I don’t know about you, but I often get bored cooking the same dishes over and over again. When I run to the store, I tend to pick up a set list of staples, and then have the task of figuring out how to make them exciting once I’m home. I don’t always remember to buy specialty ingredients for a specific recipe, so I have to look to my pantry for some last minute flavor help. That’s where spices come in as a perfect kitchen save.
When I think back on the spices in my mom’s cupboards, I picture a bottle of poultry seasoning, a container of Mrs. Dash, an ancient Herbs de Provence, some cinnamon, garlic salt and onion powder. I’m pretty sure that was the extent of it, although there were probably some others tucked away in the dark recesses of her shelves for decades. I didn’t know that spices could come any other way than in a red and white McCormick bottle, and so as a kid I was perfectly content with the food she made. She was (and still is) a good cook, but not exactly an adventurous one. California cuisine in the 80’s meant everything was fresh, steamed or grilled, and lightly seasoned. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I had no idea that spices could be combined in different ways to turn your food into flavors that jump across the globe.
My first introduction to toasting and grinding whole spices came around ten years ago when Brian and I took an Indian cooking class at The Institute of Culinary Education. We started the night sitting on tall stools around a large metal cooking station, all wearing white aprons that were ours for the next three hours. The instructor passed around bowl after bowl of whole spices for us to touch, smell and taste: smokey cumin, lemony coriander, licorice like fennel seeds, whole green cardamom pods, and tiny round mustard seeds. We learned that bottled spices and herbs lose their brightness in six months time, and because you don’t know how long it’s been in the grocery store, you’re not even getting it at its peak. But if you buy bags of whole spices, you can toast small batches and the fragrance and potency will burst out at you. You then can grind your spices by hand with a mortar and pestal, or use a dedicated electric coffee grinder to do the job. (So that there’s never any confusion, I have a white one I use for actual coffee beans, and a black one exclusively for spices because the last thing I want is my coffee tasting like cumin.)
Toasting and grinding doesn’t take a lot of time, and the flavors are absolutely worth the extra few minutes of prep. I certainly don’t do it daily, but every couple of weeks or so I’ll make a new batch to add to a spice mix for slow cooked baby back ribs, spice-crusted roasted salmon, turkey chili, or even just a good home made salad dressing. (Yes, all of these recipes will be coming soon!) And buying whole spices is certainly cheaper than buying tiny bottles: $2.69 for 14 oz of coriander seeds from the local Indian store, compared to $4.98 for 1.25 oz of McCormick ground coriander from Walmart?!? (I just did an online price check on that one, because I figure not everyone is shopping at Trader Joe’s like I am .) Granted, there are times I’ll happily pay for convenience, but there’s also the bonus of your food actually tasting better with minimal effort. You simply pour a thin layer of whole spices into your pan, and then freeze what remains in the bag until you are ready to toast and grind the next time. And to freeze what’s left over, simply put your whole spices into a Ziploc freezer bag or tupperware, and when you are ready for a fresh batch there’s no need to defrost.
However you decide to combine your spices, you can have Mexican one night, Indian the next, and Middle Eastern the one after that. It makes cooking a whole lot more fun, and the eating even more so. I didn’t know these options existed as a kid, but I love the variety I can create now simply by blending a new mix of spices together and seeing what I get. It’s a simple way to get out of any cooking rut.
Toasting and grinding your own spices only takes a few minutes, but adds a punch of flavor to any recipe with minimal effort. Combine the spices in new ways to add variety to your meals and get out of any stale cooking rut.
- 1/2 cup- 1 cup of your favorite whole spice: cumin seeds, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, caraway seeds, or whatever strikes your fancy.
*When transferring the spices from the pan into the grinder, they may want to jump out everywhere. My trick is to place the grinder on top of a plate or a piece of wax paper, so that any loose seeds can be collected and ground.
**Leftover whole spices can be stored in a Ziploc bag in the freezer, and can be toasted directly without having to defrost them. I will store spices in the freezer for up to a year, and the toasting brings them back to life.
***To clean out the spice grinder, wipe down the inside with a damp towel to remove the leftover spices. Then add some torn up bread into it and grind that up, which will leave you starting fresh for the next batch. You have homemade breadcrumbs and your spices won't get mixed together.