Sunday, April 10, 2011

Storing and Grinding Spices

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

In our last conversation, I shared tips to help you find full-flavored spices. In this post, I'll share insights I've learned from family and friends on storing and preparing spices.

Air, moisture, and light all cause the essential oils in spices to degrade and their flavors to fade, like a hosta in the hot sun. To preserve the earthy smell of cumin, the citrus notes in coriander, and the honey-ish undertones in saffron, follow these simple steps:

- Store your spices in airtight containers. You really don't need to buy swanky bottles. All the cooks in my family store spices in recycled jars that once held jam or pickled vegetables or condiments. Be sure to air out jars that once held vinegar and other feisty ingredients. My mom insists that labels on old jars be removed and, readily institutes that policy when she visits me. I think the labels gives the jars character, and prefer to leave them on. Potato, poe-tah-toe.

- If you buy spice jars, select glass or ceramic containers instead of metal ones, which can leave an off-flavor on spices. Make sure that the lids are airtight. Some of the sexy looking cork lids are not.

- Keep spices in a cool, dark place like a pantry or a drawer. Try not to store them near the stove as heat strips spices of their essential oils. Also, avoid storing spices in the refrigerator. It exposes them to humidity, which also saps their flavor.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

Now a little about grinding spices.

First and foremost, invest in a pepper mill. Please no ifs, ands, or buts. Using pre-ground pepper (that's been sitting on the shelf for who knows how long) is like eating a glorious meal with a stuffed nose. Freshly cracked pepper, on the other hand, brings a warm, lemony pleasure to eggs, soup, and other everyday dishes. You will be amazed how much using a pepper mill pleases your taste buds.

During my recent trip to India, I watched my aunt's cook Shantha blend spices under the weight of a heavy stone rolling pin that she ran across a black stone tablet. Once a common fixture in Kerala kitchens, the stone grinders are steadily being replaced with (much less cardio intensive) electric coffee grinders. The last time my parent's visited Kerala, I bought four Brauns on Devon Avenue for them to present as gifts. (Curiously, the closer I stepped to the exit, the lower their price fell.)

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

Some insist on grinding spices with a mortar and pestle, but I grew up with the ever-present buzz of a coffee grinder. Coffee grinders produce a finer powder and incorporate spice mixes more thoroughly than a mortar and pestle. Opt for a mortar and pestle if you are blending spices with fresh ingredients, including herbs. Use a mortar with a porous base so spices and herbs don't slide around as you try to crush them.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

To purge your coffee grinder of lingering aromas, pulverize a few grains of uncooked rice in it between uses. You can also whirl around pieces of bread.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

Many fall desserts call for the warm flavor of nutmeg. If a recipes calls for a small quantity of the potent spice, use a micro grater (or the smallest hole of your box grater) to prepare it. Store the rest of the seed in a airtight container for your next sauce or pumpkin pie.

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