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A few common spices can transform your meal into a luau or a fiesta. There are so many different spices available that it can be daunting for most of us. The great thing is that you don't have to learn everything all at once! In this article, we're going to discuss a few common spices and outline a simple plan to expand your palette and finally we'll give you a great suggestion about where to find some of the best spices in the world (yes, it does matter).
Even the most basic of kitchens will have salt and pepper. Salt, while not a spice, is as essential to cooking as is heat. It can effect the color, texture, cooking time, tenderness and, of course, flavor of our foods. There is nothing more basic, yet, there are still multiple varieties of salt. Table salt typically has iodine added as well as small amounts of additives to prevent caking, improve flow and maintain freshness. There is also sea salt and Kosher salts which have much larger grains and no additives. They provide different properties and qualities though they remain sodium chloride. Try using some Kosher salt, you will quickly learn when it can provide a benefit.
A whole book can be written on pepper, actually several have been. For our purposes, today, we're going to ignore hot peppers and chilies and other exotic peppers. What we commonly call black pepper is the single most common and important spice in the world. It is used in every culture. There are many varieties of colors available and each offers a different flavor profile. My first recommendation to new cooks is to get several and incorporate them into your cooking. What a difference. Most of our pepper comes from India, but china and many other countries offer uniques flavaors as well. There are green, white, pink and other colors and most come in a variety of grinds. The most important advice I can give to anyone is to get a pepper grinder for your table and some FRESH peppercorns. It tastes like a completely different product from the can in the grocery store.
I love Italian food so oregano and basil are staples. I don't like to garden, that's for someone else, but I invested $5 in one plant each and put them in a pot on my deck. Now I can pick a few leaves whenever I need them and all it requires is a bit of water on occassion. Mexican oregano is slightly 'spicer' and certainly worth a try. I love fennel and anise! They provide the flavors that turn regular sausage into Italian sausage. It's great in so many things.
The best way to learn about spices is to use them. If you resolve to use one new spice each month, you will be amazed at how quickly your expertise will expand. Use your 'spice of the month' in several dishes throughout the month. Go all in and make some of those dishes things you've never done before. You will expand your spice knowledge and your skill set at the same time.
Finally, I have two very important tips for you. The first is to get a cheap, electric coffee grinder to use only for spices. These can usually be purchased for $9.99. Once spices are ground, they start loosing their flavor. Get seeds and whole spices when possible and grind them just before use. It takes only seconds, but it makes all the difference in the world.
My other tip is just as important. Find a great place to get your spices, hint: Kroger and Walmat is not the answer! The spices at the grocery store have spent unknown months sitting in warehouses in various stages of production then in the grocery storage before sitting on the shelf waiting to be purchased. The day you buy them they are already old and have lost much of the original flavor. Buy small quantities of all but your most frequently used spices, they get old sitting on your shelf too.
I buy my spices from Penzey's ( www.penzeys.com ). This is a well know family run company that really knows about spices. They keep their spices fresh and you can purchase various quantities of each item. They have a huge selection and offer tips for using them. My first purchase from Penzey's was a bag of black pepper. The second I opened the bag I knew this was something special. I had literally never known that pepper should have that much flavor. Something as simple as using fresh spices can transform your cooking to another level.
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