I like sugar and spice, but which ones are nice?
September 29, 2009 12:10 PM   Subscribe

I like cooking, and I have a variety of spices, but I have never learned how to really use them. How should I learn to use them? What are some tips for trying things out? Do you have any any good recipes that highlight particular spice blends in traditional or unusual ways?

There are some good dish-specific spice posts from the past, but it seems most folks have some understanding of what the spices will do to the dish. I am mostly clueless, relying on recipes without understanding what each ingredient adds to the end product, and as such, I am hesitant to toss in a pinch of this and that and see what happens. To date, I usually use salt, pepper, plus onion and garlic powder. I'd love to make my own spice blends instead of relying on store-bought mixes. Thanks!
posted by filthy light thief to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Previously.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:16 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm no expert chef or anything, but I tend to find spices go with the type of cuisine. Italian uses garlic, rosemary, oregano, basil, chili flakes, parsley (to name a few); asian uses garlic, ginger, soy, sometimes cumin; mexican uses chilies, cumin, garlic, onion; everything uses salt and pepper. Try this italian-style rub as an example:

4 tbsp. dried rosemary
2 tbsp. dried oregano
1 tbsp. dried sage
2 tbsp. dried garlic flakes
4 tbsp. salt (kosher or sea)
2 tbsp. freshly cracked black pepper
posted by axiom at 12:19 PM on September 29, 2009

The best way to develop your taste memory for spices is with fresh spices. They are stronger. They do cost more so you could pick one or two and then make several recipes with them. Pick another few and repeat.
posted by caddis at 12:23 PM on September 29, 2009

Or you could buy a book.
posted by caddis at 12:29 PM on September 29, 2009

Best answer: Penzey's is a seller of some really wonderful spices, and as such, they offer a lot of spice-centric recipes.
posted by Ladybug Parade at 12:50 PM on September 29, 2009

I think this develops from your natural tastes -- the spices in the things you like.

What do you like to eat, mainly?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:57 PM on September 29, 2009

Best answer: You could work your way through your spice rack in a couple of ways, I think. You could take a spice and google it and see what kind of recipes it's in, and then try some of those. Or you could experiment in the kitchen. What about making yourself scrambled eggs every few days with a different herb or spice each time? If you learn a few basic things about using herbs and spices this will be more fun--like usually add fresh herbs near the end, or that some spices (like cumin or coriander) benefit from toasting (in a hot pan) or hitting some hot oil/butter (tumeric for instance) before they get worked into a dish. Anyway, could be fun just to play around. Remember to taste before, during and after!
posted by Mngo at 2:00 PM on September 29, 2009

Best answer: I use a site called recipezaar to find new dishes to cook. They have a search option using ingredients. Use this to work through your spice rack and obtain a working knowledge of what each spice adds to a dish. In this case, the old adage is true. There's no substitute for experience.
posted by raisingsand at 2:43 PM on September 29, 2009

Response by poster: I'm an omnivore, and there's little I dislike. My wife is a bit pickier (she dislikes lemon pepper, my other standard seasoning), but she eats beef where I do not. We love food from many cultures, and it seems spice is one big way that the dishes change from culture to culture.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:18 PM on September 29, 2009

You're cool with both herbs and spices, correctomundo?

As far as learning exactly how dried herbs taste, I agree with caddis in that fresh herbs will taste a lot stronger and help you figure out their taste.

Here are two simple, simple, simple recipes that revolve around fresh herbs. I can promise you, after having eaten this rosemary cheese, I know exactly how my rolls are going to be fragranced when I fold dried rosemary into bread dough. You can also try the rosemary cheese recipe with any fresh herb.


chèvre (yogurt or farmer's cheese is a lower fat alternative)
rosemary, washed, with all the little leaves picked off the branch, choppped
olive oil

Mix together. Serve with crackers or baguette slices brushed with olive oil and toasted.

This one is INCREDIBLY TASTY (I caught my boyfriend eating it SPOONED OVER A BAGEL it's so good) but admittedly, no one really uses dried cilantro. Measurements are vague (it's pretty hard to mess this one up, darling).


16 oz sour cream
1/3 cup queso fresco
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro, roughly stemmed and chopped
1 lime, zested and juiced

Liquify in blender. It's pretty and mint green and fresh and bright and I like it served over any Mexican dish that's good topped with sour cream or scrambled/poached eggs.
posted by Juliet Banana at 4:21 PM on September 29, 2009

Best answer: Madhur Jaffrey's Indian cookbooks usually contain many curry powder recipes. Get your own spice blender and you're good to go. Some of my favourite mixes from all cultures below:

Spanish: Salt, smoked paprika, oregano, thyme, cayenne pepper.

Mexican: Salt, cumin, oregano, pepper, chilli powder

Italian: basil, olive oil, garlic, rosemary, oregano or thyme. Lemons too, quite frequently.

Morrocan: Salt, tumeric, coriander seeds (ground or whatever), cumin, paprika, little bit of cloves or cardamon.

Indian garam masala: Cumin, cardamon, cinnamon, cloves, pepper corns.

Fish/Chicken rub: salt, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, pepper, tumeric.

Thai combos: Lemongrass, chilli, coriander, spring onion, lime, chilli, garlic, fish sauce/shrimp paste.

For spices, whole is better - grind them when required, you will be shocked at the improvement. For herbs, fresh is infinitely better than dried. Whole spices will often take on a different quality when dry-fried briefly before grinding.

Outlying the different qualities of herbs/spices:

Low notes - large, savoury flavours, especially good for darker meats and longer cooking: Cumin, tumeric, fennel seeds, chilli, rosemary, thyme, parsley, pepper.

Mid notes - slightly astringent but still roomy, good for poultry and lighter meals with shorter cooking times et al: coriander seeds, ginger, marjoram, oregano, basil, mustards.

high notes - more acidic or bitey, good with fish, faster cooking, or as garnish, at the end of of the cooking process: Lemon, dill, tarragon, fish sauce, fresh fennel, fresh coriander or cilantro (leaves), mint.

Mix and match, you fill find combinations you like. Don't underestimate the importance of something fatty (e.g oil), and something acidic (e.g white wine vinegar) for your flavours to cleave to. I hope this helps!
posted by smoke at 4:57 PM on September 29, 2009 [12 favorites]

It's okay to try things and not succeed at them, especially when it comes to spices. I got stupid with spices. My tarragon burger was, well, I was glad I was alone when I ate it, because I'm still ashamed of the result. And your individual taste matters, a lot, so while there are certainly guidelines, you might have particular loves and hates that will surprise you. I say go nuts. Make small samples of your experiments. Get a cheap composition book and take notes on what does and does not work out — this is handier than you would guess. Buy used cookbooks for various types of cuisines you enjoy and look at their spices for reference and inspiration.
posted by adipocere at 7:46 PM on September 29, 2009

I'm a little puzzled here. If you already have some spices, you can smell them and taste them to see what they're like, right? Or do you have mostly blends? If you mostly have pre-blended spices, then get yourself some pure spices and make with the sniffing and the tasting. Try to find a store in your area that sells spices in bulk - just opening the containers and smelling the stuff can be instructive (and fun!) If you're ever in San Francisco, hit Rainbow Grocery's excellent spice department.

Indian cuisine is probably the best place to start learning how to use spices. I second Madhur Jaffrey's cookbooks (she's written a whole bunch), and The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Yamuna Devi also has excellent recipes and useful discussion of spices and how to use them.

One thing to keep in mind is that the taste of spices is often modulated by the cooking process. Tasting the raw spice will give you the general idea, but spices almost always taste better when cooked. (You'll run into a few recipes that have you sprinkle raw spices on at the end, but I don't like the effect. Black pepper is about the only spice I'll eat "raw".) I usually find that the smell of the raw spice is closer to the taste of the cooked spice than the taste of the raw spice is. So I usually just smell the stuff to judge whether I'll like it.

And the type of cooking can also make a difference. Most spices taste better when fried first, since the chemical compounds that we taste are usually more soluble in oil than in water. So you want to fry the dry spices gently before adding any watery ingredients. If you toss the same spices into a pot of simmering broth the flavor will not be as rich. In fact the flavor may actually be somewhat different, since the oil-soluble compounds are not efficiently extracted from the spice particles, but a different set of water-soluble compounds are extracted.

Let me just editorialize a bit here: I think spice blends are largely a waste of shelf space, with a few exceptions - a couple of blends that I use over and over are "Tex-Mex" chili powder and a fairly standard/generic curry powder. Other than that, most dishes call for specific combinations of spices and it's not that hard to measure out a bit of several things. Pre-blended spices take away your flexibility, they tend to be more expensive than pure spices, and they're often mostly cheap filler like salt. I'd suggest you start out by learning how to combine pure spices to create a variety of flavors, and only think about making up a bottle of blend if you find yourself using a certain combination over and over.
posted by Quietgal at 8:58 PM on September 29, 2009

Response by poster: Quietgal, I hesitate to experiment because I'm cooking for two. Making something atrocious for myself is fine, but when that was also supposed to be breakfast for my wife, she's less than thrilled. Also, I don't trust what I smell compared to what I taste, for my nose isn't always so sharp and some things taste more or less than they smell.

Thanks for all these suggestions!
posted by filthy light thief at 7:30 AM on September 30, 2009

Best answer: I'm seeing two ways to learn about this: education and experimentation.

For experimentation, start with soups, stews and sauces. They can be seasoned, for lack of a better phrase, "in real time." By which I mean, you can add a pinch of this or that, and have the flavor change with a stir. If you're seasoning a steak or piece of fish, you're not sure how it'll taste until it's cooked.

Start with a simple marinara sauce. Taste it before and after you add the basil. Toss in a pinch of dried oregano, then taste. Then rosemary, and taste it again, etc. black pepper, red wine vinegar, red pepper flakes, etc. Think about the different ways each flavor tastes, what each is bringing to the overall flavor. If you've seen Disney's Ratatouille, think about that scene where Remmy is describing each flavor like each instrument in an orchestra. Do the same with some chicken soup, or a pan sauce for a roast.

As for "book learning" check out The Flavor Bible. I haven't read it, but this is a stellar review of it. Also Alton Brown has several episodes on specific spices or ingredients, where he goes into the history of the spice, it's botanical and chemical cousins, and a few recipes where it's a star ingredient.

Look for a store that sells spices in bulk, like whole foods, or penzeys, and go and smell everything. You can learn a lot that way. Plus, I know a $14 price tag on a jar of cardamom is going to nix any recipe that calls for it, unless I can buy the 2 or 3 pods I need from a bulk case. This way the spices will be fresher too.

Here's a tried and true recipe for two, using a basic mix of spices. Sweet Potato & Black Bean Chili From EatingWell. I usually double it, and have leftovers (& so it uses a whole can of tomatoes, vs the 1 c. called for)
posted by fontophilic at 8:29 AM on September 30, 2009

Best answer: Hmm, I'll go out on a limb here and suggest that maybe part of the problem is relying on blogs and websites for recipes rather than cookbooks. Do you do that? (Commence flaming, if you wish.) I love to cook, I'm a good cook according to everyone who's eaten my food, I have over 20 years of experience as an enthusiastic home cook, and I can read recipes and know pretty accurately how they'll taste. Nevertheless I find that I need to "get acquainted" with a new author and work out what fudge factors to apply to their recipes to make them turn out the way I want. For example, some authors use too much salt, some don't use enough garlic, etc.

Once I twig to an author's "style", though, their recipes are remarkably consistent in terms of required adjustments. That makes it simple to get the results I want, even using a recipe I haven't tried before. However, blogs often feature recipes from many sources and the "styles" are totally scattershot. This makes it hard to predict how to modify the recipe right off the bat, and it's frustrating if you have to make something several times before you get it right.

So while you're still on the steep part of the learning curve, I recommend getting a dead-tree cookbook or two and working through them. Pretty soon you'll grok which spices do what, and which ones you and your wife like, and then you can venture into the wilds of the intertubes.

Regarding your comment about experimenting, I hear you. As a n00b cook and broke-ass graduate student, I went through a phase of throwing stuff into stuff, in an attempt to make my cheap eats more tasty. The results were, unsurprisingly, yecchy. A more systematic approach, mostly centered around the Indian cookbook I linked above, was far more efficient and edible. Take heart, you'll learn how to use spices faster than you think!
posted by Quietgal at 1:48 PM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

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