Once you get a spice in your home, you have it forever. Women never throw out spices. The Egyptians were buried with their spices. I know which one I’m taking with me when I go.
You’ve cooked the perfect steak. Charred on the outside, nice juicy and pink (or red if you like it still mooing) on the inside. You start salivating and you’re so excited you totally miss your mouth and shove the fork into your bottom lip.
I know, I’ve been there.
Finally, bottom lip out of the way and you start to chew.
And chew. And chew.
And then it hits you, you’re not really tasting anything. You look around the table and your significant other/company is sitting there, smiling, saying, ”Mmmmmmm..”
But you know the truth.
You didn’t season it enough. Or maybe even not at all. So do your dinnermates a favor and walk out of the room for a second so they could quickly grab the table salt when you’re not looking. It’s the least you could do for giving them bland, flavorless meat.
Ok, smarty pants, yeah I know you taste the meat. But you are missing out. Let me put it like this:
Not using spices, herbs or any other seasonings on what needs it, is like watching the Superbowl on a standard definition tv. It’s fuzzy, snowy, color is all wrong, it’s terrible. Yeah, you’re watching the Superbowl, but it’s not memorable. When it’s over, you’re not thinking, ”wow, that looked great!”
Now, if you are using seasonings, you’re watching the Superbowl in high definition! Everything is crisp, sharp and definitive. You could see the individual beads of sweat on players faces and the grass is so green it’s making your eyes bleed. It’s the power of high definition exploding in your eyes the way the power of spices explodes in your mouth.
As I said, sprinkling salt on your bland steak while it’s on the plate would help a lot, and in this case it’s all you can do. But you, the preparer of this meal, are responsible of taking care of the seasoning in the cooking process, not at the table with your guests or family. As a cook, it’s embarrassing; you should be on top of things. When you watch someone take a bite and then quickly grab the salt shaker or a bottle of steak sauce, it hurts. They may as well be slapping you in the face. I believe what I was taught, and what I was taught is that if you season and cook anything correctly, then you don’t need salt or steak sauce at the dinner table.
But worry not, it can all be avoided. You can go from being secretly ridiculed and unknowingly slapped in the face, to being publicly praised, loved by millions, kissed by strangers, handed first borns for blessings, and asked to autograph body parts. You just have to know what you’re doing.
Spices are integral to everyday cooking. And when I say spices, I mean anything you’ll be using to season with. Which includes but is not limited to fresh/dried herbs, the numerous types of salts, and actual spices, all of which are totally different, and all are better for different things.
But I’m sure you already knew that. I’m glad that you… wait, what? You just use the pre made seasonings that you buy at a store? Really?? Well, I guess that’s ok. I mean, if you like having someone else tell you how to season steak or chicken, who am I to judge? At least you’re using something.
But just in case you’re curious, let me give you a crash course on what you should know:
There are a bunch (haha, herb humor) of different herbs you can cook with, almost all of which can be either fresh or dried. I always prefer fresh because, well, it’s fresh. But since I don’t have anywhere to keep an herb garden and I’m not about to spend over $100 at Bed Bath and Beyond for an indoor one, I’ve learned to live with dried herbs. The money you spend for fresh herbs in your local supermarket isn’t worth the amount of use you get out of them. I love fresh herbs, and will wind up buying those 4 sprigs of Rosemary for $5 if I absolutely have to, but I’m perfectly fine working with dried. Dried is the way to go if you want to get the most out of your money. There is nothing wrong with them, they last a lot longer than fresh ones, but they do lose their punch after a while. If you buy a new jar of dried oregano and open it up the aroma is going to hit you and the taste is going to hit you harder. But let’s say you buy a spice rack and it comes with all these crazy exotic spices and dried herbs you can’t pronounce let alone ever heard of, chances are they’re not going to give you much flavor unless you use a lot. You don’t know how long they’ve been sitting in that box, which is why it’s always safer to just toss the contents and refill the containers with freshly bought replacements. Trust me, it’s worth the investment.
Personally, my favorites to keep stocked up are Oregano, Thyme, and Rosemary. They’re all great for sauces and soups, I love Thyme on a steak or pork, and you can’t beat Rosemary on chicken. Others that can be used frequently are Sage if you make sauces and cook a lot of chicken or italian and Tarragon which goes well with fish.
A few things to keep in mind: Dried herbs are, for a good part of their shelf life, 3 times stronger than their fresh counterparts. So don’t go substituting the same amount of dried Thyme for fresh Thyme. Like I said, when you first open up a container of anything dried, it is at its strongest, and if it’s been sitting in your cabinet since the Thanksgiving before, it won’t be as strong, so take that into consideration as well. Another good tip when using dried herbs is to squeeze and crush whatever you’re using between your fingers as you add them to a recipe. This will give them a little boost as all the oils that are being kept inside are rubbed out. Plus it makes your fingers smell fantastic.
There are also powdered herbs, but ever since a freak accident involving powdered Thyme, a sauce, and a very confused friend named Rick I gave a recipe to, I have vowed to stay away from such things and so should you! I’m sure he has.
Spices are far less complicated. They’re simple, straight forward, and to the point. You either like them or you don’t. There are no fresh alternatives to consider, unless you would want to grind your own spices. If so, get yourself a brand new coffee grinder and go nuts. I’d love to buy spices to grind them up myself; you can imagine the freshness you’ll get versus that of buying in a jar. But when it comes down to it, I guess I’m just too lazy. Anyways, different spices have different uses, like sweet and savory for example. And just like herbs, they’re going to add another level of depth to whatever you’re preparing. Also like herbs, there are a whole lot of them that may be great, but you won’t really need them in everyday cooking. Like Cardamom. If you’re not a big spice person or familiar with Indian cultures, you probably just said, “Carda-wha?” Well, Cardamom is a key ingredient in Indian spice blends and is used for flavoring cakes, cookies, fish, whatever. But how many recipes have you come across that call for Cardamom? Yeah, I’d say that number is pretty close to zero. Heck I’m a Chef and I can’t recall ever using Cardamom. What about Juniper Berries? Star Anise? Yeah… The point is that there are a crazy amount of spices out there, and they are all great, unique and amazing when utilized, but for everyday tasks you don’t need to have a huge spice rack, just a few essentials.
I have a few spices that I try to always keep on hand: Garlic, Cumin, Curry and Chili Powders. Cayenne Pepper and Red Pepper Flakes. And Whole Black Peppercorns or Peppercorn Medley, which are housed inside of a pepper grinder.
Did you hear me? Pepper… Grinder. If you don’t have one, get one. If you buy already ground pepper, please stop torturing your body and family. The difference between freshly ground and already ground is the same difference between Alfredo Sauce and white paint. Black pepper is the world’s most traded spice and is used for not only flavoring but for beauty products and medicine as well. So treat it with a little respect.
White Pepper on the other hand can be treated like a red headed step child. That stuff is for sissy’s who don’t like black specs in their white sauces or mashed potatoes.
Onion Powder is another popular one but I can live without it.
Also, the sweet spices shall not go unsung: Whole Nutmeg. If you’re going to go with Nutmeg, don’t buy powdered/ground! You may as well be using sawdust. Whole Nutmeg when grated fresh using a micro grater, will bring out everything Nutmeg is supposed to be. The powdered stuff should be avoided at all cost. Then there’s Ginger, which is versatile and can be used for savory dished as well, and my favorite spice in the whole wide world: Cinnamon. If I could get away with putting Cinnamon in everything, I totally would. And I mean everything.
I’d wear cinnamon deodorant.
That’s how serious I am.
Then there are the popular spice blends of Pumpkin Pie Spice and All Spice. You hear of these a lot during the holidays and are just mixes of 4 or 5 different spices.
|My little spice mix and kosher salt for easy seasoning|
Salt is the most important of all seasonings. It should be placed on the highest pedestal when cooking. It will be the main factor in your dish’s success. If you do not know this, then you need to listen up, because if something is wrong and things just don’t taste right, it’s probably because you didn’t use salt.
I remember one of my first classes in culinary school, we were flavoring a soup and we needed to add salt. We new students to all things culinary did not know the importance of it, so we only added little dashes thinking it was ok. Shocked and surprised that our instructor kept telling us to add more salt, we’d add a few more pinches, and still going off her initial tasting, she knew it was not enough. We could’ve sworn that soup was going to be as salty as the sea, but sure enough, it was perfect. And thus was my first lesson: Salt makes a difference.
Salt should be looked at as a flavor enhancer. If something is bland, you add salt and it makes the flavor pop out. It’s a cook’s “Plan A”. It should always be the first thing you season with, sometimes, it’s all you need. Once again, if you don’t know this, and you have problems with the way things turn out in the kitchen, now you know why. In case you didn’t know, there are a whole bunch of different types you can get a hold of, all with different flavors. These are the three main types of salt you’d find in a store:
Table – Is the most common, at least it was when I was growing up. If you look very close, they are perfect little cubes. Why cubes? That’s science. Table salt is favored by bakers because it dissolves the easiest. Also it’s in the same family is iodized salt which is basically regular table salt fortified with traces of iodine to prevent iodine deficiency, which can lead to quite a few problems.
Kosher – Is the most commonly used in professional kitchens. Because of its flaky texture, it sticks to what you are using it on rather than bouncing off like table salt would due to its cube shape. It’s the salt that I use daily because it’s what I was taught with and it’s what I like. It’s a little milder than table salt and it doesn’t have any kind of additives so it’s the purest you could use.
Sea – Is the most expensive because it is, shockingly, derived directly from the sea. Sea salt is very unique due to the process of obtaining it, not to mention it is unrefined so you’re not only getting actual salt, you’re also getting a few natural minerals thanks to the sea it came from. I love to use coarse sea salt on a nice steak once it’s done cooking since the cooking process kind of strips the unique flavor away.
Whichever one you care to use, just remember, salt is your friend!
Now that you’re a little caught up and have a better understanding of what you should have at hand and what they’re used for, I hope you use the knowledge wisely. Honestly, if you only use those pre made seasoning mixes, you’re stuck in a box. Things like Old Bay (which is great for seafood) are ok. What I’m talking about is the stuff that comes in the bottles marked “Steak Seasoning” or “Chicken Seasoning”. Those things are stopping your curious mind from being free and experimental! Not to mention they contain additives to keep it fresh or from clumping up. Get rid of them! Start fresh, start new, learn what you like and what you don’t. You might hate Thyme, but adore Tarragon; think Cumin smells like feet (like my wife swears it does), but love Star Anise and use it in everything. Once you have an idea of what you like, you could start making your own seasoning mixes, taking advantage of every flavor you can because knowing what you’re using and what it does to everything makes seasoning a whole lot easier.
I hope this helped. If I get enough questions I’ll post about spices again. But for now, I’m out of thyme.
Oh come on, I know you at least smiled at that one!