy parts of edible plants, where spices are generally the buds, bark, roots, berries, aromatic seeds and any other edible part of a plant (except the leaves).
Normally herbs are enjoyed fresh and used as a seasonings, whereas spices are nearly always found dried and either whole or ground into a powder and are often strong, zesty, pungent, fiery and fragrant, giving a dish an exotic and exciting taste.
They're high in antioxidants because they no longer contain the water that makes up such a large part of fresh produce.
The source of the characteristic aroma and flavor given off by all herbs and spices are Essential oils. These oils are released by grinding, as with a pestle and mortar, or by fine chopping. This is why ground spices lose their flavor more quickly than those that are whole seeds or leaves and you need to replace them as soon as they lose their scent. Keep them away from light by storing in a dark place and in dark, solid containers.
Whether to use whole spices or ground to a powder depends on the cooking method and the most effective way to get the best flavor out of them.
For example, when you stew fruit it is better to add a whole piece of cinnamon quill, so that the flavour is infused and the liquid remains clear. Using ground cinnamon in the same recipe will make liquid muddy-looking. On the other hand when making curry, rubbing spices onto meats before cooking or mixing spices with flour for cakes and biscuits, ground spices are always used so they will easily mix with other ingredients, or impart their flavour more rapidly.
The right combination of spices can add serious flavor to a dish just as fast as the wrong combination of spices can destroy a dish. Cooking with spices doesn’t have to be a scientific dissertation, but a few general concepts can help create tastier meals.
When you start experimenting with spices, use a proven recipe from a reliable source. If you’re creating your own recipe, begin with trying one or two spices or herbs. The amount to add varies with the type of spice or herb, type of recipe, and personal preference. Always remember when doubling a recipe, do not double the spices and herbs. Multiply amounts by one-and-a-half, taste and add more if needed.
Spices not only add to the flavouring of nearly any meal, but they also can help in calorie reduction by adding flavour without the use of butter, salts, and heavy oils.
These miracles of nature bring together flavors that create amazing and diverse results. I hope that by using spices successfully in your everyday cooking, it will inspire you, stimulate your enthusiasm and bring mouthwatering dishes to your table.