Archive for June 2nd, 2009

Storing Culinary Herbs and Spices

Sharon June 2nd, 2009

My friend Pat Meadows once pointed out that American cookbooks suffer badly from what she calls the “1/4 teaspoon” problem.  That is, many of them call for such tiny quantities of herbs and spices that they are almost unnoticeable. 1/4 teaspoon of oregano in a pot of tomato sauce is, simply speaking, lost.  The only seasoning you could add to a decent sized pot of tomato sauce that you’d notice at the 1/4 tsp level is arsenic ;-) .   This habit of underseasoning is a legacy of America’s British heritage (British cookbooks are worse, actually), and the tendency towards blandness that some species of American food have suffered from. 

It also comes from the fact that seasoning for a long time was assumed to be intuitive.  Most old cookbooks simply say “add sweet herbs” or “to taste.”  But I can’t count the number of times I’ve put “to taste” in a recipe, only to receive 30 emails asking me how much I really mean ;-) .  We like quantities, we like precision – we like to be told how things are supposed to taste.  And if you look at many (not all, and things are getting better) cookbooks, things are supposted to, well, taste pretty bland.

Perhaps because my family’s favorite culinary cultures are Asian, we use herbs and spices in large quantities – I buy them in bulk at ethnic grocery stores, or order them in bulk from various suppliers (more on this later in the post).  And, of course, I grow them.  Besides the usual American culinary herbs - parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…plus oregano, mint, chives and basil, we grow a lot of others, including a range of Vietnamese herbs (Vap Ca, Rau ram, Rau om), variations on the classic themes (orange, lemon and nutmeg thymes, zaatar (an oregano), pineapple sage, african, cinnamon, holy, lemon and other basils), and less common culinary herbs (fennel, lovage, sweet cicely, lemon and lime balm, savories, salad burnet…you get the idea) 

 For most of us, as we adapt our diets to food storage, spices and herbs are going to be more important, and in simply much larger quantities than most Americans use them.  Most cultures that have relied heavily on staple foods season those foods heavily, either directly, or by using spiced and herbal condiments (I’ve written more on the value of condiments here

And that means adding spices and herbs to our food storage, and preserving/storing them correctly.  The first thing to know is the good news – most spices, provided that they are fair traded, are a good thing to buy from far away – so if you don’t live where cassia trees or vanilla orchids grow, you don’t have to worry much about using cinnamon or vanilla beans – things that are shipped in dry form, and used in comparatively small quantities (even if it is more than 1/4 tsp at a time ;-) ) are a good use of shipping. 

The best way to store spices is in their whole form, grinding them as you need them, or in small batches not kept more than 1 year.  In some cases, you may never have met whole spices before – a nutmeg, mace or true cinnamon bark is something unusual.  You will need a way to grind them – you can use a mortar, although this is quite a bit of work, or a mexican style metate (this is a bit easier, since it is rougher, but some spices do get caught in the stone and are hard to capture for eating), as long as there is power, an electric coffee grinder (don’t cross-use it with coffee, unless you like spice flavored coffee and coffee flavored spice) or a manual coffee grinder (this is what I use). 

 If you must buy ground spices, replace them every year, or keep them in the freezer for up to three years - use your nose – something that has little smell is not worth keeping.  If it has faded, you can use more, but it can be a losing proposition – you lose complexity as well as flavor over time. 

The best way to use most herbs, of course, is fresh, and chopping a few handfulls of them into food is a delight.  Depending on how much of each herb you use, a window box may be enough, or you may need a good sized herb bed.  If you live in a cold climate, you can often bring many culinary herbs inside for the winter – look for varieties suited to pot culture, and adapt them gradually – the dryness of indoor air can be a killer.  I find that basil simply doesn’t overwinter well for me, while rosemary, thyme, parsley and others do fine.  You’ll need to experiment.  Some herbs, like sage, which is at its best in the autumn anyway, will winter over with cover in even very cold places, keeping some green leaves to be harvested even in February.

If you are going to dry your herbs, you want to do so at comparatively low temperatures, away from direct light, in bundles of stem no thicker than a pencil (so that mold doesn’t form) and where there is good air circulation – I hang them in my kitchen, but you may have a better place.  Don’t hang them anywhere that gets to temperatures higher than 100 degrees.  When the herbs are dry, rub them off the stems, and store them in airtight containers away from light.

If you are growing spices (and all of us can grow some spices - I grow cayenne and other hot peppers, poppy seed, cumin seed, coriander seed, dill seed, mustard, fennel seed and celery seed), you will want to wait until the plants are ripe and, if your seasoning is the seed, wait until the seed is dry, winnow and clean the seed, and then store in a cool dark place in airtight jars.  Grind them as close to when you use them as possible for best flavor.  Or, use them whole, and “pop” them in a hot dry skillet to toast.

For chili peppers and garlic, you may need to actually dehydrate them in a solar or electric dehydrator, depending on your climate.  Some will dry right on the vine, even in my climate, but meatier peppers probably need a stint in the dehydrator.  A blender is a great tool for pureeing a bunch of chili peppers or dried garlic into powder (do remember to put the lid on – you do not want to inhale a big breath of chili peppers being blended – ask me how I know this ;-) ).

Another option for your herbs is tincturing in alcohol or vinegar.  We tend not to think of tinctures in association with culinary herbs, but with medicinals, but in fact, many culinary herbs and spices are used in tincture form – vanilla is a tincture of vanilla bean, for example.  Mint extract is a tincture of mint leaves, often in brandy.  Vinegars flavored with herbs make wonderful salad dressings, and are a form of tincture.  The advantage of tinctures is that they keep forever, and are truly essence of herb.  The downside is, of course, that they contain alcohol or vinegar, and taste of it, but small quantities, they flavor baked goods, pudding and other recipes.  I’ve been experimenting with tinctures of other herbs and some of them are excellent – tincture of rosemary, for example, is just delicious in baked goods. I love salad burnet in vinegar – the cucumbery taste goes perfectly with vinegars.

To make a tincture, take fresh or dried herb or spices, and cover them with either vinegar or 80 proof alcohol – vodka or brandy are traditional.  If the spices are whole, chop them up a bit so that the full value permeates the menstruum (a fancy word for “booze” or “vinegar” ;-) ) Leave for two weeks at room temperature (you can put the alcohol tinctures in the sun, but not the vinegar ones), and macerate the material.  Taste occasionally, when when the strength you want, strain out any plant material you don’t want.  We just leave our vanilla beans in the alcohol when making vanilla, but find that spearmint gets too intense after a while.

Finally, there are a few herbs that don’t preserve well most ways – basil, parsley, dill, cilantro.  These preserve best as frozen pestos – or if not pesto, mixed with oil.  Simply freezing these herbs doesn’t really fully capture their taste, and often results in offputting textural and color changes (basil turns black, for example) – but if you mix them with oil (or add cheese, nuts and garlic to make a pesto – and all of them make good pestos, btw), they freeze beautifully.  We put up a lot of basil puree – it is one of the best reasons for a freezer, IMHO.

The reality of food storage is that it depends heavily on the quality of your cooking – and the quality of one’s cooking depends on wise use of the wonderful and intensely flavored gifts of herbs and spices – so if you believe you may ever have to rely on it, you will want a good supply of these.

The cheapest source for quantities of seasonings is probably an ethnic grocery store near you - people from India, Asia and Latin America use a lot more seasonings in their cooking than most Americans do, and they sell spices in large quantities, and whole -  my local Indian grocer sells cumin, coriander and mustard seeds in 1lb quanties for only a couple of dollars. This isn’t always the most ethical way to get them, but it is inexpensive.

Although they are not all fair trade by any means, the best tasting spices I’ve ever had in my life come from  They aren’t cheap, but bought in bulk, the prices are reasonable for many things, and the taste is terrific.

Fair traded spices are available from (they also sell herbs and teas) and frontier bulk goods

What if you’ve been using 1/4 teaspoon of oregano, and want to add more spice to your life?  Well, the best way to do it is to just do it – google around, try some new recipes, double the quantities of garlic, turmeric or ginger in your recipes (or maybe add just a little more at a time, depending on how adventurous you are) – like everything it takes practice.