The Ultimate Guide To Spice Selection For Gourmet Cooking


Spicing up foods can often be intimidating, unknowing what the end results could be. One may be trying on a new recipe or improvising on an old one. Whichever, the exotic flavors of spices will at most add that magical zing that could raise the recipe list to a higher level. In the beginning, one may go through a trial-and-error phase but as he gets more experienced and gets acquainted with the unique tastes and aromas of varied spices, he will be more certain of what needs to be added to a recipe. It will take a lot of practice but in time, it will be all worth it.

The Benefits of Using Spices for Gourmet Cooking

Spices have been used for centuries, especially in the East and there are no limits to their importance in cooking. One can have spices with flavors that can add sweetness to foods or even heat. It’s even possible to add them for health benefits. Cooking with spices could be turned into an art, although many would contend it already is. The person cooking will be the artist, the dish his canvas, and the spices will be the colors. Artists are usually creative and daring. From a bland dish, anyone can create a work using spices that can transform an ordinary dish into an extremely palatable one. Spices do serve several purposes and here are some of them:

  • Enhance the Aroma and Flavor. With the range of flavors spices have, an ordinary dish can be transformed into something much more delectable, not just to taste but to the sense of smell as well. Each spice has its own distinct flavor and aroma and these properties can be the determining factor whether one would eat a dish or not.
  • Improve the Taste of The Dish. Traditionally, we just dash our foods with salt to give it a semblance of taste. With spices now, foods can smell and taste so much better. Some of these can even draw out the natural flavors of food.
  • Change the Color or Enhance It. If a person really wants an exotic experience on how spices can transform foods, he should try going to a local Indian restaurant. Entering one would already give him a sense of what’s coming. The aroma, then the taste. Then the person can now include the colors brought about by spices as they would pass right in front of him in red, orange, and yellow colors Spices like cumin, turmeric and paprika are mainstays in Indian cuisine and they give Indian foods their vibrant colors.

The Most Common Herbs and Spices Used in Cooking

Most international cuisines can never go without spices. In the different countries, spices have transformed cuisines into delightful, aromatic, and delicious dishes. There are thousands of known spices, but a handful is the most used because of the flavors and aromas they add to food.

  • Basil. The countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea are famous for their dishes using basil. The spice belongs to a plant group which includes mint. It has a flavor and scent like clove or floral anise. Basil can be used in many kinds of meat and seafood dishes. The sweet type pairs with tomatoes naturally when making sauces.
  • Cayenne Pepper. Anyone who wants his dishes to pack some heat should add a dash of cayenne pepper to it. It also adds a touch of sweetness to almost any kind of dish. Cayenne pepper is made from dried red chili peppers which are grounded.
  • Chives. This spice has an aroma and taste like that of onions but milder. It’s typically used to garnish dishes because of the bright an elegant green color. To maximize its color and flavor, add the herb at the very end when preparing a dish.
  • Cilantro. This is one of the world’s most popular herb especially true in the Latin Americas and in Asia where people seem to have an addiction to its refreshing flavor. Almost all the plant’s parts are used in cooking. Stems and leaves are often preferred raw, being added to dishes when cooked. The seeds are also used in cooking, the roots as an ingredient in making Thai curry paste.
  • Cinnamon. Although used more popularly as a spice for desserts because of that spicy warmth it brings, cinnamon can also be used as an ingredient in many savory dishes. Many consider cinnamon as one of the most versatile sweet spice.
  • Crushed Red Pepper Flakes. Give dishes an extra kick with a dash of crushed red pepper flakes. This may not pack as much heat as cayenne pepper, but it nevertheless has its own punch. Sprinkle some on pizza, pasta, and even on green salads.
  • Crystal Kosher salt. Salt is an essential ingredient in almost all dishes but do people use the best kind of salt? This, of course, is not a spice but crystal Kosher salt is preferred as a seasoning for dishes because its texture can add some good crunch to finished foods.
  • Cumin. This cornerstone spice is a mainstay in almost all culinary kitchens. It’s known for its very nutty earthiness and is an ingredient to most dishes in Asia, the American Southwest, and many more.
  • Dill. This spice is best used to compliment the delicate flavors of seafood dishes although it can also be an ingredient in soups, sauces, and salads. When fresh, dill would exude a strong scent and can be kept in the refrigerator for a couple of days.
  • Mint. This herb has a refreshing peppery bite which makes it an ideal ingredient for salads and sauces. It’s also a great garnish for fragrant teas. Although commonly used in sweet treats, this herb can also liven up the flavor of many dishes. It’s also used to temper many spicy curries because of its cooling flavor.
  • Oregano. Another herb that is popular in Mexican and Mediterranean dishes is oregano. This is a pungent spice which can be used either dried or fresh. It’s much easier finding the dried type which has a more concentrated flavor.
  • Parsley. This is also a very popular herb used mainly for garnishing. It’s a very versatile herb and is frequently used in Western cooking. The flavor is slightly peppery and compliments well with other seasonings. Aside from a great garnish, parsley is also used to flavor soups, salads, and more. For cooking, the flat-leaf or Italian parsley has the best texture and flavor to boot.
  • Rosemary. Here’s another popular herb with a strong flavor. Like oregano, it can be used dried or fresh. It’s an ingredient in many soups, stews, sauces, and meats. When using rosemary, do so sparingly because it has a strong flavor.
  • Sage. This herb is a mainstay during the Thanksgiving season in the USA as it lends flavor to the dinner turkey and its stuffing. But it’s also an ingredient in many dishes and some sauces. Dried sage has a stronger flavor than the fresh type, so like rosemary, start off by using small amounts.
  • Smoked Paprika. This spice adds flavor and color to dishes and is perfect for making hearty stews and roast chicken.
  • Thyme. This is a versatile spice which can be used for any kind of fish, meat, vegetable, and poultry dishes. Fresh thyme can stay usable in the refrigerator for up to a week. The herb is popular in both American and European cooking.
  • Whole Black Peppercorns. When buying black pepper, don’t opt for the pre-ground stuff because this can go stale quickly. Buy the whole black peppercorns as they will last longer. Also, these have those complex fruity aromas when freshly ground. The spice is a great addition to soups, sauces and almost any kind of dish.

Pairing Herbs and Spices

Making a dish will often require not just one spice but a combination of them. A spice on its own will not make much of an impact to taste. But in combination with others would spell a great difference. Usually, there are combinations that work well together, and experience will tell which ones could bring out the best harmony in dishes. Knowing these, one could create wholesome and authentic international cuisines, starting from scratch.

For beginners in cooking, it may become confusing to learn which herbs go well together. After all, there is a wide array of spices and herbs available and discerning which goes with what can become a daunting task. For neophytes, it’s recommended to start with the basic and essential spices and herbs. These will include garlic, chili, basil, coriander, parsley, and ginger. These alone can make anyone come up with a dish that is special. Always have these ready in the fridge door storage. Here are some herb and spices pairing tips:

  • Basil goes well with garlic, parsley, lemongrass, rosemary, and coriander, and oregano
  • Chili is great with coriander, basil, garlic, oregano, lemongrass, and parsley.
  • Coriander goes well with garlic, chili, ginger, parsley, basil, and lemongrass.
  • Garlic goes great with coriander, basil, parsley, ginger, chili, turmeric, and dill.
  • Ginger goes great with chili, coriander, garlic, lemongrass, and mint.
  • Parsley goes well with garlic, basil, chili, oregano, lemongrass, and dill.

How to Choose and Handle Spices Properly

After salt and sugar, people’s love for spices comes next. Spices have been with us for centuries, dating back in prehistoric times. They have been used not only for cooking but also in sacred rituals, masking the taste of spoiled foods, and more. In the past, people traveled long distances to bring spices to their homelands. The spice trade was born because of this demand moving from India and Asia to the West. As a matter of fact, in medieval times, spices became as valuable as gold.

To this day, spices are still with us and as valuable, not so much in terms of money, but in terms of what they can do to food. Just a small amount of spice is needed to create a haunting and heady aroma and taste to any food. Presently, India and Indonesia are the two leading countries who use the widest range of spices.  Other countries like Spain, Mexico, Ethiopia and North Africa also depend on their own spice ranges to perfume their foods. It is an ancient reflection of their connections to Arabic cuisine. Northern Europeans have their share of spice madness as well and they use their spices on both sweet and savory dishes. To be more adept at cooking with spices, here are some tips:

  • Selecting the Spices. Ideally, it’s best to buy spices whole spices which can be freshly grounded when needed. For convenience sake, spices are now offered either whole or grounded. If one must buy grounded spices, it’s recommended to buy only in small quantities because this type loses their flavor and become stale in time.
  • Storing the Spices. Spices should have tightly sealed containers and must be kept in a cool, dark place such as the pantry. Don’t place them in places in proximity to heat sources. Do a little organizing. To make it easy to locate your spices, arrange them in alphabetical order. If buying in bulk, also buy some containers for storing them. Whole spices can last to up to a year, ground ones should be replaced after six months.
  • Preparing the Spices. One can either use a pepper mill grinder or a mortar and pestle to grind small quantities of whole spices. An electric grinder can also be used but use this exclusively for grinding your spices.

Grind only what is required in the recipe. If adding whole spices in a recipe, one can either bundle the spices in a cheesecloth square or place them in a tea ball for easy retrieval. When the recipe calls for an orange or onion and cloves, stud the cloves into the orange or onion. Finally, crack or bruise whole peppercorns before using them.

Re-Create the Flavors from All Over the World in The Kitchen

Anyone can purchase spices as standalone items. People can also buy them as spice blends. These are combined complimentary spices which could have a flavor of their own. Although people can re-create their own spice blends, it is recommended to leave this to the masters to make the blends. A person’s blend can have two or more spices, but this will depend on his favorite cultural cuisines.

Ethnic cuisines are famous because of the spices which are used when preparing them. For instance, Mexican cuisine typically uses spices that are native to them and these can include cumin, oregano, coriander, cinnamon, chili, and garlic. A combination of any of these can create the traditional flavors of Mexican food that we all love so much. If a person prepared a dish using such spices and still come out with a bland dish, just add more spices that come from that cuisine until the desired taste comes out. People who are familiar with ethnic combinations of spices should be able to come up with dishes from all around the world. Remember that practice makes perfect, a perfect culinary artist, that is. Don’t be afraid to try new things, just trust the taste buds. Spice it up and start cooking!



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