There are good cooks from almost every part of the world who agree that if you start with great ingredients, cook them with care and skill using the right techniques and pairings, the food will speak for itself and there will be no necessity for spices. And it is true that spices will rarely compensate completely for poorly cooked foods. But spices and herbs certainly have a place at the table. The more you know about them, the better can be your cooking.
Europe spent all of the dark ages without spices. During the four centuries that elapsed between the crusades and the reformation the quest for spice and the control of spice trade was the most powerfully formative political and economic force in Europe and the Levant, after the church.
It was the quest for spices that drove Columbus to sail west to get to the orient cheaply. The goal was to get pepper and cloves without dealing with the Arabs who had a monopoly on the land route of supply. By the mid seventeenth century the English, Dutch, and Portugese sailed to India, Indonesia, and the Philipines to get all sorts of spices. The quest to sail around a destructive cartel transformed the world into a happier and more productive place.
European countries established permanent trading outposts to obtain their spices. Americans sometime forget that the Dutch founded the colony that was to become New York City but traded it to the British for a spice island in the far east. And their nutmeg isle was so valuable to them that for hundreds of years they did not even put it on a map.
So even if it is possible to cook really well without spices, a millenium of western history proves that we crave the pungency and fragrance that spices bring to our tables.
We are beginning to learn that our craving for spices may actually bring some health benefits. Spices and herbs deliver biological benefits. It is has been shown that a large number of spices including garlic, coriander, cumin, pepper and cloves have quite powerful antibiotic powers. In fact, pepper and cloves were vital for making air-cured sausages in the middle ages and this virtually drove the race to get to the far east, causing Columbus fateful voyage.
Turmeric - it has recently been discovered - is a powerful antioxident and is credited with the low incidence of prostate cancer in India. Cinnamon, taken half a teaspoon per day, has been shown to lower triglyceride levels.Triglicerides are a leading indicator of cardiovascular disease.
Almost every year that passes science discovers some new benefit of eating the foods we enjoy most! So don't hold back.
What we detect when we smell herbs or spices is the essential oils they contain. We detect those oils wafting away into the air to be lost forever. It is the volatility of the oil that makes the spice fragrant. And it is that same volatility that causes it to lose flavor in storage. When a spice is stored in big chunks it takes some time for the volatile oils to escape. Think first of nutmeg - a nutmeg nut stored properly will be spicy for years. But when the spice is ground into tiny bits the essential oils come out quickly - this is how we detect them. This explains why we frequently grind spices just before using them.
We keep them whole as long as possible to lock in the flavor. Then we grind them to release the lovely flavor and fragrance just before eating. I always buy whole nutmeg and grate it onto foods just before serving. I do the same with pepper and with cardamom. Some spices, however, are a little hard to grind well. I find this to be true of cinnamon and cloves. In these cases I buy the spice ground. Since I use a lot of cinnamon this is not a problem. And several of cloves' essential flavors are not very volatile.
In general, spices are the dried flowers or fruits of tropical trees and shrubs. There are exceptions; ginger and turmeric are roots and cinnamon is the cambium or inner bark of a tree. Herbs, by contrast, are the dried leaves of plants - usually annuals or perennials. So herbs are green. In some cases both plant and seed are useful as flavoring. Coriander, for instance, is the seed of an annual plant whose fresh leaves are used as the herb cilantro.
The same sort of pattern exists for dill, fennel, and celery. In the case of nutmeg and mace, the two are separate parts of the fruit of a tree that grows in only a few places in the world; Granada in the west Indies and that secret Dutch Island on the other side of the world.
There are many chefs who insist that fresh herbs are always better than dried. Perhaps it is true if you own your own herb farm, but I find that the 'fresh' herbs found at the grocery store are in generally poor condition. And even if you do grow your own herbs, there is a mellowing process that occurs during a good drying process that makes dried herbs better suited for many cooking tasks.
The only cases in which I can confidently say fresh is superior to dried every time would be those of cilantro, mint, chervil, and lemon grass. In most other cases (thyme, parsley, sage, rosemary, basil, dill...) there is a strong case to be made for dried over fresh herbs. In fact I am pretty certain that I like dried parsley, thyme, and basil; whereas, I am really not fond of their fresh counterparts
For years I assumed that the best place to get herbs and spices was the grocery store. Then, when I started cooking more seriously, I quickly found that many of the things I wanted were hard to find. I also found that the quality and freshness of the herbs and spices I could buy mail-order was in a completely different league: they are much fresher and much more flavorful. So now I buy all my herbs and spices by mail.
Here are several of on-line sources for dried herbs and spices.
I have personally spent many hundreds of dollars at Penzey's and have always been delighted by the quality of their spices. Cook's Illustrated frequently rates various herbs and spices, and those from Penzey's consistently perform well compared to those from other sources - in a number of cases they have been rated highest. Their catalog is a joy to read, telling you all kinds of interesting things that really help you make good choices.
How do you choose among the five or six kinds of ground cinnamon? Start with the popular China. And do try the Ceylon cinnamon. Then go from there.
Their spice blend are inspired as well. I've used Florida Pepper - with dried garlic and orange zest and can recommend it almost everywhere you would use black pepper. And I've used their Galena Street rub on roasted chicken with very good results. The Maharaja curry is dear but it's full of saffron, and the Garam Marsala is ideal for meat pies.
Be prepared to wait one to two weeks to receive a shipment, even if you order on-line. But try not to over-buy.
I once bought a pound of dried parsley and have since discovered that this is more than five years' worth. I have some four-year old dried parsley in a large bag; and every time I open that bag I get to enjoy a huge cloud of fragrance redolent of clover hay drying in the sun. I put this smell into my sauces a few tablespoons at a time. And the result is inimicable. You cannot get this from fresh parsley. Nor, I' ll bet, can you get it from a grocery store jar. But a small handful may weigh a gram. And if you read ketchup bottles as a child, you know that there are 454 grams in a pound.
While it does have a good selection of culinary herbs and spices, San Francisco Herb Company has more herbs in the herbal medicine and herbal tea area. You will find comfrey, chamomile, dandelion, echinacea, ginko, ginseng, peppermint, frankincense, myrrh and a large number of other herbal materials for applications broader than those just culinary.
Fresh or dried, herbs and spices bring flavor and health benefits to our foods. It is not just good taste that causes us to pursue the use of spices, it is good sense.
Eat well and prosper.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.