Turmeric, Native to Kerala (Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)
A few years ago, I attended a book signing on the history of Indian cooking. The author passed around a half-filled jar of commercially produced spice powder that she had pulled from her cupboard. When it reached me, I scanned the list of ten or so ingredients. Then I instinctively twisted off the lid and sniffed the contents. My nose picked up the faint scent of coriander and cloves. The others spices had been rendered impotent, and as far as I could tell, the mix would do little to lure anyone to the table.
It's widely agreed that the tastiest dishes are produced with the best ingredients. The tenant has helped spark the growth of farmer's markets which offer plump tomatoes and vibrant greens. Truth is that the same rule applies to spices. If you want to impart the floral flavor of cardamom in a dish, for example, you need to start with a jar that radiates its alluring aroma. Below are tips I've learned over the years to find the freshest, most flavor-packed spices.
Nutmeg, Kumily Market (Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)
Shop at stores with a high turn over - Spices lose their potency the longer they sit on the shelf. High traffic ethnic food stores tend to supply fresh spices, and there are plenty of them in Chicago. Also shop at specialty stores like The Spice House that bank their reputation on the quality of their spices.
Rely on your nose and your other senses - Always involve you nose when sleuthing for fresh spices. Sniff packaged spices and hover over spice bins.
Purchase whole spices whenever possible - My mom is 70+ and hates spending time in the kitchen. But she buys most of her spices whole and grinds them in a coffee mill. Few pre-ground spices meet her expectations because they lose their essential oils so rapidly. The flavors of ground cumin and ground cardamom (the third most expensive spice) are particularly fleeting.
Fenugreek, Kumily Market (Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)
Scrutinize bulk bins - Bulk spice bins may offer lower prices, but it's often hard to assess how often they're emptied. Always make sure that their lids are airtight and, that they are stored away from strong lights and other heat sources.
Scrutinize spice rubs and spice mixes - The labels on spices rubs can be very alluring, but always focus on the ingredient list. All too often, they feature low cost fillers (listed first), such as salt or cornstarch. No one should pay a premium for either item and few of us want sodium masked in our diet.
Beware of unusually low prices - My siblings and I love the adage, "You get what you pay for." Keep in mind that it applies to spices. If you come across high cost ingredients, such as saffron or cardamom, at bargain prices, you're likely getting bamboozled.