John began his education in high school when he got a job at The Spice House in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. (The Spice House was owned and operated by the parents of the Penzey's people.) He worked there on and off for several years before settling in Oakland, California where he noticed that despite the presence of a vibrant and active food culture, there wasn't a spice shop as good as the one he knew so well in Wisconsin. So last year he opened Oaktown Spice Shop along the shores of Oakland's Lake Merritt and it has quickly become the place for serious cooks and newbies alike to find the freshest and most interesting herbs and spice.
Like The Spice House, Oaktown Spice Shop is an amazing, magical store dedicated to selling the most fragrant and freshest dried herbs and spices available. The walls are lined with shelves of large glass apothecary jars, arranged by type: herbs, baking spices, seeds, blends, chilies, etc. Everyday John puts on a tie and an apron and goes to work ordering and grinding, unpacking and measuring over 100 kinds of herbs and spices, all the while answering questions from his growing clientele who, like me, return over and over again.
John believes the key to the success of his shop is that his herbs and spices are so fresh. Many of the larger companies will grind huge batches of spices to stock their supplies for an entire year, he cautions. So it's possible that the cinnamon you buy in that plastic container in the grocery store is already several months old. In John's shop, the spices are very fresh and turn over quickly. People come back and tell him that they actually use less in some of their recipes because of their robust flavor.
John's 5 Essentials for the Home Cook, the Spice Edition
1. Whole spices are (almost always) better. Whenever possible, purchase your spices whole and grind them as you need them. This will produce the strongest, most fragrant flavors as exposure to air and sunlight weakens the spice. That said, some spices are too hard or fibrous to grind into a fine powder and are best purchased preground, such as cinnamon, coriander and even cumin. You can grind them at home but if you want a really fine powder, you will probably have to sieve the mixture, says John, which can result in significant loss.
2. On grinding. John endorses having a dedicated coffee grinder for grinding spices at home. He has also had success with the flour mill attachment to the KitchenAid stand mixer and the king of grinders is the Vitamix, especially if you are working in larger quantities. But he is also a fan of the more unplugged approach. A mortar and pestle is a great way to go, he says, as well as simply chopping them on a board with a good chef's knife (as long as they're not round spices!).
3. Freshness. Freshness is essential. Purchase your herbs and spices in small quantities from a reliable source and store them away from heat and sunlight. Plastic is too porous, so John recommends glass containers which will keep your herbs and spices protected. Dark amber glass is ideal but as the very least store them in glass and in a drawer or cabinet as far away from the stove as possible.
4. Toasting, drying, and blooming. Many chefs recommend toasting spices in a dry pan over low heat. This opens up the flavor and adds a little nuttiness although you have to be careful not to scorch them. Use low heat and stay with them, immediately dumping them out of the pan when you can smell their toastiness. Some cuisines, such as making an Indian sambal, recommend that you simply dry them this way, and avoid toasting them. In both cases, this method also crisps the herbs and spices, making them easier to grind.
Another method is to bloom the spices in oil. This simply means to sauté them gently in oil until their fragrance blooms, or is released. Oil brings out a different quality in spices, says John. Think of the difference between adding cayenne to a broth as opposed to an oil. In the broth it is sharp but in the oil it is smoothed out and more aromatic.
5. Don't be afraid! John is a big proponent of exploring unfamiliar herbs and spices or using them in unfamiliar or nontraditional ways. Don't be afraid and don't worry about tradition, he advises. Use 5-spice powder in your oatmeal or rub a rib roast with preserved limes. Use you imagination and experiment. Pay attention when you go out to eat. The Chinese make a fantastic lamb with cumin, yet we never think of cumin as being a Chinese spice.
But what is John's favorite spice? Black pepper! But also chili and cumin. His favorite blend from Oaktown Spice Shop is the Better Than Everything Bagel Blend which takes the concept of the Everything Bagel (sesame, poppy, onion, garlic, and salt) to a whole new level by using celtic grey salt and adding black pepper, fennel, rosemary, smoked salt, dill seed and brown mustard in addition to the classic garlic and onion.
Thank you, John!
(Images: Dana Velden)