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Cooking Basics

Everything you need to know about spices

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How long do those spices really last? (iStock)

As someone who accidentally added a tablespoon of nutmeg to a batch of mac & cheese instead of ¼ teaspoon, I truly appreciate the power of spices. The power to ruin. 

Or add mouth-numbing spice, or sure, beautiful depth of flavor and overall deliciousness. I've never thought much about them when I'm in the grocery store aisle, but that's one of the most important factors when it comes to spice success.

Are they fresh? Unadulterated? Flavorful? 100% what they claim to be? In "The Spice Companion: A Guide to the World of Spices," released in November, La Boite spice shop owner Lior Lev Sercarz goes deep into this spice world of ours. From A to Z, he documents 102 spices, their flavors, origin, harvest season, and starring recipes. There are guides on how to make your own spice blends, how to store them, and ready-to-go recipes for necessary blends, like mulled wine.

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In the excerpt below, Sercarz lays out the rules for shopping for spices, which we could all probably be doing better. Go easy on the nutmeg, though.

"Most people know what to consider when buying a good wine or a vine-ripened tomato, but they rarely take into account the fact that spices should be purchased just as thoughtfully. There are maxims to consider when buying spices, things to look for in terms of quality, and ways to evaluate what you already have.

Find a source or a store that you trust, and start by buying small quantities to evaluate the quality. To determine quality, the immediate test is visual. Singular spices should have a uniform color. If you notice both dark and light particles or different shades, it could mean the spice was harvested before maturation, the selection wasn’t the best, or the sorting wasn’t done properly. If you buy black pepper and it’s gray—something is not right.

Spices should also have the most vibrant, intense color possible. If they look grayish or faded, that might be a tell that they have been sitting on the store’s shelf for way too long. Also, if you notice a lot of powder on the bottom of a package of whole spices, this can mean they are old and have started breaking down. This is especially true with dried herbs.

It is important to note that by the time you see a jar or bag of spices at the store, they are probably already five to seven months old. There is nothing wrong with them; that’s just the way spice production works, and the FDA just doesn’t require expiration dates on spices. I wish they did. Unlike some wines, spices do not become better with time.

Spices are not the kinds of things we need to be passing down to our children; they should be used, not saved. Unless you really think you are going to consume three pounds of cubeb in a matter of months, buy spices in small quantities and refresh your stock often.

After you bring home a new spice, open the packaging and evaluate the scent. Spices should smell—and the more intense the smell, the better. (Do note that not all spices will have a very pleasant scent, like asafetida, black cumin, and black cardamom.)

The next step is to taste the spice. Again, not all spices will taste good on their own, but if you know what to look for, you’ll know if you’ve found it. Some might be a bit bitter, hot, or sour, but this may be just right. The point is that spices should taste like something; otherwise, why add them to your dish?

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Keep in mind that the flavor, taste, and smell will change a lot in contact with raw or cooked foods, or when infused into a liquid. The easiest way to evaluate the quality is to sprinkle some on whatever you’re cooking, though you don’t want to ruin a whole meal with an experiment gone wrong. Sometimes I test spices on popcorn, in a little broth, or on a small piece of chicken. Note what you smell and taste, and then rate the spice in some way so that if you buy it from another source, you can easily compare them. 

You will have to compare a few sources to become better at buying spices.

Unfortunately, most of us are not taught to evaluate them at all, not even in the world of professional chefs. But thanks to online and specialty stores, we now have convenient, regular access to a variety of spices, so you can buy small quantities to try from all over the world."