To many people, spices are synonymous with powdery substances sold in ugly plastic containers at a random supermarket aisle. Those poor excuses for spices don't do justice to spices' long history, incredible health properties and magical flavours and aromas.
Spices are naturally rich in anti-oxidants, are anti-inflammatory and packed with nutrients. They make your food taste a whole lot better but - unlike other condiments - they're actually good for you.
The problem is that the "conventional" cheap and nasty spices and dry herbs sold at your nearest store are miles away from the real thing. And, they likely won't contain those natural health properties that make spices and herbs so unique.
Usually, conventional spices are bland, stale, finely ground and powdery. That's because they tend to be at least 6-12 months old by the time they reach your kitchen. And they're likely mixed with preservatives, fillers and artificial flavours, colours and scents. You then take that home, use it once and let it sit in your pantry until the next spring clean. Those spices are so utterly forgettable, it's no wonder they don't get used much.
So what do you need to know about how to buy, store and use spices? We've put together 5 key tips so you can enjoy your spices to their fullest potential:
1. Don't buy spices at supermarkets, out of self scoop containers or large bags at overseas markets. Seek specialist sellers and spice blend makers (like us) who focus on bringing quality products to the market and grind their spices freshly and often. Spices and herbs' originate from plants so their natural form is a seed, leaf, bark, flower or berry. These are known as 'whole' spices. When whole spices are roasted and ground they naturally begin to lose some of their aroma and potency. This is why we make our blends in small batches, never allow any nasties and use certified organic ingredients, that have not been tainted by chemicals or irradiation. That's also why our spices are always sold in hygienic, air tight glass jars. Never out of common containers where bacteria and oxygen will degrade your spices.
2. Look for vibrant colours and potent natural aromas. Just like freshly brewed coffee and just-baked bread, spices and herbs should look and smell the part. When they're fresh and high quality, you should be able to smell their potent, bold aroma and see their bright, strong colours. If they look faded and tired, guess what. Chances are they are!
3. Buy small. Don't be tempted to buy bulk quantities of spices and herbs unless you know you'll use them all soon. Chances are they'll gather dust and age at the back of your pantry. Everyone's got a bag of old cumin or stale paprika in their kitchen cupboards somewhere! It's much more practical to buy small quantities you'll use in a couple of dishes. Then refresh your supply when you need to.
4. Store them in air tight glass containers. Spices don't really go off. They just lose potency and vibrancy with time and when exposed to air, light, humidity and temperature fluctuations. Whole spices will last longer than ground, so if you buy single spices always go for the whole version and grind at home when you need it. The same goes for dry herbs - they have a shorter shelf life than whole spices and will become stale pretty quickly.
To ensure spices and herbs last longer and keep their aromas and flavour, always store them in air tight, preferably glass, containers and keep them in a cool, dark, dry place. Don't place them by the stove, oven or on a kitchen shelf that's exposed to light and heat. Tightly seal the container after it's opened to avoid oxidation.
5. Add before and during cooking not at the end. With most spices and herbs, you'll want to add them to your dish early on to ensure the precious oils and natural flavours are released during cooking and the aromas evolve slowly. Ideally, marinate your meat, poultry or fish overnight for really strong flavours that penetrate deeply. If you don't have the time, marinate for at least 1-2 hours before cooking. For soups and stews, add the spice when you saute the onions and garlic or meat.
Whatever you do, keep experimenting with new flavours and ingredients. As you discover the world of spices and herbs, you'll enjoy a richer and more flavourful eating experience.