Spice snobs, teach me your snobbery

I just finished a 4 year old bottle of store-brand ground cinnamon. Recollections of past browsings of the Penzeys catalog tell me that there are all sorts of varieties I can purchase, but I have to wonder if Ceylon vs Vietnamese Extra Fancy is going to be all that noticeable compared to simply not using an ancient bottle anymore.

While I am curious about cinnamon, I’m mostly just interested in reading Doper’s general thoughts on spices. Any noticeable differences between brands and varieties? Any ones you feel are under-, mis-, ab-, or over-used? Any useless ones that just sit on your shelf and fade into tasteless dust? Any others that you blow through like a bad coke habit? I’d love to hear about it.

Let’s include fresh and dried herbs in the discussion, just in case the word “spice” doesn’t cover those.

  1. Buy fresh.
    1a. Don’t buy more than you’ll use in a year.
  2. The ethnic market (or aisle at the local supermarket) is your friend. Buy the little cellophane packets - they are fresh and really cheap.
  3. If it’s green, use fresh whenever possible over dried. There are a few exceptions, but it’s a good general rule.
  4. Get a microplane and grate your own nutmeg.
  5. Penzey’s rules!

According to my copy of Ian Hemphill’s Spice Notes and Recipes if a recipe calls for cinnamon powder buy powder. It is the best quality cinnamon available. Keep it in an airtight container. Whole quills can be kept for 2 to 3 years if not exposed to heat. He also adds that most commercial cinnamon flavored products use cassia rather than cinnamon. Apparently 98% of Australian bakers use cassia. He also states that in many countries including the US both cassia and cinnamon may be sold as cinnamon. This is illegal in England and Australia.

Hemphill for his own purposes sometimes mixes half and half cinnamon and cassia as cassia is more pungent and aromatic than cinnamon.

Has to be the real Melange from Arrakis, the stuff the Tleilaxu make just isn’t the same.

Get a coffee grinder (one like this) and use it to grind your own spices. Pre-ground spices don’t stay fresh for very long.

Vanilla - if it’s not bourbon from Madagascar, Reunion or Zanzibar, I won’t use it. Luckily I know enough people who go back and forth from those places that my stash gets renewed fairly regularly. Either that or an extract (NOT essence) from one of a couple of brands I trust.

Saffron - learn what it actually looks like. That way you won’t get fooled by adulteration. Always use threads, not powder.

Just as an aside, Bourbon Vanilla is called that because Madagascar used to be called the Bourbon Islands. It’s not made with Bourbin,

Actually, it’s Réunion that was called Bourbon Island

Regarding the cinnamon: the Vietnamese cinnamon is noticeably stronger than most others, apparently due to the higher oil content. It’s very nice stuff. Any fresh cinnamon will be far superior to something that is four years old, however.

We go through a lot of chili spices in Chez Moi: cumin, ancho, chipotle, Mexican oregano, smoked paprika and the like. For my money, Penzeys Chili 9000 is their best spice blend; I use it on more than just chili. The only problem with Penzeys is that the small plastic shaker dispensers of spices are far more expensive (per ounce) than the larger bags. So I end up with quantities that I really can’t use up before they go south on me.

I prefer fresh herbs but realize it’s not always feasible, especially if you’re running low on fridge space due to the sheer amount of stuff you’re supposed to refrigerate to keep fresh. That being said, I would never use dried cilantro leaf (aka coriander leaf, not the seed). Basil and parsley are close seconds, but I’ll actually use them on occasion, if the dried is actually called for. These lose so much flavor when dried.

I do not feel the least amount of guilt for using dried versions of herbs that have teeny-weeny leaves and are a pain in the ass to remove from their oft-woody stems. Thyme and oregano are prime candidates here. I also keep other dried herbs around; sometimes it’s just easier and if the herb is not an upfront feature in the dish (heavily-herbed vinaigrette, pesto, etc. are counterexamples) then often it’s fine to substitute.

From what I’ve read, the vast majority of standard “supermarket” cinnamon in the US is really cassia. Be careful about substituting in an American recipe unless you know what you’re using and what the effect will be.

I’m thrilled to have some good spice sources relatively close to where I live and work, in the Chicago area. Whole Foods has Frontier brand bulk herbs/spices in their herbal supplements aisle (not the baking aisle) that are a good, inexpensive way to get a wide variety. Near me there is also a small local chain, The Spice House, as well as a little bit larger chain that started in Colorado and branched out here, the Savory Spice Store. Both make their spice mixes and ground items frequently to keep them fresh-made for purchase, and have great selections of the more “snobby” items. There are Penzey stores as well.

I have a small Microplane designed for grating nutmeg, plus a mortar and pestle, and a $15 coffee grinder dedicated to spices.

I want a big old bottle of vanilla like Martha Stewart uses, but I settle for the little bottles of extract because I don’t bake much any more (but when I do, it has to be real vanilla, never that artificial swill.) When my daughter was in college, she and her boyfriend did a lot of cooking and bought ingredients, and spices, willy-nilly, with no thought of cost! They came here one weekend with a bottle of expensive cinnamon from Viet Nam, the Spice Islands brand, to sprinkle on toast. That stuff costs a LOT, and I pointed out to her that the bottle from the Dollar Tree works just as well for an unemployed college student. If I send her $20 a week, I expect her to spend it on food and drink, not blow half of it on the Spice Islands stuff, even though theoretically it’s ‘better’.

I’m particular about paprika, especially since I cook a lot of Hungarian food. People here seem to think paprika has no flavor, just adds color to a dish. That’s not true at all. Good paprika smells like freshly ground red peppers and has a sweet, earthy, pepper flavor to it. That McCormick’s stuff doesn’t do it for me. It has to be, at the very least, Pride of Szeged brand paprika, or you could get something from Spice House or Penzey’s. I almost always prefer the sweet paprika for use in dishes, and I am partial to paprika from the Kalocsa area of Hungary. (Kalocsa and Szeged are the two big paprika producers.) Though I am a chile head, the flavor and aroma of sweet paprikas I find preferable in most uses.

Also, the Spanish are famous for their paprika, which is generally smoked, so it has a completely different flavor than most paprika. Definitely worth having in the spice cabinet.

As for dried herbs, there are a few dried herbs that I do like. For example, oregano and marjoram I almost exclusively use in their dried form. Thyme, rosemary, and sage survive the drying process pretty well, too, but are a little different in their dried form. Any of those strong flavored woody herbs usually work well dry. It’s the delicate herbs like parsley, basil, chervil, dill, tarragon, cilantro, etc., that turn into near-flavorless flakes when dried. Dried parsley and cilantro are the absolute worst of that bunch. There is no reason for them to exist. Once in a blue moon I will use dried basil (along with dried oregano) for that “Italian seasoning blend” flavor you find in some pizza sauces, but that’s about it.

I love smoked paprika and use it all the time.

I have both cassia and true Ceylon cinnamon in my spice collection. The cassia I use for general baked goods - it’s what we are used to in commercial baked goods in the US. I reserve the Ceylon cinnamon for savory dishes - mainly Greek and Middle Eastern stuff. It has a delicate, floral quality that really makes those dishes - cassia is too strong to work quite right.

For herbs, it’s always great to have yourself an herb garden for the more delicate herbs - I usually plant basil, tarragon, Italian and French parsley, sage, chives, and thyme. I like fresh oregano for pizza sauce so I’ll usually do that as well, and sometimes I’ll have bay, just because it’s fun to use my own. You don’t need much space - my herbs grow in pots on the back deck so they are close by and convenient when I need some. It’s both the cheapest and best tasting way to have those herbs around.

Vanilla - try using whole vanilla bean whenever you can. I love it in pudding/custard - it’s holy crap good.

We buy Penzey’s a lot. The Vietnamese cinnamon is a big favorite at our house, because it’s hotter and spicier than anything you can get anywhere else. It’s worth getting on their mailing list for catalogs, because then they start sending you regular coupons for free bottles - sometimes your choice, sometimes something new they’ve just put out. We just picked up a free four-bottle sampler box this way.

Whole nutmeg. You need to buy whole nutmeg. You’ll get the whole bean (?? is that what it is? Seed maybe?)…anyway, you’ll get a package that contains 4 or 5 whole nutmeg seeds that’ll last forever. Use a Microplane (like thisor this) and grate the nutmeg directly over the dish to add it. The flavor and aroma hands down just destroys any powdered nutmeg you can buy in a little container.

I have absolutely no time for dried parsley. I don’t have much time for parsley in general, but if I use it, it must be fresh. Dried parsley might as well be dust.

But Madagascar was part of “The Bourbon Islands”

Ah, the whole nutmeg reminds me: freshly ground black (or white) pepper. If you’re particular about provenance, Tellicherry peppercorns, in particular, are good and not too difficult to find (Costco even has them.) There is a world of difference between freshly ground black pepper and stuff that is pre-ground. Worlds.

Oh wow, yes. Freshly ground pepper has a lovely burn/sting to the flavor. The powdered stuff barely even resembles it.

I’m not sure that fresh Vs dry herbs is a direct either or… I find that a herb can impart completely different flavours in it’s dry or fresh form. I usually have dried available at all times, and buy fresh when needed if it is not growing in my kitchen herb box.

Usually I am not a location snob with food. I don’t really care that your snapper was from Florida any more than I do if it was caught in Chile, as long as it wasn’t from a pen or farm. However, with spices it matters a whole lot, as people have mentioned with cinnamon, there are different varieties and location is everything - whether it is the soil, the Ph, the climate, who knows… but I usually try them out to find what fits the use scenario. As with vanilla mentioned above, the origin is often the best tasting…

Also wanted to second the smoked paprika recco above… love it! I use it in heaped spoonfuls for a slow cooked pork belly recipe with cider and fennel seeds, it cannot be matched or replaced.

On unusual spices… try mace. It was hard to get hold of here in Chicago, it’s the outer covering on a nutmeg and has a similar, if more muted but complex flavour… reminds me of christmas (and potted shrimps). yum.

**pulykamell **speaks wisdom. If you do only one thing, buy a pepper grinder and peppercorns and grind it fresh. The difference is astonishing - I never used to use (or like) pepper from the little jar; now I use freshly cracked pepper nigh on everything.