Your cumin is in my peanut oil.
April 5, 2007 11:47 AM   Subscribe

What are the rules of thumb for mixing various spices and cooking oils for optimum flavor?

I sautee a lot of vegetables. Sometimes I use peanut oil, sometimes almond oil, sometimes sesame, sometimes canola. I tend to throw in a few spices at random: cumin, cayenne, parsley, coriander, whatever. Usually there are multiple vegetables involved. So, I end up with something that tastes good, but the randomness of it bothers me. I think: was the oil good enough on its own? Is there something about the combination of cumin and sesame that would have worked out better if I hadn't involved mushrooms? Is coriander typically used with sesame oil rather than canola?

Yes, of course I realize that I can experiment endlessly, trying every possible combination. But I don't want to do that. I want someone who knows more than I do to explain some general principles that will guide me.
posted by bingo to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
tip 1: the later on in the cooking you add the spice, generally, the stronger the flavor.
posted by phaedon at 11:51 AM on April 5, 2007

You really don't want to saute with sesame oil. Add the sesame oil cold at the very end.

Do a google search for "spices and timing". There's a lot of good and highly varied info out there.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 12:07 PM on April 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I always thought sesame oil (and almond oil?) was for flavoring, not cooking in. That's what the pretty ladies on Food Network tell me, anyway.
posted by lampoil at 12:09 PM on April 5, 2007

Toast spices before using.
posted by electroboy at 12:15 PM on April 5, 2007

Toast spices before using.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:24 PM on April 5, 2007

The conventional wisdom is that one should keep spices/dried herbs for no more than six months. Personally, I'll keep them around for 12-18 months (I don't go through them that quickly), but if they're older than 6 months I'll compensate by increasing the amount I use. Yes, they very definitely lose their flavor over time.

Lemon+dill is one of the classic flavor combinations, and with good reason. Best known for being used on fish, but it works on vegetables too. Especially carrots.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:40 PM on April 5, 2007

Look to traditional blends. Spices that are commonly used together in other recipes (curries, moles, pasta sauces, whatever) are used together for a reason.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:43 PM on April 5, 2007

Best answer: I haven't yet read Seasoning Savvy, but I've been meaning to check it out. You might find it helpful for this question.

This list of spices and their uses might also be handy - look for spices that are used in the same cuisine for hints on what might go well together.

This list comes at it from a different angle, giving you spices to use on various foods. It also has a list of common spice combinations towards the bottom, and suggests mixing spices with a bit of cream cheese and tasting after an hour or so, to see if they go well together. It's trial and error, but you don't have to cook an entire meal to sample each combination.

Everywhere I said "spices", substitute "herbs/spices"... it was just getting too wordy.
posted by vytae at 1:03 PM on April 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is a really good book, Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. The encyclopedia of spices is a great resource too.

Toast spices before using.

or alternatively fry them in a bit of oil, either whole or ground.
posted by squeak at 1:03 PM on April 5, 2007

I totally forgot about this fantastic site!
There are good descriptions for just about every known spice including flavor quality when heated, etc.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 1:15 PM on April 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: herbs (green) and spices (not-green) are very, very, very differnent in how they want to be handled.

Herbs (green, leafy things) are delicate. They don't like heat, with a few exceptions. Also, the longer they cook, the weaker their flavour. Add them late, and to water-based sauces. The fresher the better. Lots of cooks like to keep fresh pots of herbs even through the winter to avoid using dried ones.

Spices (mostly nuts or seed-pods) love heat. The best thing you can do with spices is to roast them before using them. Get a hot, dry pan and fry for half a minute. Spices also usually love oils. After you're finished frying them, add a tablespoon of a high-smokepoint, flavorless oil (grapeseed, canola, soy) to draw out more flavour. Spices also keep their flavour much longer than herbs, at least six months, and are usable up to a year old.

So remember: all coriander/cilantro isn't the same! The seeds are a completely different flavour from the leaves. I call the leaves cilantro, the seeds coriander in my recipie book. I know that's not common usage, but it works for me.
posted by bonehead at 1:42 PM on April 5, 2007 [3 favorites]

Best answer: There are traditional food/seasoning pairings that work reliably, although of course they aren't mandatory. Nutmeg brings out the taste of spinach. Dill, as mentioned above, is good with fish. Cinnamon plays up the sweetness of root vegetables and the warmth of red meat. Smoked paprika — really, any smoky flavor: think bacon — is good with beans.

In all these combinations, the seasoning reinforces the flavor of the main ingredient rather than disguising it. As a result, you can get away with adding much less of it. When I make spinach, I add a tiny dash of nutmeg to the butter before I cook it. The result isn't spinach that tastes like nutmeg — it's spinach that somehow, mysteriously, tastes more like spinach.

For all the interest in exotic food these days, this is one skill that you can learn better from those stodgy old traditional cookbooks. If the Joy of Cooking, say, tells you to add a dash of mustard to your cheese sauce, you can be sure it's not because mustard was trendy that year — it's because sharp cheese and mustard have a synergistic effect. Once you've learned that sort of minimalistic approach — maybe three or four flavors at a time — you'll find that the way more complicated dishes are put together makes more sense to you.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:15 PM on April 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Some oils are bland, and some are very flavorful.

Bland or light oils do better with heat -- in general, they have higher smoke points, so they won't smog up your kitchen. And since they don't have much of a taste, they will work well with most foods. I'd say the following are bland oils:

- Canola
- "Light" or non-virgin olive oil
- Peanut oil

Flavorful oils have various volatile flavor compounds in them. They're more prone to go rancid (especially the nut oils -- keep 'em in the fridge) and are more expensive (so it's worthwhile to use them carefully). When they're heated, they lose some of their flavor, and they smoke at lower temperatures. These are the ones you want to deploy strategically -- add a little at the end of your cooking time, drizzle over a cold dish, or do something else that won't expose them to high heat.

- Extra virgin olive oil. Great with any Mediterranean-type food or ingredients (so Mexican food can work). All the spices that you mentioned work well with extra virgin olive oil.
- Sesame oil. Use it in Asian and/or Asian fusion foods.
- Almond oil, walnut oil, or other flavorful nut oils. Great with salad dressings, sauces, or anything where you want a little zing of something unexpected.

If you want a single, fairly fool-proof rule of thumb, try this: match up oils/fats with spices that come from the same geographic location or regional cuisine. Or, to state it another way: if hundreds of generations of grandmas have been doing it a certain way, it probably works. So, try:

- Greek-style: dill, mint, extra-virgin olive oil
- French, country-style: thyme, marjoram, sage, shallots, butter
- Italian-style: oregano, basil, extra-virgin olive oil
- Japanese-style: ginger, scallions, daikon, sesame oil
- etc.

Read up on "peasant" cooking and traditional cuisines to find out more. I highly recommend starting with anything by Paula Wolfert.

But don't forget: there are no hard rules when it comes to cooking -- just taste. I think you should keep experimenting, and jot down any combinations that you especially like.
posted by ourobouros at 3:06 PM on April 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

Your cooking method is responsible for a huge proportion of my meals. I do most of my cooking in canola, olive, or peanut oil. I use canola just for a "generic" oil; peanut more for stirfrying; and olive when I'm going to be adding tomatoes/tomato sauce, basil, oregano, or the like. I also add garlic and onions to just about everything. Other things that, I find, work include:

Curry-style spices: Before inserting your vegetables, fry some brown mustard seeds in oil (this is fun--they'll pop! but be sure to cover the pan or stand clear for a little) and then add some cumin, ground coriander, cayenne, and a little turmeric; also cloves and mace work, and fenugreek is a popular curry spice too. I find these spices go great with chickpeas, potatoes, green peppers, or pretty much anything.

Stir-fry: I make a sauce with some ginger, chili paste, and 1:1:2 cornstarch:soy sauce:water. Fry the veg over high heat. When it's almost done, add this sauce, turn the heat down to low (it helps if you've got a gas stove) and cover. I find this is about the only spicing I need for stir fries. For something a little different, lime or lemon juice instead of the soy sauce is fun too.

Cumin, oregano, and tomato sauce (I usually just use some tomato paste and water) is also great combination, especially with beans and corn for an easy veggie chili. I also love doing a tomato sauce with balsamic vinegar and some basil.

Your taste may vary, of course. Cookbooks I've found helpful just for basic cooking-for-myself stuff include The Joy of Cooking (but up all the spice by a tremendous amount because it's written by midwesterners) and--if you're doing lots of vegetarian stuff--the Moosewood cookbooks.
posted by goingonit at 8:33 PM on April 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've drastically cut down on my spice/herb mixing since learning to cook Italian -- I try to stick to fresh ingredients with just salt, pepper, and maybe one other herb -- but a trick that my mother (a great cook who was heavy on the spices) engaged in was tasting the dish, then sniffing whatever spice she was thinking about putting in. I've done it when playing around, and if you cook enough, you definitely get visceral reactions along the lines of "Yes, this smell definitely will enhance that taste" or "Ewww, no, wrong."
posted by occhiblu at 9:44 PM on April 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

When I have any doubts about the spice/herb/oil combination I'm planning, I just open the containers and get a good whiff of them all together. The nose knows.
posted by zebra3 at 7:42 AM on April 6, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all the comments so far.

Except this one:

(but up all the spice by a tremendous amount because it's written by midwesterners)
posted by bingo at 9:12 AM on April 6, 2007

Response by poster: I ordered the book recommended by vytae and have started reading it. So far it's great.
posted by bingo at 4:11 PM on April 10, 2007

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