Spices For Life

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Herbs, Spices, Oils & Flavorings

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A pinch of this, a teaspoon of that.

Sage dressing. Chili beans. Caraway rye. Most everyone who cooks considers a handful of herbs and spices staple ingredients. But why limit yourself to the expected? Add some saffron to that dressing, or cardamom to your bread. Try tarragon, thyme and turmeric in those beans. Experiment. With just a little know-how and a sense of adventure, you can create original recipes, turn standard fare into an elegant dish, or transform the same old meal into an entirely new one.

Savvy seasoning can make for more healthful recipes, too. Use them to reduce salt and sugar consumption or make low-fat meals more enticing. Of course, certain herbs and spices are intrinsically good for you. And many people say they eat less of a well-seasoned dish than they do a bland one. So there's plenty of incentive to learn the art of cooking with herbs and spices. All you need are a few guidelines to get started.

Getting Started

Here are a few tips to help you feel like a seasoned pro:

With a few exceptions, use herbs and spices sparingly, to enhance and accent other flavors rather than dominate them. For starters, try 1/2 teaspoon of spice for a dish that serves four to six. (For herbs, use 1/2 teaspoon powdered, 1 1/2 teaspoon dried, chopped, or 1 tablespoon fresh chopped.) Because oils are concentrated in the drying process, it takes about half the quantity of dried herbs as fresh.

  • To release the flavor of dried herbs, crumble them in your palm - or grind with a mortar and pestle - before adding them to your dish.

  • Add whole spices during cooking to allow their flavors to permeate the food.

  • When you use whole, dried spices in cooking, tie them in a cheesecloth or metal tea strainer for easy removal.

  • Add ground or cut herbs and spices midway or towards the end of your cooking time, so their flavors won't dissipate.

  • When preparing salad dressings, blend the seasonings with the other ingredients a few hours before needed and refrigerate, so the flavors will meld.

  • Allow for the buildup of pungency with red pepper or spice blends containing red pepper. First taste tests often seem mild.

  • Season vegetables with herb butters. Simply add herbs or spices to melted butter (or butter whipped with oil) and pour over vegetables, or refrigerate for later use. Good herb butter seasonings include parsley, lemon pepper, thyme, marjoram, garlic, basil, oregano, chervil, tarragon and dill weed.

  • Marinate fish in lemon juice and herbs several hours before cooking. Or lay herbs across fish before steaming.

  • Substitute cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger, anise or fennel for some of the sweetener in fruit and dessert recipes.

  • To reduce your salt intake, substitute strong, flavorful spices such as black pepper, curry, cumin, basil, oregano, and garlic. Experiment with blends (pre-blended or home-made) in your salt shaker.

Seasoning Storage

A spice jar over the stove might be handy, but because herbs and spices deteriorate when exposed to heat, light, and moisture, it' s not a good place to keep them.

The best storage temperature for herbs and spices is one that is fairly constant and below 70°F. This means you need to stock them away from the furnace, stove, and the heat of the sun. Temperature fluctuations can cause condensation, and eventually mold, so if you store spices in the freezer or refrigerator, return them promptly after use.

A good storage system keeps herbs and spices dry and in the dark, too. Amber glass jars with airtight lids are ideal. You might also keep them in a cupboard or drawer, cover the jars with large opaque labels, or use a curtain to cover them when not in use. In a nutshell, store your herbs and spices in clean, airtight containers, away from heat and light, and handle them thoughtfully.

Shelf Life

How can you tell if your seasoning is past its prime? The shelf life of each herb and spice is different, and all age, even under the best conditions. Check your herbs and spices - and those you consider purchasing - to see that they look fresh, not faded, and are distinctly aromatic. Replace them as soon as you detect deterioration. The shelf life of herbs and spices will vary according to the form and plant part, too. (Those that have been cut or powdered have more surface area exposed to the air and so lose their flavor more rapidly than whole herbs and spices, for example.)

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