Spice racks without noses?
August 7, 2017 11:14 PM   Subscribe

I've never been able to smell things - not toilets, not food, not smoke, nothing. So when it comes to cooking, I don't have a good idea of what different spices do. Is there anyone that can advise on which spices I should keep around, and how to use them?

Currently I only really use salt, pepper, garlic powder, and chili powder. Recently I had the opportunity to taste-test a couple other spices, both by themselves and on top of some scrambled eggs (stuff like rosemary, basil, oregano). Other than a garlic mix that had some salt hiding in it, nothing really stood out. They all just felt like not-unpleasant dirt and twigs.

This was disappointing to me because I've always felt as though I could still taste things fine, when they're cooked by other people or at restaurants. I know texture plays a big part in my preferences (such as how I don't like fruit), but I can still taste the difference between soups and chilis and stuff, and tell that there's a big difference between seasoned and unseasoned meats.

But when I want to try new recipes, I just see so many ingredients where I have no idea whether they are required to achieve a certain flavor, or if I would never be able to detect them and they would sit unused forever.
posted by lazugod to Food & Drink (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you know anyone who cooks they quite possibly have immense quantities of spices and other specialized ingredients, more than they can use, which they'd be willing to give you portions of if you supply containers. Thoroughly washed out medication bottles can be good for that, or you can buy new ones.

That way, you can try new recipes based on which spices you've gotten for free, and not have to worry about investing unnecessarily before you've tried cooking with a given spice.

I'm not sure it actually will have so much to do with your sense of smell—I can smell fairly well but still end up buying things I find I don't care for or only use very slowly.

BTW if you're in the U.S., in some places the spices in conventional supermarkets are priced exorbitantly, but in smaller ethnic markets that intensively use particular spices the prices will be much lower.
posted by XMLicious at 11:33 PM on August 7, 2017

The spices you say you tried recently are all leafy herbs, which don't do very well dried and lose a ton of their flavor. To rejuvenate them you have to do something like fry in oil or simmer for a long time in liquid. This makes sense for dishes like stews or sautes but not for scrambled eggs. Can you try fresh herbs and see if any taste good to you? Especially basil is delicious fresh and raw but loses everything dried.

To help you decide what to keep in your pantry you can pick two or three source cuisines that you like to make dishes from and pick the spices most prevalent in those cuisines. For example, if you cook mostly tex-mex and Italian, you would probably like to keep a lot of garlic, cumin, some good dried chile blends, dried oregano and often purchase fresh parsley and basil.

But honestly the list you give in the beginning is pretty good, a nice base to encourage the flavors of all your fresh ingredients to taste their best. Simple food is often the best, so maybe you would be best served by focusing on technique and learning your local seasonal crops so you can more easily find the yummiest produce.
posted by Mizu at 12:02 AM on August 8, 2017 [5 favorites]

Maybe just get some spice- and herb blends appropriate for the food types you like?
Like a ras el hanout, a herbes de Provence, a curry paste or several and a Mexican seasoning mix. A jar of pesto is a good seasoning paste to keep in the fridge. Choose high end brands, they are more expensive but worth it and they last a good while.
Then if you are making for instance a Thai recipe, you skip the list of spices and herbs and just use your Thai curry paste. It won't be exactly the same, but it will be fine. I'm a dedicated make-everything-from-scratch person, and my pantry is full of spice jars, but spice blends are just fine most of the time.
Also, as Mizu indicated: there are lots of cuisines that use few or no spices or herbs beyond salt and pepper. The original bolognese sauce has only salt and pepper, Marcella's famous tomato sauce has only salt. Lots of salads would be better if only people would stick to salt and pepper in the dressing. In Germany and parts of France, mustard is the main seasoning. Even though there are spicy Middle Eastern dishes, you can manage very far and well within that tradition with just salt and pepper, parsley, garlic and lemon.
My gran was the opposite of you — a hypersensitive smeller, and she hardly used any seasoning because the smells and tastes of the produce were already overwhelming for her, still she was widely praised for her cooking.
posted by mumimor at 2:39 AM on August 8, 2017

When you say you've never been able to smell things -- do you mean that you have anosmia? If you do have anosmia (to some degree or fully), then you really might find that many spices do nothing for you. In that case, you might be interested in seeking out spices that provide something other than aroma, like...
- Try hot spices: chili powders & pastes, mustards, wasabi, etc.
- Try Sichuan peppercorns -- they give a unique tingling/numbing sensation
- Explore a variety of salts -- sea salt, flake salt, kosher salt, etc.
- Try different sour flavors: lemon/lime juice, sumac powder, vinegars, etc.
- Try umami boosters: miso paste, fish sauce, worcestershire sauce, tamari/soy sauce, mushroom powder

If you want to test your nose and see if there are some spices you can smell, then maybe try to find a Penzey's near you -- they have tester jars. If there's no Penzey's nearby, you could also go to the bulk spice section of a Whole Foods or any natural foods store and open the jars to sniff them. At a bulk spice section, you could also buy very small quantities -- just enough to make a single recipe and see if the spices are worth it to you. Here's a useful set of infographics about spices by regional cuisine that might give you a starting point if you choose to stock up.

Finally, I have a single spice that I'd suggest you try smelling first: Smoked Spanish Paprika (that's the link to the Penzey's version -- you can certainly find it cheaper elsewhere if you like). Make sure you don't get a different kind of paprika (spicy, sweet, Hungarian, etc.) -- it has to be Smoked Spanish Paprika. Here's why:
- It has a very strong aroma -- I have to store it inside a sealed jar inside two ziploc bags so that it doesn't infuse everything in the cupboard.
- It is delicious with the spices you already have. It's not spicy like chili powder, but it will make spicy food taste better/fuller, and it's great with garlic and garlic powder.
- It's a powder, so no weird texture.
- It's great in chili, on meat (especially pork or beef), on beans, on rice, and on a variety of other basic foods. It adds depth, richness, and smokiness to anything you put it in.
posted by ourobouros at 5:48 AM on August 8, 2017 [16 favorites]

Arrowroot is called for in recipes as a thickening agent, not a flavoring, so that may be a good one to keep on hand for stews. Also corn meal and corn starch.
posted by oh yeah! at 7:16 AM on August 8, 2017

General tips.

1. If you want to use leafy herbs, fresh rather than dried is the way to go. The flavor (and most likely the smell) will be way stronger. If you have a green thumb and the space for it, you can keep some herbs as houseplants (I've got lemon verbena ,basil, rosemary, sage and oregano going in my house) and you will be more than adequately supplied with herbs, to the point that your next AskMe may be "what the hell do I do with an entire two cups of oregano?"

2. Spices start to lose their potency after about a year. So it may not be your nose that's the problem, it may be that your spices are just old. Try getting a fresh bottle and see if that makes a difference.

3. A good basic set of spices for baking would be: cinnamon, ginger, clove, allspice and nutmeg. These also get used in other cooking a lot, for savory dishes (especially in Indian cooking), but they're also de rigeur for things like cookies, pies, etc. They can also be blended in varying configurations and percentages; a nice basic blend I use has equal amounts of cinnamon, ginger, clove, and nutmeg, and it goes into any "fall spice" or gingerbread type of thing. The five can also be combined to make the ubiquitous "pumpkin pie spice blend" that you can find all over the damn place in the fall (and thus you can use it to DIY your own pumpkin spice lattes if you are so inclined).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:52 AM on August 8, 2017

Are you using enough salt when you cook for yourself without a recipe? That's usually the big difference between restaurant cooking and home cooking, and I notice that you say you can taste the garlic salt because it has...salt.

But it could also be that your spices are old, and that fresh herbs may be the way to go.
posted by batter_my_heart at 9:37 AM on August 8, 2017

- Understanding the 15 flavor characteristics of spices

- Most natural foods stores have a bulk spices section. You can treat it like a spices museum, and smell 'em all. You could even buy a pinch of each for cheap to see which of them have flavor for you when you taste them.
posted by aniola at 1:54 PM on August 8, 2017

Google "flavor star" for a diagram of complementary ingredients.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:55 PM on August 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

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