Throughout human history, spices have been revered not just for their taste, but also for their perceived alchemical powers. Ancient Egyptians believed that spices offered a spiritual connection to the gods, while in the 1500s, Europeans' lust for nutmeg and its purported medicinal properties helped incite The Spice Wars.
But even though today's natural health devotees may swear by turmeric as an anti-inflammatory or extoll ginger as a digestive aid, for most of us, spices have lost their mystery. These commodities, once rare and precious, are now readily available at the corner grocery, numbing consumers to issues of quality and care.
We spoke with three purveyors of high-end spices who are passionate about helping cooks rediscover the magic. We asked them to share their top mistakes to avoid to inspire you to up your spice game.
1. Don't be fooled by appearances.
That advice comes from Peter Bahlawanian, owner of Spice Station in Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood, named one of the world's best spice shops by Food & Wine magazine.
Just because a spice looks good, doesn't mean it tastes good. And, Bahlawanian says, "A spice should taste good. [It] should add to the flavor of the dish." So how do you know if a spice tastes good? "Smell your spice before you buy it. Your nose is always your guide."
2. Don't buy more than you need.
Amanda Bevill, owner of World Spice Merchants in Seattle, claims that her company is on a "spice crusade," urging consumers to embrace freshness. "Quality and freshness is the cornerstone of our business," she explains.
That's why World Spice refuses to provide discounts on bulk purchases, even to its wholesale customers. Bevill suggests buying only what you can use in the short term and then replenish as needed.
3. Don't store your spices above the stove.
Ben Walters, owner of North Market Spices in Columbus, Ohio, spends a lot of time educating patrons about the importance of proper spice storage. Exposure to air, light, moisture and heat will quickly degrade even the highest-quality seasonings, making the shelf above your range a definite no-go.
"Heat and light won't really hurt your salt," he admits, but everything else belongs in a cool, dark place.