It can be easy enough to grab tried and true spices, follow age-old recipes, and use the same traditional herbs. Indeed, most home cooks tend to stick to tested combinations, like dill and salmon or basil and tomato sauce, which can keep them from experiencing new foods and flavors. The dizzying array of spices at the grocery store may be overwhelming, but with a little practice, it’s easy to transform your cooking with a pinch of this and a sprinkle of that.
As with all things culinary, the most important thing to do is to actually taste and experience the flavor of the ingredients. Take a pinch of an unknown spice, rub it about to release the odor, and inhale deeply; our sense of smell is often far more refined than our sense of taste. After getting a good whiff, proceed to tasting, rolling it across the tongue to hit all the taste buds. The other way to familiarize yourself with an herb or spice is to taste your food as it cooks, allowing the dish to rest a bit before adding each herb or spice. If you understand the impact each flavor has on the dish as a whole, you’ll have a better idea of how to deploy them in new dishes.
Eventually, you’ll find yourself using spices in new and creative ways. Many chefs recommend trying techniques like rubbing meats with spices, making innovative compound butters, or exploring unusual flavors like star anise, achiote, cassia cinnamon, or green cardamom. While some spice experts suggest that there are 15 spice flavor “families,” others tend to think that each spice has its own unique charms. Try a wide range of flavors and see which you like best.
Proper storage of herbs and spices is important for the preservation of their flavors. Avoid keeping the same jars in your pantry forever, as they will eventually lose color and flavor. In addition, keep whole spices unground to preserve their flavor, store containers away from direct sunlight and heat, and don’t sprinkle spices straight from the container into a bubbling pot, to avoid letting steam in. Consider keeping red pepper-related spices in the refrigerator to maintain their color and flavor. With herbs, the best way to ensure you have the flavors you want on hand is to grow them yourself. The most widely used herbs, such as parsley, basil, thyme, and rosemary, are easy to grow and easy to keep.