Spices in cooking

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The use of spices in cooking has a very long history – they were often used to mask the taste of less than perfect food or to liven up bland-tasting food. At one time, spices were so precious and expensive that even in the wealthiest of households they would be locked away in special spice boxes or cupboards. Today, most spices are no longer a luxury seasoning, and modern cooks use them to enhance flavours rather than to disguise them, as well as to provide vibrant colours and enticing aromas.

Buying and storing

Spices don’t deteriorate as quickly as herbs, particularly if they are whole (which is why it’s a good idea to buy them whole and grind them as you need them). When buying spices – whole or ground – sniff them if you can: the more pungent they smell, the fresher they are. Store spices in tightly sealed containers in a cool, dark, dry place. Whole spices can be kept for about 6 months.

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Types of spices

Spicy food does not simply mean a fiery flavour – spices lend all kinds of qualities to dishes.

Hot spices

These spices stimulate the palate and sharpen the appetite as well as encouraging the body to produce perspiration – an excellent means of cooling down in a hot climate.

The best known of the hot spices include ground and crushed chillies, chilli powder (which is usually a blend of chillies and other spices), cayenne (ground from red chilli peppers) which is very strong and so should be used sparingly, and paprika (made from sweet peppers and very mild). Be careful to avoid contact with your eyes when using these spices because they can sting.

cayenne pepper

Peppercorns are a hot spice with a more aromatic flavour. Black, white, green, and pink varieties are available. If sold together, they are known as tropical or mixed peppercorns.

Fragrant spices

Spices such as allspice, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, mace, juniper and nutmeg add a pungent, sweet note to all kinds of dishes, both sweet and savoury. Most can be used whole or ground, and they are usually added at the beginning of cooking so that their flavour and perfume can permeate and enhance the dish.

spices fragrant

Colouring spices

A dish can be coloured as well as flavoured by a spice. Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, but only a pinch is needed to give a dish such as paella a vibrant yellow colour. Turmeric is often used as an alternative and gives a rich yellow hue to many Indian dishes. The dark red colour of goulash and chorizo sausages comes from paprika.


Cooking with spices

Because spices need time to release their aromas and flavours, they are usually added near the start of the cooking.

If the cooking process is prolonged, spices that are whole, cracked or bruised are normally used rather than ground spices, which could become bitter. Large spices, such as cinnamon sticks and cloves, are best removed before serving.

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In Oriental cooking, whole spices are toasted in a heavy frying pan until they smell aromatic, then ground. Toasting or warming in this way brings out the flavour of most spices, particularly if they are to be used in a dish that is cooked for only a short time. When toasting whole spices, cook them over a low heat because they scorch easily. Use oil to prevent ground spices to scorching.