Love your spices, and they will love you back.
Many of us have spice collections residing in our cupboards and pantries. Some jars and tins might be decades old; some have moved across country, from one home to the next. It’s likely time to refresh the spices and herbs in your life and breathe easier knowing your spice collection is ready for the year’s best dishes.
Quick history: The spice trade got its start in the Mediterranean region around 300 BC. Demand for spices led to new trade routes over land and sea. As the Roman Empire began to grow, so did its dominance in the spice trade. Romans used spices to preserve food and to enhance cooking, perfumes, medicines and cosmetics.
Rarities such as pepper were worth their weight in gold.
Spices are the dried seeds, roots, bark, buds and berries of plants that can be ground (think cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg). Where spices are dried, herbs—the green, leafy part of the plant—taste best when fresh. Some herbs also can be dried, such as the leaves of celery, oregano and basil.
Freshness is key. If fresh herbs aren’t available, you can still cook with dried versions if you use a third of the amount called for in the recipe. It’s hard to overdo freshly grown herbs, but it’s so easy to overdo dried herbs.
The optimal way to use fresh herbs is to pick them from the garden immediately prior to cooking and add them toward the end of the cooking process. For uncooked foods, adding fresh herbs earlier will allow the flavors to blend.
The Spice Purge
Even when spices and herbs are stored properly, they are prone to go stale quickly. In fact, my mom (a “home ec” queen back in the day) taught me long ago to keep ground and blended herbs and spices no longer than six months. Yes, you read that correctly.
I know, I know! You paid handsomely for that rare blend on a trip five years ago. I know you’ve had good intentions, but you’re never going to use it, and if you do, it will not taste fresh and could ruin an entire dish. So toss, toss, toss! Compost it, throw it in your campfire (unless it’s pepper) or just bury it. Your plants will thank you.
Next, buy smaller quantities—they will last longer than you think, and you’ll have less waste when you have to dispose of them. Local grocery stores and Mexican, Asian and local specialty markets sell small packets and jars of freshly ground herbs and spices. Not only are they less expensive, the quality is better than what you’ll get in bulk containers from big-box stores.
Since exposure to air and light greatly effects freshness, it’s best to store herbs and spices in cool, dark places. Glass containers are preferred over plastic (plastic can leach into the volatile oils of herbs and spices).
Think about the spices you use the most often in cooking—pepper, garlic powder, basil, oregano, chili and seasonal blends—and store those in convenient larger containers along with your salt.
While technically not a spice, salt is a mineral that greatly enhances your food. Invest in good-quality salts—kosher, pink Himalayan or a local sea salt such as Real Salt—and use sparingly when cooking.
Freshly cracked black pepper is vastly superior to the type found in salt & pepper shakers at the market. Grinding your own pepper will transform your dishes, especially salads, potatoes and dressings.
Consider investing in an electric coffee grinder or specialty herb/spice grinder to pulverize dried herbs. Spoons ’N Spice (2274 S. 1300 East, SLC, 801-263-1898; 788 E. 9400 South, Sandy, 801-553-1988, SpoonsNSpice.com) sells all sorts of grinders but also keep an eye out for a low-cost coffee grinder at a garage sale or thrift store. To clean away any prior residue, pour in some dry rice and grind for a minute. Empty, wipe clean, and voila! Move on to the next herb or spice.
When you buy herbs and spices, label and date the bottom of each jar so you’ll know to toss it after six months.
Grow your own
Growing a year-round supply of herbs and spices at altitude can be tricky, but those little plastic herb pots on the windowsill make it easy to pinch fresh leaves and add to pastas, soups and salads all winter long. Many chefs grow their own windowsill herbs. You’ll need at least five to six hours of sunlight to keep basil, oregano and thyme happy. Local source Mountain Valley Seed Co. (175 W. 2700 South, SLC, 801-486-0480, TrueLeafMarket.com) sells delicious organic herb varieties that sprout within days.
Stack or stick?
To store your spices and herbs, check out the myriad beautiful spice jars at the gourmet stores. My favorites are the easily stackable Ball Dry herb jars with shaker tops. Another favorite is the magnetic spice tins with clear tops. Place them on the side of your fridge or hang them upside down on a metal plate that’s attached to the bottom of a metal-lined shelf in your cupboards or pantry.
Hopefully, I’ve inspired you to start refreshing your herbs and spices. Yes, variety is the spice of life, but buy your seasonings in small quantities when you can—and stop in at the following local shops and suppliers that can help you along.
Local resources for spice, herbs and supplies.
Spoons ’N Spice—Offering every kind of container, mortar and pestle, and grinder you can imagine.
2274 S. 1300 East. Ste. G9, SLC
788 E. 9400 South, Sandy
Kitchen Kneads—Great for buying fresh spices in quantity. They also sell storage jars.
3030 Grant Ave., Ogden
Penzeys Spices—A national retailer with a store in Draper, they carry a large variety and have great customer service.
280 E. 12300 South, Draper
Good Earth—Has a nice rotation of a large variety of organic spice and herb products. Buy in small bags and transfer to your labeled containers at home.
Harmons—Sells local spices and commercial blends as well as containers to store them.
Mountain Valley Seed Co.
Purchase at Harmons or IFA
Liberty Heights Fresh
1290 S. 1100 East, SLC
2111 N. 5500 East, Eden
Lavender Hill Farm—For organically grown lavender, spices and blends of tea.
Retail outlets include Rainbow Gardens, Ogden Nature Center and Simply Eden
Farmer’s Daughter Herbs—Fresh, organic herbs available at various grocery stores.
2854 S. Redwood Road, West Valley City
Lee’s Market—Carries my very favorite commercial Cajun blend, Slap Ya Mama.It’s a red pepper blend with salt, white, black peppers and garlic powder in a nice ratio. It tastes great on everything and isn’t too hot. It’s authentic Cajun without so much salt. Get it and spice up your life!
2645 N. Washington Blvd., North Ogden