What are the essential store-cupboard spices?
Spices should be fresh, vibrant and zinging with natural flavour
Spice master Arun Kapil of Green Saffron Spices. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Home is where the heart is and the heart of the home will always be the kitchen. Whether you are cooking for yourself, for family, partners or friends, the key to providing delicious, nourishing, healthy meals, day-in day-out, is variety. After all, variety is the spice of life and for me, the whole process of chopping, slicing, frying, roasting, garnishing, presenting and eating, can always be enhanced with a little spice.
Cooking can have such an uplifting effect on mood, and spices can add a real twist and a break from the norm. From the humble beans on toast, with a sprinkle of black pepper, maybe a crack of cumin seeds and even, for the ingredient adventurer, a dollop of tamarind and pomegranate molasses, through to the most opulent of feasts, spice is such a versatile ingredient.
Local produce combined with spice can transform classic dishes. It doesn’t have to all be about Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Korean or Thai food to involve spices. I think of fresh, fragrant spices as an everyday ingredient. Smoky notes, menthol notes, delicate fragrant subtle aromas, sweet tingling and vibrant flavours; they’re all there to be used.
In a locked down world of monochrome seasoning: black pepper, white salt, there has never been a better time to switch it up, get stuck in and enhance your everyday cooking with spices.
What to look for?
Spices should be fresh, vibrant and zinging with natural flavour. Choosing the best and knowing what to look for isn’t always an easy task as we trawl through shops and internet offerings. Go to spice specialists in both cases. Asian shops are likely to have a good choice of fresh spices as they have a higher turnover rate. Search the internet for companies that sell new season spices and blends, ideally those that have been sourced sustainably. When faced with shelves of brightly coloured burrs, pods, fruits and seeds, use your natural senses to check for pungent smell and vibrant colour.
Storage and use
Once you’re happy you’ve hunted down the best supplier, stick to buying whole spices little and often, just as you need them, rather than storing a whole bunch that simply end up getting pushed to the back of your cupboard. Next, keep your spices airtight and out of the light. Don’t store them in a fridge, there’s no need. A cool, dark cupboard is perfect. Finally, keep your spices whole and don’t grind them until you need them. You will notice the flavour difference, and your spices will keep better. Whole spices will keep fairly well for up to six months and powders or blends for three months.
Essential store cupboard spices - and how to use them
Pepper is the king of spices native to India; it was India’s black gold. It is a creeping vine yielding fragrant fruits, peppercorns. Pepper from India’s Kerala plateau and the Malabar coast was traded by the Romans, then the Arab, Venetian and Genoese nations.
Peppercorns contain an impressive list of plant derived chemical compounds that are known to have disease preventing and health promoting properties. Black peppers have been in use since centuries for their anti-inflammatory and anti-flatulent properties. Peppercorns are a good source of many anti-oxidant vitamins such as vitamin C and vitamin A.
How to use it: Pepper can sprinkled on to any savoury dish to add perfume and pleasant background heat. It is great as a light dusting on dark, rich fruits such as plums, figs, cherries, blackberries, raspberries. Try it in your Christmas pudding to back up the heat sensation of the whiskey.
Cinnamon is found in spice blends everywhere from continental Europe to Scandinavia, Africa and the Middle East to North and South America. In the latter area, it’s often coupled with chocolate in both sweet and savoury contexts. We commonly associate the scent with pastries and desserts. In India, it is fried in hot oil or ghee to infuse its heady aromas and flavours.
How to use it: It is most commonly used in many desserts and breads, such as cinnamon buns, poached pears, and apple tarts. However, I find it best with savoury dishes such as lamb and beef and it is wonderful incorporated into yoghurt marinades for chicken. Sprinkle on bananas for your morning bowl of porridge. Try this as a very good deterrent to colds and flu and a good remedy for sore throats – a teaspoon of powdered cinnamon and two tablespoons of honey stirred into a glass of warm water, milk or almond milk.
Coriander fruits, commonly called seeds, are wonderfully warm, citrusy and packed full of nutrients, not least a whole host of vitamins. The aroma fades fast, so as with all spices, I’d recommend grinding to order. Due to its brittle nature, coriander is one of the easiest spices to mill. Dry-roasting or frying in oil takes the wonderful flavours to a whole new level. They’re the key to traditional corned beef and popular in Irish culture to preserve a variety of meats.
How to use it: Sprinkle whole seeds into any potato or vegetable oven bake for a delicious lemony ping and soft crunch texture. Cracked or lightly smashed they’re brilliant in a whole variety of vinaigrettes and dressings. For the more ambitious cooks, they’re excellent candied whole and used to garnish lemon possets, syllabubs and trifles.
The fruits, usually called seeds, can be dry-roasted or fried in oil, butter or ghee to maximise their intensely savoury, earthy, citrus flavour. Cumin forms a major part of much Indian cooking, a constituent part of the ubiquitous garam masala and the Bengali five-spice mixture, panch phoran. Cumin has a high iron content and highly reputed digestive properties. The Hindi for cumin, “jeera” is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “digestive”.
How to use it: It is good with roast lamb dishes, either incorporated in a crust for the meat, or ground and used as part of a marinade. It is an aid to digestion and when stirred into buttermilk with a pinch of salt is a natural hydrating drink. I make a delicious rhubarb crumble incorporating cumin in the crumb and orange zest in the fruit.
Ginger is available in a whole host of forms and is related to turmeric, evidenced by its citrusy warmth and the earthiness the spices share. When powdered, look for a dark beige coloured powder, preferably with tiny fibres, denoting its purity. Stem ginger in syrup bought in glass jars and the crystallised version coated in sugar, can often be inter-changed in most recipes. Sweetly spicy, ginger is well-known for its medicinal qualities, and it is often brewed up with tea, especially in winter. Young ginger is mild and can be pickled. A paste of fresh ginger combined with fresh garlic is a staple ingredient in many Indian kitchens.
How to use it: Ginger has a variety of uses in sweet treats and desserts, such as ginger snaps, speculaas and nankhatai biscuits, parkin, gingerbread and pain d’epice. It adds background heat to sweet dishes. A delicious, quick pickle can be easily made peeling fresh ginger, chopping into julienne strips, adding a little crushed rock salt, lemon or lime juice, fresh green chillies and a little ground cumin. This is perfect with paratha breads, fish or chicken. Powdered ginger is added to many drinks such as mulled wine, lassis, smoothies and milkshakes.
Grown in India, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, this is a truly wonderful spice, proven to have beneficial effects as an anti-rheumatoid, anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogen ingredient. The orange-golden hue of both fresh and dried is simply beautiful, although it can cause rather stubborn stains. Although the colour is similar to saffron, the flavour most certainly is not. Its bitter astringency means it needs to be thoroughly cooked out, usually in hot oil, and used in small quantities. Used correctly, it imparts an earthy background note essential to correctly round out the flavours in many Indian dishes.
How to use it: Sprinkle powdered turmeric over any vegetables when roasting them in the oven. Blitz fresh turmeric root into all types of pastes and marinades for fish, lamb and beef. Turmeric is related to ginger so can be used in the same dishes. It has similar flavour properties, but whereas ginger is perceived as sweet, turmeric is astringent, almost bitter. As such, turmeric should be used in sparing amounts to balance sweetness and richness in dishes
Grown in middle Asia, Afghanistan, Iran and mainly India, this oleoresin gum is tapped from the root of the ferula plant. Reputed to have excellent digestive and anti-flatulence properties, this spice tends to be used extensively in lentil-based dishes, imparting a really deep garlicky, onion fragrance and flavour.
How to use it: Grind it and use very, very sparingly in lentil dishes. It can be a substitute for garlic and onions. I use it in risottos. Used with care, it’s also good when added to fruity cordials.