By Rhoda Boone
As we were working on all sorts of one-skillet deliciousness for our new Sausage with Sauerkraut, Apples, and Bok Choy dish, it got us thinking about spices. We love the addition of toasted caraway seeds because it adds a stealthy, earthy hint of anise to the dish.
No surprise there. Adding spices is an easy, inexpensive, and healthy way to add layers of flavor, but you have to treat them right in order to take advantage of their full seasoning potential. In fact, mastering a few basics about cooking with spices unlocks a whole new range of flavors. And of course, it always pays to know when it’s a good idea to cut your losses and start with a new batch.
Here’s everything you should stop doing, start doing, and keep on doing in the world of spices.
START Toasting Your Spices
If you’re not doing it already, we highly recommend toasting any and all whole spices to release aromatic oils and bring out a deeper, more complex flavor. Plus, toasting spices dries them out a little, which makes them easier to grind or crush.
Heat a small, dry skillet over medium heat and toast the whole spices, tossing occasionally, until fragrant and lightly browned. It will take about a minute for smaller spices like mustard seed and 2 to 3 minutes for larger spices like star anise and whole dried chile peppers. Don’t let your spices start to burn or smoke, or they will add an acrid note to your dish. Remove them quickly from the skillet to prevent overcooking. And be sure to cool them completely before grinding to preserve their aromas (more on grinding below).
It’s not necessary to toast whole spices if using them on a grilled or high heat-roasted item, they’ll toast while cooking.
STOP Hoarding Your Spices
We can’t wait to go home for the holidays, but when we get to our parents’ kitchen next week, we know exactly what’s going to meet our dead-eye stare in the spice cabinet: Every single spice that was there last year. And the year before.
A quick rule of thumb: Whole spices can keep for 1 to 2 years, but pre-ground spices start to lose their flavor after about 6 months. Do a quick sniff test to see if your spices still have their aroma. If they don’t smell like anything, they’re not going to taste like anything. Once those aromas are gone, it’s time to toss the spice.
Also make sure you are storing your spices in a cool, dry, dark place. That means away from sunlight, heat from your oven or cook-top, and moisture from your dishwasher. Stashing your spices correctly will help them last as long as possible.
See more: 25 Amazing Turkeys for Your Family Feast
CONTINUE Grinding Your Spices
Hopefully you’ve been using freshly ground black pepper for years. But pretty much any spice that you’ve bought ground will be much more aromatic (and keep for longer) if you buy them whole and grind them as needed. Bonus: You won’t need to buy whole and ground versions of the same spice, like whole and ground cumin. Cinnamon is the one exception to the DIY grinding rule: It’s too hard to grind even in a coffee grinder, so if you need ground cinnamon, you should buy ground cinnamon.
Grind your spices (after toasting and cooling) using a coffee grinder that you only use for spices, or a spice mill or mortar and pestle. We love the mortar and pestle for the easy clean-up and ability to control the size of the grind (it also makes a great aggression outlet around the holidays). The tool also makes it easy to lightly crush or crack spices like coriander or peppercorns.
But if you’re not willing to bust out the spice grinder for weeknight meals and want to reach for the convenience of pre-ground spices, there’s an easy way to enhance their flavor. If you’re sauteing onion or garlic to make a dish, add your ground spices in the last 30 to 60 seconds before adding the remaining ingredients. Cook, stirring constantly, to “bloom” the spices, releasing their aromatic oils and removing their raw taste. Then add liquid like wine, broth, or even canned tomatoes to stop the spices from overcooking.
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photo: Courtesy of CNP Montrose