Savvy cooks around the world know that one of the easiest ways to add flair to their cooking is to keep a selection of aromatic spice blends on hand. From Chinese five spices to Cajun seasoning, from Indian masalas to Chilean merken, spice blends are the cornerstones of so many cuisines, for very good reasons.
Used in a pinch or cup, a harmonious spice blend can deepen and complement the flavors of almost any dish, instantly adding color, aroma and, at times, a tangy kick. And unlike individual spices, the beauty of a blend is in its effectiveness. With all the spices carefully measured and mixed in advance, cooks don’t need to stop and wing them when the chicken is in the pan.
Lior Lev Sercarz, the founder of La Boîte, a New York-based spice store, founded his business on the idea that having fresh, well-made spice blends on hand will dramatically improve one’s cooking. anyone.
“If you have 15 simple spices in your cupboard, how do you decide which ones to take when you’re cooking dinner? Then the last thing you want to do is start broiling and beating, ”he says. “In a mixture, everything is done in advance.”
Of course, you can buy high quality spice blends, but you can get even better flavors if you make them yourself. A good place to start is one of these five versatile and beloved blends: garam masala, baharat, zaatar, five spices, and a sweet pastry mix alongside pumpkin pie spice. Many of these are essential to the kitchens they come from, and you probably already have some, or all, in your spice cabinet. Whether you use them in traditional settings or otherwise, these seasoning blends will make anything you cook shine.
Once you step into the groove of toasting, grinding, and mixing, creating your own mixes can be its own meditative and highly rewarding reward for the senses.
And don’t limit yourself. If you are new to mixing spices, you may want to make these mixes once according to the recipes to familiarize yourself and then modify them to your liking. Critics of licorice may reduce or omit fennel seeds and anise; heat lovers can add more pepper or add chili powder.
Cooks should feel free to bring some measure of their own personality and preferences to the blending process, said Ethan Frisch, who founded Burlap & Barrel, an importer and online spice shop, with his Ori Zohar business partner in 2016.
“There’s a sense of orthodoxy in the mix that really shouldn’t exist,” said Frisch. “Spice blends have always reflected the person mixing them.”
Once ground, spice blends (and simple spices) will last six months to a year if stored properly away from light and heat – ideally not in a drawer or cabinet just outside. next to your stove. Just be sure to date everything, then force yourself to throw in the spices when their time is up. It may seem unnecessary, but you’re doing your kitchen a disservice by stirring up spices that have lost their punch.
“People forget that spices are like any other agricultural crop,” Mr. Frisch said, “like coffee beans, like wine grapes; terroir and agricultural skills really matter. And the freshness too. “
Historically, however, the pursuit of fresh, high-quality spices has been difficult in the United States.
According to Sana Javeri Kadri, the founder of Diaspora Company, an importer and supplier of spices, spices may have passed through many hands and be years before they reach the consumer (a remnant of an abusive system of trading in spices derived from colonization). That is changing, as more and more companies like his – along with Burlap & Barrel and several others – seek to overturn that system and focus on carefully cultivated spices purchased directly from small farmers at fair prices.
Whether you are buying from a fair trade importer or your local supermarket, it pays to ask questions and read labels if you can, or at least look for a store with a high turnover.
After you have gathered the best whole spices you can find, you will need a small skillet or baking dish to toast them, and a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. electric to spray them. A coffee grinder will also work, preferably the one you reserved for the spices, so your baharat doesn’t take on espresso undertones. And while you don’t need a gram scale, if you have one, it will be more accurate than using volume measurements, especially for bulky and irregularly shaped spices like star anise. .
Once you’ve put a few mixes away, use them liberally and often – and not just in traditional dishes.
“It can be very liberating to experiment,” said Sercarz, who regularly sprinkles garam masala in cookies and berber, an Ethiopian spice blend, on pizza.
“Mixing spices is an art,” he said, “and cooking with them too.”
Both musky and sweet, with a pronounced kick, five spices are traditionally made with equal parts cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, star anise and peppercorns (usually Sichuan or white ). But it’s not uncommon to find cooks squeezing through a bit of tangerine or ginger bark, depending on where they live and what they plan to cook, author Kian Lam Kho said. of “Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cuisine” (Clarkson Potter, 2015).
Its version takes the five traditional ingredients and uses Sichuan peppercorns to give the mixture a characteristic numbness and tingling sensation on the tongue known as mala. Since Sichuan peppercorns vary a lot in quality, he recommends ordering from a good source, like Mala Market, one of the few companies that imports untreated peppercorns directly from growers.
Once the spices are roasted and blended, the mixture can be used both whole (simmered in stews, braisings, and soups) and ground (added to roast meats like duck, lamb, and brisket). pork, vegetables and seafood). The five ground spices are also often served mixed with salt and used as a spicy condiment to accompany barbecue dishes.
In Arabic, the term “baharat” simply means “spices” and can refer to a number of different mixtures, each suited to a specific dish or ingredients.
“There’s a baharat for everything, and it varies a lot by region,” said Freda Nokaly, founder, with Doaa Elkady, of Spice Tree Organics, a spice blending company based in Queens, NY.
Their blend (called buharat, an alternative spelling) reflects their Egyptian ancestry, highlighting a combination of musk cumin and floral and lemony cilantro that has been sweetened with cinnamon, cardamom and cloves, and enriched with black pepper and bay leaf.
Unlike some other baharat blends, Ms. Nokaly and Ms. Elkady’s version doesn’t call for toasting the spices first, giving their blend a subtle but distinct brightness. Use it in meatballs and pilau, in marinades and sauces for grilled meats and fish, and in the traditional layered rice dish called maqluba.
In India, just about every house has its own recipe for garam masala, which is the most common spice blend in the country and a cornerstone of cuisines throughout South Asia, where it is used in curries. , rice dishes and dals, and with vegetables, meats and fish. This version is adapted from Floyd Cardoz, the pioneering Indian chef who opened Tabla and Bombay Bread Bar in New York City, and died of the coronavirus in March 2020.
His wife, Barkha Cardoz, said Mr. Cardoz’s blend was intentionally minimalist and sweeter compared to other traditional blends, which made it very versatile.
“My grandmother used 15 spices and would grind enough for the whole family,” she says. “Then Floyd became the grandmother. He started making garam masala for everyone with just a few spices so you can use it everywhere, in curries of course, and I used it to make apple pie and Christmas cake.
(Mr. Cardoz’s garam masala is also available for purchase from Burlap & Barrel.)
Zaatar is the name of both a blend of traditional Middle Eastern seasonings and the tangy green grass that gives the blend its intense and flavorful character. The hardy herb, which grows in the wild, tastes like a combination of oregano, marjoram, summer savory and thyme – all of which can be used as substitutes if the dried zaatar is not not available. As with all spice blends, recipes vary widely by region and cook, but most include ground sumac berries for acidity, toasted sesame seeds for their rich, earthy notes, and a bit of salt. .
This version, adapted from La Boîte’s M. Sercarz, plays it pretty classic, but don’t let that stop you from experimenting. “Adding black seed or rosemary isn’t traditional, but it’s a fun twist,” he said.
Zaatar can be used in marinades for poultry or grilled or roasted meats, mixed in dips, salads and egg dishes, or placed on the table to be added as a bright herbaceous condiment.
Whether it’s a pumpkin pie spice, German lebkuchengewurz or the British mixed spices, a mostly fragrant sweet baking spice blend with warm and fragrant notes of cinnamon, allspice and allspice. nutmeg or mace is a staple in American and European culinary culture.
This version adds a touch of white pepper for warmth, with the deep scent of cardamom. You can use a teaspoon or two in pies (apple, pumpkin and beyond), fruit and nut cakes and pies, and all kinds of cookies (especially shortbread). Or knead it into sweet breads like challah and brioche. Smaller amounts are wonderful on hot chocolate and rice pudding, and the mixture will add depth to homemade ice cream when soaked in custard before freezing.
Recipes: Za’atar | Garam masala | Baharat mix | Five spices | Sweet cooking spice | Roasted fish with spiced butter and tomatoes