On Spice Blends

16 10 2011

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.

My spice rack

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.




22 responses

16 10 2011
Anna Johnston

Ahhh awesome post. Just brilliant. I’m bookmarking this post. Nothing worse than knowing you wanna cook something, but not knowing which spices etc. I always aspire to have cupboards full like you, but sadly it just doesn’t happen. 😦 Great post. And awesome spice rack. 🙂

16 10 2011
Wendy Keedy

I was reading along, as I always do, and when it got to the part about your parents’ Spice Island jars on the counter, I was jarred back to reality. Hey, I’m one of those parents. 🙂 And, I wonder if you know that the jars that were always on that counter actually were wedding gifts. Interestingly, I still have some of those jars. Emptied long ago, they have now been filled with fresher versions of spice. But always, they are a reminder of a kind gift.

And now it’s so cool to know how they affected you.

17 10 2011

I half agree with you in not purchasing ready made spice blends-I think there is too much salt in them, however I never thought of making my own curries or Old Spice Blend. I love going to Grand Epicerie for spice and of course Izrael in the Marais. When I was just there it was closed, the day I perused the Marais. I am now going to try my own blends.

17 10 2011

PS. If your friend wants McCormicks shipped to her-I will trade a shipment from Paris. Let her know.

17 10 2011

Another PS. Spices is how I learnt to cook-my dad would tell me how to spice the dish and I would start reading the back of the spice bottles and start experimenting. This was my introduction to cooking.

17 10 2011

*high five* I’m a definite advocate for home-made spice mix myself, but am thrilled to see a few ideas here that I’d never have come up with myself! Case in point, Old Bay. It doesn’t exist in Australia, but Mum was sent some in a blog swap last year. To me, it tastes of nothing but celery seed and salt, so I love your nuanced salt-less version!

17 10 2011
Inger Wilkerson

I started doing my own mulling spices years ago, when I couldn’t bear spending big bucks on a tiny package of mulling blend. And I’ve never even thought about using a pre-mix for apple or pumpkin pies. But doing my own curry and chili powder is a new concept–and very timely as we head into winter when I’ll want lots of warming food! Thanks for the suggestion!

17 10 2011

My Mother’s pot roast recipe is delicious and simple. She used a packet of Lipton Onion Soup Mix sprinkled over beef brisket, wrapped in foil and baked for 3 hours at 350. I don’t like using mixes so I read the back of the package and made my own using salt, brown sugar, spices and lots of fresh onions. Worked like a charm!

17 10 2011

Anna – Thank you! Glad I can help!

Mom – I fully support refilling old spice jars with fresh ones. Amazing that yours have lasted so long!

Esme – My spice experiments were very similar. I think it’s a great way to learn to cook!

Hannah – That’s the beauty of making your own spice mixes. You’re not stuck with someone else’s idea of what it’s supposed to taste like! 🙂

Inger – My pleasure!

chuckanut – Perfect! That sounds delicious, indeed.

17 10 2011

I completely understand, I used to only use the blends but as I ran out each time I realized I could make them myself.

17 10 2011
The Mistress of Spices

Very nice post! You’re right about making your own spice blends and mixes – it’s (almost) always better! I don’t know where I would be without my spice grinder (which is just a simple coffee grinder)…though my spice rack is now totally out of control, especially for a Parisian kitchen!

18 10 2011
nanchangluife on Nanchang Lu

Read a wonderful book a few years ago by Australia’s ‘spice master’ Ian Hemphill, called ‘Spice Travels: A Spice Merchant’s Voyage of Discovery’ – wonderful to know how vanilla is grown, where nutmeg comes from, and the politics and intrigue of the spice trade. Fascinating!

19 10 2011
Christy Heflin

This is a treasure trove of information! I’ve been meaning to look up how to odiy spice blends, but you’vre taken all the legwork out of it. You’re a peach! Now I just need to find a good one for when my cajun mixes go dry (Tony’s and Slap ya Mama).

I just ran out of chili powder, and thanks to you, I’m just gonna refill it with the homemade stuff! I’m a chili pepper novice, and I was wondering if you could tell me what kinds you use (dried and fresh), and, more importantly, where you would get them in Paris. Thanks!

19 10 2011

Joy – Exactly. 🙂

Mistress of Spices – I’m not allowed to use the coffee grinder for spices (one too many incidents of clove-scented coffee), and we don’t have room for two. So I do it the old-fashioned way with a mortar and pestle. Obviously, this works better on some spices than others.

Fiona – Sounds like another one to add to my wishlist…

Christy – I’ll look into those Cajun seasonings for you! (My guess for Tony’s is that it’s composed mainly of salt and cayenne, with a little garlic and onion powders, and maybe some black pepper, too.) I use whatever dried chilis I have around, usually arbol, ancho, guajillo, or some combination thereof. I usually bring them over from the States, but you can find dried chilis, for a price, at La Grande Epicerie and at L’Epicerie de Bruno.

20 10 2011
hungry dog

Great post! I’ll have to remember this one next time I want to make my own…

21 10 2011

This is a very useful post! I too often make my own spice mixes… I prefer it that way, so I can adjust them to my own taste-buds! 😉

21 10 2011
Christy Heflin

Thanks for the pepper places! I can’t wait to check out l’Epicerie de Bruno!!!

22 10 2011

hungry dog – Thanks!

Manu – Yes, it’s great to make things taste exactly the way you want. 🙂

Christy – You’re welcome, and I apologize in advance to your wallet. 😉

22 10 2011

I enjoy all of your posts but this one is my favorite. I also have a robust spice selection and enjoy mixing although there are also a few blends that I do buy. Also bookmarking this!

24 10 2011

Tammy – What a compliment! Thank you!

26 10 2011
Christy Heflin

One last question – do you think VT Cash and Carry or any other supermarket at La Chapelle might have these elusive chili peppers? I haven’t had a chance to get to Bruno’s yet. Thanks!

26 10 2011

Christy – The Indian shops have many spices at great prices, and though they do have spicy chilies, they are not the same type as those used in Latin America.

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