Spice blends. Simply put, I don’t use them. I much prefer to make my own combinations instead of relying on commercial blends for chili, curry, pie, and so on.
Here are my spice racks. They hold, in theory, the spices I use most often. I also have two 2-liter size plastic bins in my pantry, both of them stuffed with esoteric spices. And then there’s half a shelf of jars, too, filled with spices bought in bulk at Asian, Indian, and Latin shops. I’m not saying you need to devote as much of your precious kitchen space to spice storage as I do – for one thing, if I had a spice grinder I could stop keeping stuff like cinnamon and coriander in both whole and powdered form – but it’s worth stocking a few basic spices, which can then be combined in any number of ways.
This post is inspired by a good friend of mine who recently spent the better part of the day scouring American stores in Paris in hopes of finding a jar of McCormick’s chili powder. (They do make chili powder in France, but too often it inexplicably contains curry spices, which is just plain weird.) I tried to convince her that spicing chili was not all that complicated given ground chilis, cumin, and some fresh garlic, but she remained unsure. It got me to thinking that I really don’t buy pre-blended spices at all (I make an exception for garam masala, though when my current stash runs out, I probably won’t buy more, instead mixing up my own), and haven’t for quite some time.
I’ve always been fascinated with spices. As a child, I used to peruse the row of Spice Islands jars my parents kept lined up on the kitchen counter, imagining the myriad of magical flavor combinations within. When I started cooking a little for myself (mostly eggs and ramen, often together) I would pick and choose my favorites to add to my concoctions, in hopes that I might discover some heretofore unknown deliciousness. Doubtless I killed more than one plate of scrambled eggs with one too many dashes of Old Hickory Smoked Salt, but I did learn that thyme and eggs were wonderful together. That seasoning the ramen broth myself with soy sauce and garlic powder was way better than that mystery spice packet. That if you’re cooking taco meat, and you’re out of taco seasoning, you can read the ingredients on the burrito seasoning (which you obviously can’t use directly, because it was for burritos) and approximate what might be in that taco seasoning.
My comfort level with individual spices, then, has been a long process. I don’t expect everyone to be able to do it overnight, so here are a few guidelines for some common spice blends. I’ll list the ingredients from most to least prominent, and leave it up to you to determine which ratios work best for you. I also recommend, instead of mixing the spices first and adding them all at once, to add each spice to the dish individually and taste as you go. If you’re the meticulous type, you can keep detailed notes of what you’ve added, or take the more organic route, winging it as you go. And don’t forget the salt.
Chili Powder: ground chilis (I tend to keep several varieties around, and use them in combination), fresh chilis, fresh garlic or garlic powder, ground cumin, dried oregano or thyme. Optional: cinnamon, epazote, cloves, cocoa powder.
Curry Powder: (the big ones): ground turmeric, black and white pepper, cardamom, cumin, coriander seed, cinnamon, ground or fresh ginger; (use in lesser quantities): cloves, cayenne, mace or nutmeg, fennel seed, bay leaf, fenugreek, mustard seeds, asafoetida.
Apple Pie Spice: ground cinnamon, nutmeg, ground ginger, ground cloves, maybe allspice.
Pumpkin Pie Spice: ground cinnamon, ground ginger, nutmeg, ground cloves. Optional: allspice, black pepper.
Pickling Spice: (use whole) mustard seed, coriander seed, chili flake, fresh garlic, bay leaf, fresh dill or parsley.
Mulling Spices: (for cider or wine, use whole) cinnamon, cloves, allspice, star anise, orange peel, black peppercorns.
Old Bay Seasoning: celery seed, paprika, black pepper, cayenne, bay leaf, mustard powder, ground allspice, ground mace.
Seasoned Salt: (in addition to the salt) fresh garlic or garlic powder, celery seed, onion powder (or just put onions in whatever you’re cooking), paprika, white pepper, turmeric.
Lemon Pepper: (this one should be obvious) lemon zest, black pepper.
Whole spices, toasted and then ground, will offer the biggest flavor, but pre-ground are fine, too (except for nutmeg, which you should always grate fresh).
If I’ve left out your favorite spice blend, let me know in the comments, and I’ll do my best to help you out.
On this day in 2010: Worthwhile French Beers: Val’Aisne Blonde
Originally published on Croque-Camille.