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Herbs and Spices

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“But I don’t like spicy food…”  That’s not what we’re talking about (although, yes, you do need spices to make spicy food).  We’re talking about the basics of making something bland into something with dimension, interest, and flavor.  Ever take a chicken breast and simply boil it until cooked?  Not much to it, is there?  If your idea of a Primal dinner is a boiled chicken breast and plain steamed broccoli, it’s no wonder you have concluded that meat and veggies every night is boring.  What is the first thing you reach for on the table when you’ve got that piece of boiled chicken sitting there?  Salt and pepper?  Guess what, you’ve just used spices!

In the war on boredom in the kitchen, however, your arsenal needs to consist of much more than simply salt and pepper.  In fact, I think your most fundamental weapon against food boredom is a varied and fully stocked herb and spice collection.

Now, having a good assortment of herbs and spices (I’ll use both terms interchangeably from here out) is a start, but you also need to use them.  And you need to learn when and where to use different ones.  That comes with a little research, a little understanding, and a whole lot of practice.  You can get to know individual spices by taking off the lid, closing your eyes, and taking a whiff of the scent (scent has a lot to do with the actual flavor of a meal).

You’ve also got to spend a little time getting to know which spices complement each other, and which complement different foods.  Again, this is a matter of research and experience, but it isn’t that tough to figure out.  One good way is to start out with some blends of spices that you find you like – perhaps you love a particular Herbs de Provence on your rack of lamb, or you’ve always used the same “Italian Seasoning” with your marinara sauce – and try to dissect the individual scents and flavors that are in there, then come up with your own proportions.  Another is to look at a type of cuisine you enjoy, and find out what sort of spices are used often in that style of cooking.  Wikipedia and Google can help with this.

And experiment.  A lot.  Use small amounts (most spices are best in small doses).  Add a little, give it a chance to incorporate into the food, and give it a taste.  If you have a hard time committing things to memory, keep a journal and write down what you do.  Take notes right on the page if you’re using a printed recipe.  Split a dish into a couple of different “versions” and try something different with each one.  Common sense says that making prime rib for 30 of your closest family on Christmas dinner may not be the best time for experimenting, but don’t worry about messing up with your day-to-day meals.  The worst that can happen – so long as you add in small doses, test as you go, and take mental or written notes – is that you decide this particular “experiment” is not worth making again.  So relax, and see what you discover.  And by all means, share it with others.

Unfortunately, spices can be expensive.  I might have needed a second mortgage to have stocked my spice rack at once.  I wouldn’t recommend running down to the grocery store and buying one of everything in a Spice Island jar.  Start with a good set of basics and add to it a little at a time.  If you’re buying a certain spice for the first time, buy the smallest size you can get – but at least double what you need for the recipe you’re making (so you have enough left to make it again).  If you find that it is gone quickly, buy a larger size next time.  If you find you’re going through something regularly, then perhaps start looking at bulk or online ordering.  If you’ve got a knack for it, consider growing some of your own and then drying and storing it (or using it fresh – but that’s a topic for another day).  Also make sure that as you notice one getting low (around 1/3 or so left in the jar), you pick up a replacement so you aren’t stuck in the middle of a recipe with too little to finish – a good practice for everything in your pantry really.

So, what are my “go to” spices – the basics I would pick up if starting over?  Good question.  I would have a hard time not answering “ALL of them!”  But if I had to narrow it down to a “starter set,” most of them are on my top shelf in the rack.

  • Sea Salt (has essential minerals not found in your generic table salt – you can even get “fancy” and look for different varieties from different seas, all of which will have varied flavors)
  • Coarse Black Pepper (don’t stop with black though – white, red, and green peppercorns all have distinct flavors too, and blends of them are great!)
  • Costco’s Kirkland Signature Organic No-Salt Spice Blend (I use this like most people use salt)
  • Oregano
  • Thyme
  • Rosemary
  • Dill
  • Garlic Powder (for when I’m lazy)
  • Chili Powder (for basic southwest heat and flavor)
  • Cumin (essential Mexican spice)
  • Turmeric (essential curry spice)
  • Cinnamon (you’d be surprised what this can do!)
  • Vanilla (REAL vanilla extract)

We like these spice jars. They are inexpensive and we can create our own labels to stick on the top of them.  We just fill them with any bulk spices we buy as most of the spices we buy are in bulk as we save a lot of money that way!