A well stocked spice rack is a very useful weapon in the arsenal of any home cook. Spices of different types can be found which impart such a range of flavors that they can totally invigorate the blandest of ingredients, as well as provide more subtle seasoning than simple salt and pepper. Using spices largely instead of salt can also be a considerably healthier option. The spices featured below are a selection of some of the most widely used and versatile, all of which can help take anyone’s cooking to new levels and internationalize their menu.
A very special spice in many ways, cinnamon is popular around the world. Unlike most spices, it is also commonly used in both savory and sweet dishes. It is essential in many Indian curry style dishes but works at least equally well in stewed, sweet apples or in a wide range of sweet pastries. Cinnamon can be used in its ground, powdered form or by simply inserting the sticks (rolled bark) in to stews or curries as they slowly simmer and cook.
Popular in North Africa and right across Asia as far as the Indian sub-continent, cumin can be purchased in whole seed or ground form. In Moroccan cuisine, it is often added to tagines with lamb and fruits such as apricot, while it is an essential ingredient in many Indian dishes. An excellent way of getting the full flavor from cumin is to toast and grind the whole seeds at home. Simply add them to a hot dry pan and toast them for a couple of minutes until they start to turn golden and the beautiful aroma fills the kitchen. Grind them immediately with a pestle and mortar and add them to the dish as the particular recipe demands.
Another spice that can be used both in savory and sweet preparations, ginger can be bought dried and ground, in fresh root form or even pickled. In the West, it is used in candy, for making gingerbread and for making soda but it is used throughout south-east Asia, much of Africa and the Caribbean as a savory ingredient. It is a very popular spice in Indian vegetarian dishes but also for complimenting either meat or fish. Fresh ginger root can be peeled and stored frozen for months, with what is required on each occasion simply being grated from the whole with a small hand grater.
There are different varieties of paprika available to buy but it is made principally from ground bell peppers, chilies, or a combination of both. Although originating in Africa, it is widely used in Eastern European cuisine, particularly Hungarian dishes including goulash. It affords a wonderful spiciness to a wide variety of dishes, without the intensity of the heat usually associated with chili. It can also be purchased as smoked paprika but it is important to know the flavor is very smoky and less is likely to be needed in any dish.
A spice often recognized as much for its color and staining properties as for its flavor, turmeric in its dried and powdered form is bright yellow. It is used as an ingredient in many Indian curries and similar preparations but it is also an excellent way of coloring and flavoring meal accompaniments, particularly rice. A teaspoon of turmeric in the water when boiling rice gives it a beautiful extra dimension in both respects. Turmeric is very commonly used in pickling a wide variety of different vegetables.
Great care should always be employed when using any spice for the first time. The flavors vary hugely not only in nature but in intensity and where a teaspoon of one may be required in a recipe, a small pinch of another may impart the same level of flavor. For this reason, it is best to become acquainted with each spice by using them in established recipes only until the nature of their flavor is understood. The knowledge acquired will then open up a whole world of experimentation and limitless new dishes, as well as variations on popular classics, will become possible.