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Decode Your Spice Rack

No, they're not just for decoration. Study the basics and put 'em to good use in your next culinary creation.

It seems every real adult has a spice rack. Okay, so what is cumin and what do I use it for? Indian food? Will I ever actually make Indian food? And paprika - was that specifically invented for deviled eggs? Oh, and is mace the same thing that cops use to take down shoplifters - like, could I make my own mace using... mace?

So many questions. Here are some answers.


The Unusual Suspects

There are a few spices that everyone has and no one really knows how to use. Until now.

Cumin

Probably one of the most underappreciated spices in your cupboard. Why? Because even though it’s only native to one location on Earth (The Nile River Valley of Egypt) it's grown and used in cuisines from Mexico to the US to India to Malaysia for its rich, earthy, smoky flavor.

Add a dash to any recipe that you think could use that kind of savory flavor, but be careful to use just a bit. It packs a very big punch.

Cloves

These are actually unopened flower buds from an evergreen tree found primarily in Southeast Asia. Cloves are pretty easy to use: just pop them in whatever you want to add a warm, aromatic sweetness to.

They mix well with fruits (think pies and spiced ciders or punches) and slow-cooked meat (try pushing them into your next ham or roast). Just make sure you can easily remove them once the cooking's done if you're using whole ones, otherwise stick to the ground stuff.

Paprika

There's a decent chance this stuff is only used because it’s bright red. Well, not really, but it wouldn’t be too far fetched to think that. Unless paprika is heated (especially in oil), it doesn't taste like much, so odds are that it added a nice color to dishes you've had it in but didn't contribute much flavor.

So if you're using it, add a few dashes to a splash of oil or pat of butter in a frying pan and heat before using. And keep in mind that there are a bunch of different varieties, made from different chili peppers in different parts of the world. If you to be adventurous, try smoked paprika (or pimentón); it’s a Spanish paprika made from chiles dried over wood fires instead of in the sun.

Pro Tip : To maintain a spice's potency, buy 'em whole and grind into powder yourself with a mortar and pestle when you need to use some. The extra effort gives you a much brighter burst of flavor.


Fresh vs. Dried

Dried spices and herbs are usually less expensive, but fresh are . . . fresher. Dried spices tend to lose their flavor rather quickly. Okay, so the rule of thumb here is: if your dish is going to cook for a while, dried spices work well. Their flavor is concentrated, and if they are going to simmer in the juices of whatever you’re making, they have a chance to rehydrate, come alive, and mix with everything else. But, if we’re talking about a dish where that’s not going to happen, like, say, basil in an omelette or cilantro in a taco, go fresh.

Pro Tip : If you’re substituting dried herbs or spices for fresh, remember that they are way more concentrated. Use 1/3 the amount of dry spices that you’re told to use fresh.


Don’t forget salt

Remember, salt is a spice too. In fact, many chefs say salt is the most underused spice in home cooking. Salt suppresses bitterness, amplifies sweetness, and enhances food aroma. So, don’t be afraid to add salt to what you’re cooking, and buy the good stuff like Maldon flaked salt or grocery store kosher salt, which has much larger flakes to lend better texture and higher quality flavor. But we’re not responsible for whatever your doctor says about your sodium levels.


Oh, and mace -- you didn’t think we were going to bring this up then just leave it, did you? No, you can’t make mace with mace. One is from the same plant as nutmeg and is delicious in stews. One is an aerosol tear gas invented in 1965. We’ll let you figure out which is which.

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