I Have a Mortar and Pestle, But Nothing to Grind. Which Whole Spices Should I Buy?

Liveblogging The Kitchn Cure Fall 2013

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Day 5 Task: Restock ingredients

I knew what I wanted to do for this task right from the start. Since moving, my mortar and pestle has sat, unused and sad-looking, on my pantry shelf. Well, ok. If I'm being totally honest, it sat, unused and sad-looking, in my old apartment, too. I know that freshly ground spices are on a totally different planet than their pre-ground counterparts. For awhile I lived near a food co-op and got little bags of freshly ground spices when I needed them, but now I need to bring all that work back in-house. I need to buy a few whole spices. I need some spice advice.

Ok, first of all, let's talk about mortar and pestles. Mine is a basic ceramic mortar and pestle, unglazed on the inside. I bought it two years ago after thinking about getting one for awhile. I've also considered getting a small coffee grinder to deal with larger amounts of spices, but as Emma pointed out, mortar and pestles are easier to clean than a grinder, and for the amount of spice I'm likely to be grinding at one time, I think the mortar and pestle will do. They're also great for smashing chiles and garlic.

Speaking of cleaning, did you know you never want to use soap when you clean out a mortar and pestle? The soap could leave a residue and give you soapy-tasting spices. Instead just brush it out, rinse it, and let it air dry.

To complete today's task, I plan to take a trip to a spice shop this weekend to pick up a few whole spices. Part of the fun of visiting a spice shop is to see what catches your eye, but I also want to thoroughly stock my spice cupboard to be ready for almost anything.

To that end, I asked Faith, Emma, and Sara Kate what whole spices they like to keep in their kitchens. Here's their combined list of recommendations, of which there was a lot of overlap. It's a great starting point for anyone looking to buy whole spices:

  • Anise seed
  • Cardamom pods (green and black)
  • Celery seed
  • Cinnamon sticks
  • Cloves
  • Coriander seed
  • Cumin seed
  • Fennel seed
  • Mustard seed
  • Nutmeg (Faith has her own nutmeg grinder, actually!)
  • Peppercorns (black and Sichuan)
  • Star anise

The other advantage of buying whole spices is that they last forever as long as you store them correctly. John Beaver of Oaktown Spice Shop in Oakland tells us in this Expert Interview the best way to store whole spices is away from heat and sunlight, and in a glass container, ideally dark amber. (Plastic is too porous.) If you can't get a dark amber glass, then at least store your spices in a drawer or cabinet and as far away from the stove as possible.

So, I have a starting list above, but I want to know: what whole spices do you keep in your kitchen? What are your top whole spice picks, the ones you think no kitchen should be without?

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