Welcome to month two of Meet Your Ingredients! This month we’re going to spice things up by talking all about culinary spices. Despite being used in small quantities, spices make up the identity of a recipe. Think about chicken and rice. Without any spices, it’s just two ingredients that don’t fall into any type of cuisine (and honestly doesn’t sound that appetizing). But add some cumin and chili powder and you end up with a Mexican-inspired dish. Or, use curry powder, turmeric, and cinnamon for an Indian-twist.
Thanks to spices, there are countless recipes we can make out of similar ingredients without feeling like we’re eating the same thing over and over. And it’s not just about taste. Spices also provide health benefits that often go overlooked. So let’s get acquainted with these culinary MVPs.
What Are Spices?
For the longest time I thought of herbs and spices as being essentially the same thing – after all they both affect the flavor of your dish. But there are a couple key differences between the two.
To start, spices come from the root, bark, or seeds of a plant; whereas herbs are the leaves. Spices usually have a stronger flavor than herbs and pack a stronger nutritional punch (we’ll get to that below), and while both provide flavor, spices also have a couple other culinary roles, which we’ll get to next.
Role of Spices in Cooking and Baking
In today’s world where many of us have fridges and access to a grocery store, preserving food isn’t as important as it once was. However, dating all the way back to ancient Egypt, spices were used to help keep food fresh; this was especially important once sailing became more common.
In addition to preserving, spices have long been used to add both flavor and color to foods and beverages. The timing of adding spices is key for any recipe. As the flavor of ground spices tends to mellow out the longer it cooks, some recipes may call for adding them in towards the end.
In contrast, in recipes where the goal is to have a more blended flavor profile, spices may be added at the beginning so that you don’t have just one spice flavor overpowering the rest. Also, in recipes that don’t involve cooking (such as salad dressings), the flavor will be stronger the longer the spice and other liquid ingredients have time to meld together.
Whole spices release their flavor much more slowly and are usually added in at the beginning of cooking and then removed before serving. For this reason, recipes that take longer to cook are good ones to use whole rather than ground spices.
Health Benefits of Spices
In addition to culinary uses, spices have also been used since ancient times to help treat numerous illnesses and promote health. From ancient Egypt and China to Ayurvedic medicine out of India, numerous cultures incorporated spices in their medical practices.
Today, spices still get a lot of attention for their proposed health benefits. While the benefits differ depending on the spice, they’re mostly attributed to the high levels of phenolic compounds (including flavonoids), which have strong antioxidant properties.
In addition to health-promoting compounds, spices also contain a substantial amount of micronutrients, especially minerals such as iron, magnesium, and calcium.
Because we use such small amounts of spices, we often forget that they do contain calories and nutrients, granted very small amounts of these things. Spices are also especially rich in fats, which is why you often see essential oils made from spices.
Ground vs. Whole
Most spices can be purchased whole (as seeds or whole pods) or ground. Generally speaking, the whole seeds or pods will have a stronger flavor and longer shelf life than pre-ground. However, ground spices can be more convenient, especially in recipes calling for just ½ teaspoon or so of the ground spice.
If you cook or bake with spices often, but want to save a little money, then a mortar and pestle or spice grinder can be good investments as you can buy whole spices (often cheaper than ground) and grind them up as needed.
Featured Winter Spices
As there are over a hundred spices, I decided to keep things simple with four spices that you likely already have in your cabinet or have at least heard of before. I also chose ones that are frequently talked about for their proposed health benefits and are especially popular in cozy, colder-weather recipes.
This month’s ingredients are: