Herbs and spices are the flavor-packed secret weapons of every inventive cook. But when they lose their characteristic aromas, that dish you remembered tasting spectacular might turn out a bit blah. So here’s a few tips to help keep your aromatics aromatic just a little longer.
Dried spices never go bad, right? Well, not exactly. While your spices aren’t likely to grow mold, they will inevitably lose their pungency over time. There are three things you can do to make sure your spices are up to the job of flavoring your fantastic dishes. I should also note that I’m defining spices as dried berries and barks. Dried herbs (anything green) will lose its flavor much more quickly.
1. Buy good quality spices.
How do you know if you’re getting good quality spices? Chances are, if you’re buying the little plastic tubs from the grocery store, you’re getting a low quality product for a high price. I’ve had mixed luck with buying bulk spices– it can definitely be the most economical way to purchase spices, but if the grocer does not have a high turnover, or a good internal system for dating and rotating their products, you might be buying spices that are already old and flavorless. I recommend looking for an a shop that specializes in Indian foods, you can often find great quality spices and because of the amount of spice used in Indian cuisine, the plastic packets of spice you get there are miles apart from the grocery store tubs. And if you can’t find good products from any local resources, there are several online spice retailers that offer very high quality spices.
2. Buy whole spices.
Spices lose their flavor soooo much more quickly when they are ground. I recommend buying almost all of your spices whole, and grinding them just before you use them. Inexpensive coffee grinders work great for spices (and actually not so great for coffee). You might need to shake the grinder while it’s processing to ensure that the spice is pulverized to a fine powder. If there are spices that you use often, then go ahead and grind a small portion of them ahead of time. And when you’re grinding your own spices, you can get really creative– grinding dried porcini or shitake mushrooms can add tons of flavor to sauces or soups. You can also turn leftover citrus peels or previously used, dried vanilla beans into powdered seasonings.
3. Store spices with care.
You can’t stop your spices from losing flavor, but you can slow down the process by storing them well. Light, heat and moisture are your enemies, so focus on finding a storage system that keeps your spices cool and dark.
Of course, the ideal situation for using herbs is to grow your own and harvest them right before you use them. (I have grand ideas that this is the year my thumb will finally turn green, and I’ll have a perfect container herb garden in my new tiny backyard) But, for everyone else relegated to buying bunches of herbs, storage is a huge issue. Typically you don’t need to use all of the bunch of herbs you bought at once, so how can you make use of the rest of the bunch, while still preserving it’s flavor?
First, Fresh herbs can be divided into two categories: Woody and leafy. An easy test is to think if you have to remove the leaves before chopping it up. So oregano, marjoram, thyme, rosemary: all woody. Basil, parsley, cilantro, mint, dill: leafy. Woody and leafy herbs have different storage needs
Woody herbs are typically grown in dry climates. So they are not surprisingly, your biggest concern storing these spices in the refrigerator is moisture (which will leave you with blackened moldy leaves). Some herb containers are perforated, and some are not. If you have a plastic perforated container, it’s probably fine to leave the herbs in that container. If not, roll the herbs in a dry paper towel and place in a plastic bag (but don’t completely seal it). Keep these herbs in a warm place in your refrigerator (the door works well). But make sure they’re not right next to your butter, which easily picks up strong flavors.
Woody herbs also keep their flavor very well when dried. Spread them out on a baking sheet and leave them overnight in your oven, letting the pilot light heat work it’s magic. (Only if you have a gas oven) If not, leave your herbs in a well aerated space and you’ll have dried herbs in a day or two. Store dried herbs as you would dried spices. Stored properly, these herbs will keep their flavor for several of months. And what to do with the leftover woody stalks? You can use them as skewers for grilling, where they will impart their pungent herbal flavor on whatever is surrounding them. Or they can be chopped up and used in an extract. I’ve heard that you can dry them and use them like smoking chips, but I’m going to withhold recommending that until I’ve given it a try. I suspect that the smoke from strongly flavored herbs might be on the acrid side. But that’s just a guess.
Think of leafy herbs as green, edible cut flowers. Immediately cut the ends off and place in a glass of fresh water. Some people say that your herbs will keep better out of the refrigerator. My home tests are not so conclusive. If I leave leafy herbs out, they tend to get yellow and wilt. I, however, do not have a sunny windowsill to store them, so my research results have to be taken with that caveat. For refrigerator storage, stand herbs in a glass jar and cover the leaves loosely with a plastic bag (usually the one you bought them in will do nicely). It’s best if you change the water daily. If you have a small quantity of leaves, you can gently roll individual leaves in a damp paper towel and refrigerate them in an unsealed plastic bag. Herbs stored in this way will keep for about a week.
Leafy herbs do not dry well. In fact, I never use dried leafy herbs. Start out with a delicious, fresh basil leaf and then when you dry it it will taste like old hay. (The only exception I have to this rule is dill. While dill’s flavor does change during drying, dried dill still has a pleasant dilly taste.) So what do you with extra fresh herbs? I recommend either freezing them or making an extract. The flavor of frozen herbs isn’t quite as good as fresh, but it is much better than dried. To freeze: chop leaves up as you would before serving. Cover with just enough water to make a slurry pour the whole mixture into the cubes of an ice cube tray. And remember you don’t have to fill the cubes up if you anticipate using them in small quantities. Store frozen cubes in a freezer bag and defrost as needed.
Extracts & Essential Oils
First a few definitions are in order. Essential oils are the concentrated aromatic oils of plants. Natural extracts are an infusion of plants into a solvent, usually alcohol. We’re all familiar with vanilla extract, but you can make your own extracts from other herbs, flowers and spices and use them for seasoning too. Using extracts and oils can have some big advantages. The biggest one is seasonality. Thanks to our global food distribution system, in the US, you can buy just about any fresh herb at just about any time of the year. But the tastiest, cheapest herbs are usually in season for a relatively short time. If you preserve seasonal herbs, then you can cook and take advantage of their flavor for months to come. Or if you choose to invest in essential oils, you can modify your recipes so that you don’t have to buy fresh herbs to whip out your favorite pasta sauce.
With both essential oils and extracts, you are cooking with volatile organic compounds. For cooking purposes volatile means that it is very quick to evaporate. So for cooked dishes you always want to add the flavoring at the very end of cooking, or all your flavor will evaporate into a fragrant steam. If you are baking with the oil or essence, first mix it into the fat. The fat will helps to stabilize the flavor a little, so it doesn’t all just bake away. (This is why you cream vanilla together with butter when you’re making cookies.)
I’ve already mentioned that I don’t think drying leafy herbs is worth the trouble. However, you can capture their essence in the form of an extract. You can also make your own extracts from certain flowers. Chop up the plants you want to make an extract from and place in a clean jar. Cover with a high proof vodka. Wrap plastic wrap around the rim of the jar before closing the lid. Leave the mixture to infuse in a cool, dark place for a month. Strain out the plant matter and bottle your extract, preferably in a dark colored bottle. Store away from light and heat.
Though essential oils are most often associated with aromatherapy and other crunchy things, you can cook with them. After all when you’re cooking with the whole plant, it is the plant’s essential oils providing the flavor. But there are a few very important caveats. Some plants have toxins in them which are harmless in small doses (such as nutmeg). Because essential oils are so concentrated, it is very easy to overdo it and make a slightly toxic, and probably very unpalatable mix. So read all the warnings and be aware of what you’re adding before experimenting. Only cook with food-grade, organic essential oisl, and only from plants you can eat. There are two methods of extracting essential oils. One is to leach the essential oils into a chemical solvent (um, not so good for consumption) and the other is to distill it, just like alcohol is distilled. It’s also really, really easy to overdo it with essential oils, they are so potent that half or a quarter of a drop might be what you want. I recommend mixing a drop or two of your essential oil with a tablespoon of whatever cooking fat you’ll be using. Then add this mixture to whatever you’re cooking in very small amounts. Also be sure to use only stainless steel or ceramic containers for mixing– plastics can pick up these flavors way too easily.
So with so many caveats, why bother? If you want that fresh flavor of oregano or rosemary year round, buying little bunches can get expensive in a hurry. Essential oils are expensive, but they last a long time, and you need very little to add flavor. You can also buy essential oils for plants that would be impossible or very hard to get flavors from like jasmine or bergamot. Bottom line: essential oils can offer you a wider flavor palate and longer shelf life. If your cooking style demands these, essential oils can provide a big bang for your buck.
A few notes and links.
The images of dried spices were taken by the wonderful Jessika Creedon, who always makes everything look delicious. More of her lovely work at www.jessikacreedon.com
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I thought it might be useful to share a few sources I have found that offer good quality spices and essential oils. As always, I’m totally not sponsored, but I’ve had good experiences with these purveyors.
Kalustyans has every spice ever. www.kalustyans.com
Penzeys has high quality spices with very good selection. And for some reason their dried green herbs taste way better than any others I’ve tasted. www.penzeys.com
Mountain Rose Herbs sell distilled essential oils, and they clearly label which oils are organic. And though the majority of spices are health-related, there are plenty of good culinary spices as well, many of them organic. They also sell cheap amber glass bottles, perfect for making your own extracts. www.mountainroseherbs.com