What You Need
Grinder (mortar and pestle, coffee grinder, spice grinder)
• Buying. In general, we recommend buying whole spices and grinding them as needed because ground spices lose their flavor more quickly. We like buying spices from bulk, as they're cheaper per ounce and you can buy just the amount you need. Ethnic markets also tend to have good prices, although the spices may be sold in large quantities (good if you use a lot of a certain spice, but not so good if it will end up going stale). Penzeys Spices is a high quality mail order source.
• Storing. Store spices in airtight containers away from heat, moisture, and light, which can cause them to deteriorate. Label containers with the date of purchase and check for freshness every 6-12 months.
• Toasting. Before grinding or otherwise using whole spices, boost the flavor by toasting them in a skillet over medium heat until fragrant.
• Grinding. For maximum flavor, grind spices just before use. Spices may be ground with a mortar and pestle, coffee grinder, or dedicated spice mill. (Process a small amount of rice in the grinder to clean it after use.)
• Cooking. Unless your recipe specifically calls for a larger quantity or variety of spices, start with a small pinch and no more than two or three different spices. For short-cooking dishes, add spices early in the cooking process (often cooked in some fat or oil before adding other ingredients). For longer-cooking dishes, add spices within an hour of serving so the flavor does not get too overpowering. For sauces and stews, whole spices may be tied in a cheesecloth bag for easy removal.
• Learning. The best way to become comfortable with spices is to practice. Get a feel for different spices by adding them to your favorite dishes. Use your senses: taste your dish, then smell your spices and consider which one(s) might complement it. Think about whether a particular spice would add heat, spice, sweetness, or pungency. Add just a little at first, and then taste again.
You can also learn by studying the different spice combinations in ethnic recipes and cuisines such as Italian, Asian, and Indian. Experiment with these combinations, or invent new ones. When we're experimenting with spices, we often like to try them in simple dishes like roasted chickpeas, roasted almonds, and popcorn.
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(Images: Devesh and Tara's Spice Pantry by Sabra Krock of Cookbook Catchall, Spice Station by Emily Ho, Faith Durand, Flickr member podchef licensed under Creative Commons, Flickr member gifrancis licensed under Creative Commons, Faith Durand)