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Is It Time to Overhaul Your Spice Rack?

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When was the last time you cleaned out your spice rack? Chances are, most of what’s languishing in your cabinet is old enough to have a driver’s license. If this sounds familiar, do yourself and your cooking a “flavor favor” by beginning anew.

Here are some tips for a spice and dried-herb clean sweep from chef Mary Donovan, editorial project manager at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

Essential spices. Donovan recommends purchasing whole spices that can be toasted to release their essences and then ground in a dedicated spice mill just before use. “Figure out what kind of cooking you’re doing and pick your top spices. If┬áyou can find a whole version, that’s the way to go.” Her go-tos, viable across a number of cuisines, include whole peppercorns, cumin seed, fennel seed, cardamom pods, mustard seed, allspice berries, nutmeg, caraway and dill seed. For powdered spices, she names good-quality cinnamon, clove, allspice, cardamom, ginger, curry powder, paprika (Hungarian, mild and smoked) and various other chili powders.

Essential dried herbs. Rosemary, tarragon, bay leaves, thyme, oregano, basil, marjoram and sage.

Storage. Herbs and spices lose pungency and flavor over time, especially if left near the stove, in sunlight or where they can get wet, says Donovan. Best to store them in a dark, cool, dry place.

When to rotate? Spices should be good for a year, possibly longer, Donovan says. Whole spices tend to last better—another reason to invest in them instead of preground varieties. “If you have a whole spice and aren’t sure of how viable it is, crack or pound it and see how much aroma you get, suggests Donovan.

Test the potency of dried herbs by taking a pinch and rubbing it between your fingers. “If there’s not much aroma, or if your herbs smell weak or dusty, it’s time to replace them,” she says.

Quantity and quality. Buy in small quantities. You really don’t need the Costco® size of chili powder—even if it is cheaper. Also, pay attention to how well the stock is rotating in the store in which you’re buying it.

Chef’s tips: cooking with herbs and spices.

  • Think about when you’re adding herbs and spices to a recipe, says Donovan. “Recipes will tell you when, but know that you can create a deeper layer of flavor experience by adding some in the beginning, some in the middle and some at the end of cooking. This also gives you the ability to control the amount you’re putting in.”
  • Some spices don’t dissolve well in water or other liquids. “This is why it’s good to add spices when sautéing. Fat spreads them around a bit rather than causing them to clump.”
  • If you’re measuring spices or herbs, measure them over the counter or over a separate bowl before adding them to the recipe, so you don’t add too much. Also, note that “pinches and dashes differ depending on who is doing it,” says Donovan.
  • On some dishes you can carry flavor layering all the way to the end by finishing the dish with a fresh chopped version of the dried herb you used in the recipe. “This will add a new flavor profile of the same herb,” Donovan shares.

Sandy Todd Webster

For 22 years, Sandy Todd Webster was the chief architect of IDEA's content program - including the award-winning IDEA FITNESS JOURNAL and IDEA FOOD & NUTRITION TIPS - the industry's leading resources for fitness, wellness and nutrition professionals worldwide. She created, launched and nurtured these brands and many others during her productive and purposeful IDEA tenure. Sandy is a Rouxbe-certified professional plant-based cook and a Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach who is pursuing a Master's degree in Sustainable Food Systems through The Culinary Institute of America (expected August 2024). She plans to combine these passions with her content expertise to continue inspiring others to make the world a more just, healthy and regenerative place.

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