Herb & Spice 101

So many of aspiring foodies and cooks are fascinated by my delectable concoctions here on my blog, and they also become intimidated by what they see here.  The problem is, however, that these same fans become a bit apprehensive regarding the growing world of ingredients.  Kudos to my foodie and automotive comrade Eric Lugo for shining some light on this legitimate concern.  What will I like?  What tastes good together?  How do I buy it?  All very important questions that can be answered with some fundamental flavor knowledge.

Remember, spices are paramount contributors to the flavor of any dish that hits your plate.  It's imperative to know what you're working with, in order to create a scrumptious culinary creation.  We'll start with the basics:

Salt:  Most people are familiar with iodized salt, more commonly known as table salt.  This type of salt contains additives to prevent the salt from clumping, among other things.  Although it's common to find, and cheapest to buy, there are better salts out there that are also better for you.  Kosher salt is ideal for seasoning food.  Kosher salt is usually coarser in texture compared to table salt, and also contains no additives.  Kosher salt is the best all-purpose salt out there and reasonable in price.  Once you start getting more adventurous in the kitchen, then you might want to research various sea salts and smoked salts that are available at your local grocer, or even online.

Pepper:  Oh, for the love of anything holy, do NOT buy pre-ground black pepper!  By the time all those big machines are done pulverizing it, the pepper loses all of those flavorful oils that make pepper so tasty in the first place.  Do everyone a favor and buy a pepper grinder, and if you're budget is too tight for that, McCormick (and a few other brands) make some handy, disposable peppercorn grinders with pepper inside.  There are other types of peppercorns out there, such as green, white, pink, and red, but again, those are spices to dive into at a later date.

Garlic:  Remember, garlic powder is NOT the same as garlic salt!  I personally do not endorse garlic salt, since I prefer to control my salt content.  Garlic powder does not taste the same as fresh garlic, but it's much more efficient to use in spice rubs, chili. and barbecue sauces, for example.  Any other application, you're much better off using the fresh stuff.  When buying fresh garlic, look for firm bulbs that are heavy for their size, make sure there are no green stems coming out, and no shriveled texture in the outer paper or the cloves themselves.  I put garlic in just about everything.  Garlic, onion, salt and pepper are my standard seasonings in most dishes.

Paprika: This is actually a dried and ground red pepper.  Contrary to the description, most paprika has a warm yet sweet flavor, and not that spicy.  The best types to buy are the Hungarian or Spanish varieties. Paprika is very versatile and used in everything from barbecue spice rubs to beef goulash, sausages, soups, stews, roasted veggies, and rice.  You can also find smoked paprika in many grocery stores these days, which lends a nice grilled/smoky flavor without the fire hazard.

Oregano:  Quite popular in Mediterranean and Mexican cuisine, oregano delivers an aromatic flavor combining sweet, lemony, and some floral notes.  Unlike most herbs, oregano is typically better when dried rather than fresh.  There are Mexican and Greek varieties of oregano, with Mexican being more bitter, and Greek being more floral.  I enjoy using oregano on poultry most of all, but you can also sprinkle it on breadsticks, tomato sauces, salad dressings, and kebabs.  This herb is also closely related to another herb called Marjoram, and can substitute one another with their similar flavor profiles.

Rosemary:  Another versatile herb with minty and floral aromas, similar to tea leaves as a matter of fact.  fresh is best, and rosemary plants are incredibly low maintenance.  They grow incredibly well here in Texas, and I've also heard that rosemary plants are an effective deer repellent.   Did I mention how beautiful rosemary plants smell after it rains?  This herb is an excellent multi-tasker, and tasty to boot!  Much like oregano, I also love to use rosemary with poultry, but you can also use it on lamb, bread, stuffing, soups and stews.  If you must invest in the dried variety, I would suggest ground rosemary, since the dried needles can sometimes add an undesired texture in your recipe.

Cumin:  Also known as "Comino" by many folks here in Texas, can be purchased as dried seeds or ground.  Most people don't have their own spice grinders, and if that's you, stick with the ground variety for now.  This spice has a warm and very smoky aroma, which can definitely be overpowering if you use too much.  It's very popular in Mexican cuisine, as a seasoning for meats, sauces, and stews.  Cumin is also a staple ingredient of many curry sauces, so Indian cuisine is another favored use.  For a little more variety, you can also use this ingredient in barbecue spice rubs, chili, and even homemade nacho cheese sauce.

Basil:  Perhaps one of the most well-known herbs, basil has a pleasantly sweet and slightly floral flavor and aroma.  This herb is used liberally in Italian cuisine, especially if tomatoes are involved, but it's also nice to use on vegetables, fish, pizza, couscous, and poultry.  Fresh basil is absolutely best, but you can also use the dried leaves or even the ground version just cut the measurement in half.  Also, basil is a primary ingredient of Pesto sauce, one of my favorites!  Thai basil is stronger in flavor, and warmer in aroma than the more common sweet basil, so keep this in mind while you're shopping for herbs.

Thyme:  Sorry, I'm not making the mega cheesy thyme/time jokes here.  Thyme is one of my favorite herbs to use in the kitchen, mainly because I adore it's floral yet lemony and near minty flavor.  Thyme is excellent with most meats, especially chicken, lamb, fish, and beef.  You can also use thyme to infuse olive oil and even honey for an extra boost of flavor.  I also like to include thyme in my oven-roasted veggies.   Drink some thyme tea is a cough suppressant and spritz that very same tea as a natural insect repellent, a truly versatile herb! Thyme is best when fresh, but make sure not to use the inedible stems, leaves only please!

Nutmeg:  You might know this warm spice from your auntie's pumpkin pie or ginger snaps, but nutmeg does far beyond the obligatory, seasonal dessert recipe.  Believe it or not, nutmeg is a staple ingredient in creamy, savory alfredo sauce.  Yup!  Just a pinch of that warm spices lets the cream and cheese in alfredo sauce really harmonize.  I also like to add nutmeg in creamed spinach.  Nutmeg also delivers an underlying tone of warmth to cheeses and sausage blends.  Ground and whole varieties are available, but I recommend keeping whole ones around with a handy grater, they last longer that way.

Bay Leaves:  As a child, I always wondered why my grandmother would put mysterious tree leaves into a simmering pot of food, but there is a method to the madness.  They bay leaf lends a bitter, floral, and complex aroma to a simmered dish, such as soups, stews and sauces.   Make sure not to leave them in your dish when their job is done, they don't taste pleasant on their own.  I like to think of bay leaves as the missing link to bring all flavors together.  Try using a leaf or two in your marinara sauce or chicken soup, those are classics!

Cayenne Pepper:  This is a spice that has a huge kick, so proceed with caution!  You only need a small amount of it to really bring some heat to your dish.  It's most commonly sold dried and ground, but occasionally you'll see it in it's fresh form.  You might be familiar with cayenne pepper and experienced it in Cajun/Creole cuisine, Indian, Asian, and Caribbean cooking as well.  Let's not forget, it's a common ingredient in hot sauce as well.  There are really no boundaries with this spice, just whatever you want to make spicy, go for it.  My advice, start by using small amount first, until you learn your own spice threshold with it.

If you think you've become fairly well-versed in the aforementioned and seeking something new, just leave a comment and I'll give to some herbaceous advice. 

1 comment:

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