Lest we cause this lovely couple any more distress.
In all honesty folks, stale spices and impotent herbs can be found in every kitchen across America. Whether it’s the specialty spice you bought for that one dish to impress your mate or the lifetime supply of dried parsley you bought on your first trip to Smart and Final, we all have skeletons in our spice closet.
It doesn’t have to be this way though! The alternative is much easier and cheaper than you think. Yes, the bulk container of whatever you desire is cheaper by the ounce than the smaller portion, I know, trust me. I have yet to meet anyone besides me who is more passionate about achieving the maximum value from a dollar than my mother, and yes, I’m the guy with my calculator app in the store figuring out price per ounce and slicing through the smokescreen of marketing portions. I’ve been there, its ok, you’re in good company.
The truth is unless you run a commercial kitchen or are simply a cook-a-holic, then you won’t use that bulk herb or spice before it goes stale. The end result is that you’re still wasting up to or even more than half of what you bought. You have to start doubling or tripling how much you use because you can’t taste it anymore or you simply mustard the courage to throw it away and pause for a moment of silence. Oh, yes, that was a pun not a typo. With me the pun is always intended 😉
I can’t help you with the old herbs and spices you already own, there’s no magic spell to revive them. You’re stuck with your own culinary version of the law of diminishing returns. However, there’s hope, there’s light at the end of the funnel! 😉
For me, I buy whole spices only. Period. As for herbs I try to buy only enough to fill my spice jar twice and I only buy from a store that I know has a high turnover on product. International markets are great for this, especially those with a middle-eastern emphasis because the cuisine of that region uses a large variety of spices on a regular basis. The problem is that from source to store, most herbs and spices are already at half-life by the time that they hit the shelves and who knows how long it’s been there before you buy it. Pre ground anything has even less life left to it, but whole spices have a life of a couple years. Whole dehydrated herbs you’re talking months, powders we are talking weeks, only weeks.
The best thing you can do and something that you will immediately notice a difference with is to buy yourself a coffee grinder that you use exclusively for herbs and spices. Something in the $20-30 range is great and will hold up to more rigorous use and even a cheap one will get the job done, but don’t expect to be breaking down cinnamon and nutmeg anytime soon.
This is my favorite light duty model so far. It has volume and speed options as well as a detachable cup for easy cleaning.
My commercial blender
My recommendation is that you grind your herbs and spices fresh for each dish you make and make only a month’s worth of a blend if there’s something you use often. A general guideline is that whole spices will reduce to half their measured volume once ground. I.E. a tablespoon of Allspice berries will become about a ½ Tablespoon once ground. Use your judgement though, the smaller the starting spice is in size the less it will reduce. Black pepper and celery seed don’t reduce by the same ratio, but there are few herbs and spices where a little extra in the recipe would hurt. I’m not here to tell you how to cook or what flavor profile will suit you best, but the freshness and flavor is worth the effort of figuring out.
My point is really that herbs and spices when stored properly, as whole as possible and ground to order, will render the most amount of flavor in your dishes and that’s a profound result that you can taste and appreciate.That brings me to my next point, storage. Glass is better than plastic and ziplock bags are better than opened bags taped shut. That much should be pretty obvious, I hope, but the next step is to vacuum seal. The budget friendly version of this is the Ziplock brand vacuum bags they sell with a hand pump. I’ve had mixed results with these as they often don’t hold as tight of a vacuum seal as you start with, they need to have the air regularly sucked out. It’s annoying, but the end result is fresher herbs and spices that last longer which is what we are after here. If you have the fortune to own a Food Saver powered vacuum machine, especially with the jar vacuum attachment, then you’ve reached Valhalla. The kitchen is at your command!
My next tip is that there’s something to be said for the old school way of doing things. Owning a mortar and pestle is something I never expected to use as much as I actually do now that I have one. If you need something coarsely cracked or simply broken open, this is far more effective than the whirlwind of a grinder. A small amount of spice will grind finer by hand in a mortar than in a coffee mill since there’s not enough weight to keep the spices down by the blades, they just ping pong around the chamber.
Costco, surprisingly, has the best price on a quality stone mortar and pestle set. Only set me back $20 and it’s heavy duty.
Lastly, owning a small mesh screen strainer with a small brush is an essential tool. As you advance in your cooking skills you will learn how ever increasingly important that texture is in a dish. Lumpy gravy or hollandaise anyone? How about a glaze that’s grainy or a meat rub that adds an unwanted crunch to chew on?
Mesh strainers are one of my favorite tools in the kitchen; I have them in all sizes and grades from coarse to fine as well as chinois. I will triple strain sauces progressively like sanding wood with different grits of sandpaper to achieve the perfect melt in your mouth texture. Texture often comes down to how something spreads out across your tongue, evenly or not and whether you are chewing or savoring. With that in mind, I always dump the spice mix I’ve ground in my coffee mill into a mesh strainer and spin my little brush around to yield all of the spice fine enough to fit through. Whatever didn’t pass the test goes into the mill again and after 2-3 passes all is well. Some spices don’t ever completely break up, mostly seeds that have a tough hull like mustard and caraway or anything similar. Don’t stress over throwing away seed hulls, you got what you needed from the spices if you’re diligent.
In conclusion, I truly hope that you all will never buy pre-ground spices again and invest in a coffee mill, mortar/pestle, mesh screen strainer and a pepper grinder as well as accept the challenge of enjoying fresh seasonings. After all, you’re the one who has to eat it, don’t you want it to be great?!