Allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, fennel seed, peppercorn are not foreign countries, but common kitchen spices and the keys to some of the most popular dishes made in restaurants and home kitchens alike.
Spices are generally defined as a dried seed, root, fruit or bark that can be used in cooking to enhance flavors, textures or color.
In "The Fanny Farmer Cookbook" the purpose of seasoning is "to provide an accent that enhances natural flavors."
Some spices are also used as medicines or as natural preservatives to prevent bacteria growth or molding. Spices are classified separate from herbs, the leafy green parts of plants, though both herbs and spices serve similar purposes. Dried herbs and spices are found in the same location in most markets, though fresh herbs will often be kept cool in the produce section.
Spices can be purchased in several forms: whole, ground or crushed. They are commercially stored in various containers from metal tins, glass jars or plastic bags. For home storage it is best if spices are kept in labeled, air tight containers away from the light because light increases oxidation and the break down of flavors. Most spices are soluble in water, oil or fat and are best added to dishes early to reach full flavor.
There are several reasons for home cooks to grind their own spices, and the primary one is to preserve potency.
The lifespan of a typical whole spice is two to three years compared with around six months once the spice is ground. Fresh ground spices will be more flavorful and can be toasted or cracked before grinding for depth of flavor.
When it comes to grinding at home there are three main types of tools to choose from.
Historically, a mortar and pestle, a small broad based bowl and heavy crushing rod was used to crack or grind spices. This is effective, but is time consuming and labor intensive if there is much to grind.
Several different types of these devices are commercially available, the best ones are those which have a good grit to them.
When working with large spices, such as nutmeg or cinnamon, a Microplane or very fine cheese grater is often the best tool to use. Unlike the mortar and pestle a Microplane shaves tiny pieces off of the spice instead of crushing the outer shell to release the essential oils. The Microplane does not work well with small seed spices such as coriander or fennel as there is not enough surface area to handle without injury or to grip with any other tool.
A third way to work with whole spices is by using a coffee grinder. These devices are battery operated or powered by plug and have a blade assembly and a holding cup. The benefit of a coffee grinder is speed and the ability to grind several spices at once.
Also, the coffee grinder can handle a variety of sizes from 1- to 2-inch pieces of cinnamon to tiny celery seeds and mustards. It's a good idea not to use the same coffee grinder for both spices and coffee because the oils from ground spices can linger on the plastics of the assembly even washing.
No matter which tool is used there is no mistaking the scent of fresh spices and home grinding is an easy, inexpensive way to add superb flavor and a personal touch to any dish.
Jana Brown is a freelance writer and editor, wife and mother. She is an excellent cook with an informal background in food science and culinary studies. She blogs at cornabys.wordpress.com. Twitter: Cornabys