Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Herbs and spices

First of all, do you know the difference between herbs and spices?  I had to look it up, myself.  The most basic definition is based on growing location:  spices are grown in the tropics, herbs are grown in temperate zones [i.e., you could grow them in your garden if your USDA zone would allow].  But, then, there's coriander.  And cilantro.  They both come from the same plant; cilantro is the leaves, and coriander's the dried fruit, but coriander's considered a spice and cilantro's an herb.  Typically, herbs are the leaves of plants, while spices are the berries or bark. 

Over at The Kitchn blog they have a guide to herbs and spices that includes mixes and links to in-depth information about each item.

Stocking up on herbs and spices is valuable if you use certain ones regularly in sufficient quantity to warrant it, but don't stock up on what you don't use.  I can speak from some considerable experience on that point; I have jars of indeterminate age of quite a number of things I bought thinking I'd use them...and haven't.  In my pantry/preps I have garlic bits, oregano, basil, dried onion bits, cumin, bay leaf, rosemary, red pepper flakes, chili powder, and ground cinnamon, cloves, ginger and allspice plus beef and chicken bouillon.  With these I can cook just about anything from spaghetti to cinnamon rolls, and though I have some of other things for the occasional foray into say, Chinese food, these comprise the core of my seasonings.

When I'm cooking stew, for example, I use bay leaf, rosemary, onion and garlic, plus some beef bouillon, to season.   Chicken's the same except for using chicken bouillon.  Haven't tried it with pork but I wager that mix would season pork nicely as well.

For Mexican food, garlic bits, oregano, dried onion bits, cumin, red pepper flakes, and chili powder do the trick.

Apple crisp and pumpkin pie rely on a mix of cinnamon, cloves, ginger and allspice.  Snickerdoodles use the cinnamon and some sugar; gingersnaps and gingerbread, of course, use ginger. 

Those seasonings used most often are most worth stocking up on, especially spices.  Cinnamon and other spices don't grow well in northern climates, and the best you can do is to stock up on the whole spices and grind them as you go, or vacuum pack the ground version in amounts small enough to use in a reasonable amount of time. 

Spices and herbs can be used a lot longer than recommended; you really don't have to change out all your seasonings every six months.  That's a marketing ploy.  You can use most opened seasonings for up to two years, although after one year you might have to use a slightly heaping teaspoon rather than a level teaspoon.