When learning how to cook, one of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around was understanding how well certain spice mixtures go together (spinach and nutmeg? chocolate and salt? who knew they could be so yummy!). This was especially challenging when I started developing my own recipes. But once I developed my spice palate, I was good to go!
I grew up with my mom’s spice rack, which had a dozen or so staples (cinnamon, allspice, paprika, oregano, etc). All purchased from the local grocer, and they would linger in the pantry well beyond their expiration date. For those of you who use McCormick spices, there’s a nifty little dater here to let you know if it’s past its prime… here’s a hint, if it’s in a tin and it’s anything EXCEPT pepper, you’re talking over 15 years old! Ew. While they won't exactly go 'bad', they will lose their potency.
Penzeys: There’s a few dozen stores scattered throughout the US, and a catalog/website to cater to the rest of us. A friend originally from their home state of Wisconsin raved about them, so I tried their Hungarian Half-Sharp Paprika, China Cassia Cinnamon, and Bouquet Garni. I was hooked. The cinnamon in particular was outstanding, as was their seasoned salt blend. My absolute favorite is their Northwoods Seasoning: coarse flake salt, paprika, black pepper, thyme, rosemary, garlic and chipotle. Not only do they have an amazing array to choose from, but the flavors of the spices are incredible—and for less than I normally spend at the grocery store. And they have specialty items that are perfect for bakers (double strength vanilla, anyone?)
While buying in bulk is attractive because it saves money, I try not to buy more spices than I will use, lest I run into the problem of outliving their shelf life (ground spices: 6-12 months, whole spices: up to 3 years, dried herbs: up to 18 months).
However, this year… I purchased containers and spices in bulk, and ended up making elaborate holiday gift baskets for 5 friends/family for under $20 a person, with a few extra spices to slip into care packages for friends that cook. I rounded out the Penzey spices with some homemade finishing salts which can cost a pretty penny at the local store, but are very inexpensive to make at home.
Finishing salts: One of my favorite items I make is Szechuan Pepper Salt. I dry roast the Szechuan Peppercorns and then grind them with an equal amount of coarse Sea Salt. The resulting finishing salt is a lip tingling blend that tastes wonderful on chicken or potatoes or eggs. Here's some other finishing salt recipes.
My other favorite finishing salt is a smoked salt that hooked me as I passed by the display at our local foodie market- and I'm still using the packet that cost less than $2. Naturally flavored, the salt is slowly cooked over hickory or alderwood. Simply Amazing. The smokiness of the salt excels on eggs, fish, grilled meats, some veggies that can stand up to a 'meaty' flavor (such as mushrooms). It's also a great way to add a meaty flavor to lentil soup instead of using bacon/ham. A TINY amount goes a long way, but the addition of the smoked salt wakes up a lot of my favorite dishes without overpowering some of the more delicate flavor (in my opinion).
Storage: I store spices in cool, dry, dark places away from humidity-- nowhere near a stove or oven. Air tight containers are key.
Did you know? Do not shake your spice jar over a hot pot- it will expose the remaining spices in the jar to steam and heat. Shake the desired amount out into a bowl or your palm, and then transfer to the pan.