Herbs and spices are an integral part of most ethnic cuisines. Rather than being an afterthought they are often the central themes of a dish around which various meats and vegetables are paired. The specific combinations of spices and herbs used by a particular culture are often key markers of those cultures, defining both their culinary habits and the particular climates in which they have emerged. There is more to spices than salt and pepper, however. The vast array of herbs and spices ranging from A to Z are almost endless and learning how to use and store these herbs and spices is critical to mastering the art of cooking.
Most spices and dried herbs have a shelf life of approximately six months after which they lose most of their flavor. In general, it is recommended that these be thrown away and replaced with a fresh batch of spices. Fresh herbs can generally last for a week if stored properly. There are two theories to how herbs can be stored. One is that you can place them in a cup of water and keep them on the counter away from direct sunlight which can bruise or damage the delicate leaves of some herbs. Another good method to lengthen the shelf life of fresh herbs is to rinse them gently in water and then wrap them in paper towels. Place the herbs wrapped in the paper towels in a Ziploc baggie and squeeze all the air out of the baggie before sealing. The baggie can then be stored in the refrigerator in the produce drawer.
Another key element to herbs and spices is how to buy them. Certainly most spices are available in most grocery stores in small containers by large national spice distributors who shall remain nameless. However, most of these spices are purchased because they can be bought in bulk and may or may not be of a good quality meaning they may either be old or tainted with other fillers. Spices should be purchased in small quantities from reputable spice purveyors.
A good local source is Austin Parker Natural Foods in Princeton, IL. Another great source for high quality spices is the internet. Many internet sources actually offer spices from particular countries, which is a fantastic way of learning about the specific flavor profiles of various types of cuisine. For example, there is a very noticeable difference between Mexican Cumin and Moroccan or Indian Cumin. The Mexican Cumin is generally smoky and almost spicy in nature. The Moroccan or Indian Cumin is subtle in flavor with an almost toasty flavor profile. Which type of cumin you use will completely changes the taste of a particular dish. Two good internet sources for spices are Penzeys Spices, which can be located at www.penzeys.com and Zamouri Spices, which is a Moroccan import store and has a fantastic collection of spices from all over the world. They are located at www.zamourispices.com.
One final note on herbs, when you can use fresh herbs over dried ones, do so. While the dried ones can certainly lend good flavor to a dish, nothing can substitute the potency and intensity of a fresh sprig of mint or leaf of basil. Most grocery stores do not carry high quality herbs and they are almost prohibitively expensive. Grow your own or go to a farmer’s market where local farmers often have fresh herbs available. Most herbs grow perfectly well in pots as long as they receive enough sunlight and water. No matter where you get your herbs and spices, don’t be shy. Try new flavors. You never know what you might enjoy and you may be surprised at how diverse your palette can become.