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The Spice Guide
A Guide to Sourcing, Storing, and Using Spices
This post is adapted from a class I taught last week for my 80/20 Cooking course. I just wrapped up the first cohort of the course, and it was an incredible experience.
One of my favorite things about the cohort course model is that there’s a huge opportunity to improve the curriculum between each cohort. I’ve collected a ton of feedback from students about what worked well and what can be improved, and I’m already working on updates to the curriculum for cohort 2.
Cohort 2 is going to include a bunch of improvements— a self-paced library of basic knife and kitchen skills, improvements to the core learning materials, better prep instructions for the live classes, a new flow for the curriculum, and much more. I’m super excited.
Cohort 2 will happen some time this fall. If you want to get notified when enrollment goes live, you can sign up for updates here.
Now, onto today’s post. This guide will cover a few things— why spices are such a powerful kitchen tool, how to source them, how to store them, how to use them, and recommendations for brands I like. As always, feel free to shoot me an email if you have any questions!
I’ve always believed that spices are one of the most impactful tools you can have in your kitchen. They’re a low-effort way to add tons of flavor to your food.
In fact, I love spices so much that I actually started a spice company with my brother a few years ago. We ended up shutting down the company, but I learned a ton about spices and the spice industry in the process.
Spices are an amazing resource if you know how to use them properly. That’s what I’ll go over today.
Salt vs. Spices
Before we dive into the world of spices, there’s one thing that I think is really important to understand, and that’s the difference between spices and salt.
There’s a pervasive myth in cooking that everything should be seasoned with salt and pepper— they’re treated as a kind of all-purpose pair. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Salt is a mineral. It’s in a category of its own. Salt enhances existing flavors in food— it makes food taste more like itself. Foods that are unsalted often taste flat, whereas foods that are properly salted have sharper, more acute flavors. Learning to use salt well is probably the most high-leverage culinary skill, and it's often what separates bad cooks from good cooks.
Pepper (aka black peppercorn), on the other hand, is a spice. It belongs in the same category as cumin, turmeric, paprika, bay leaf, and hundreds of other spices. Spices ADD flavor to food. Spices each have distinct flavors, and they impart those flavors onto the food they're paired with.
Pairing salt & pepper is like pairing salt & paprika or salt & cumin. Sure, there are many dishes where they go together, but they serve completely different purposes. When you add salt & pepper, you're simultaneously enhancing existing flavors (salt) and adding new flavor (pepper). You might occasionally want to do this, but it's much better to add them separately, since you have more control over how each used! This is a big part of the reason why I try to seek out spices and spice blends that don’t have any salt added. I like to wield these tools separately.
This guide will focus entirely on spices. If you want to learn more about salt and how to use it, check out the salt guide I published a while back.
There are really only two factors you need to consider when buying spices— quality and freshness.
The quality of spices varies greatly, and a lot of grocery store spice brands (I’m looking at you McCormick) are of the lowest quality. This means they’re mass-produced, sourced at scale, and generally lack any depth of flavor. If you contrast that with some of the single-origin, small-scale spices sourced from really good farms, you’ll be blown away at the difference.
The other factor is freshness. The quality of spices (especially pre-ground ones) degrades significantly with time. With the big spice companies, you don’t know how long those spices have been sitting in storage or on grocery store shelves. Sourcing from the right places ensures that you’re getting fresh product.
My favorite places to buy spices:
This is my personal favorite source for spices. Almost everything is single-origin and extremely fresh, and they track down incredible heirloom varietals of spices whose flavors are unmatched.
Diaspora is another great company whose sourcing is on point. Their spices primarily come from India, and they have a great selection.
Lior Lev Sercarz, the owner of La Boite, is a chef who has dedicated his whole career to spices. He makes some of the best blends I’ve tried— he’s even crafted custom blends for the likes of Eric Ripert, Mike Solomonov, and a bunch of other top chefs.
Smith and Truslow’s selection is 100% organic, and they put a big emphasis on the fact that all of their spices are freshly ground prior to shipping. When I tried them I noticed a significant difference in flavor and pungency as a result.
Spicewalla is out of Asheville, NC, and they have a great selection. They generally grind fresh before shipping, and they also have some great blends.
SOS Chefs is an OG shop that caters to the NYC chef scene. I haven’t purchased much from their online store, but I visit their brick and mortar every time I’m in NYC. If you happen to be in town, it’s a super fun place to check out.
While spices are shelf-stable, it’s important to remember that they are still a fresh product. If you leave them for too long, they’ll go bad. Not to the point of making you sick, but their flavors will go almost completely flat.
In general, whole spices stay good for about 1-2 years, while ground spices are good for about 6 months (provided these spices are properly stored).
Light, heat, moisture, and oxygen are the enemies of spices. Keep them in a cool, dark place in airtight containers (ideally glass ones) and they’ll store well. Proper storage is especially important for pre-ground spices, since they start to oxidize more quickly after being ground.
Whole Spices vs. Ground Spices vs. Blends
The question of whether to source whole or ground spices mostly comes down to convenience. Whole spices offer slightly better flavor, but pre-ground spices and blends offer a lot more convenience.
If you want to experience spices at their absolute best, you should source fresh, whole spices and grind them yourself right before use. This is worth doing at some point in your life— the flavor and aroma you get from freshly ground spices is incredible, and it’s worth seeking out some really good stuff to give it a try.
However, convenience is also a big factor here! As I mentioned before, one of the things I like most about spices is that they’re a low-effort way to add flavor to your food, and they give you an easy tool to explore different flavor profiles. This ease-of-use really only comes from pre-ground spices. And there is no shame in using them— as long as you source fresh spices from reputable companies and use them in a reasonable amount of time, you’ll get plenty of flavor from pre-ground spices.
I’m also a huge fan of blends— you can make these yourself or buy pre-made blends. Blends are awesome because they’re the most low-effort way to bring complexity and new flavor profiles to your food. You could cook the same chicken thighs and have them taste Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese, or Italian, all depending on which spice blend you use to season them. With very little added overhead.
My suggestion is to find a few great blends from places like Burlap & Barrel or La Boite. Pick some flavor profiles you like and learn to use them in different ways. I personally prefer blends that don’t have salt in them— that allows you to use a lot more of the blend and manage your salt separately.
Toasting and Blooming Spices
You can really turn up the dial on the aroma and flavor of spices by activating them with heat. There are two ways to do this— toasting and blooming.
Blooming is the process of briefly toasting whole or ground spices in hot oil. The heat unlocks additional flavor, and the oil unlocks a whole array of fat-soluble flavor compounds. Whenever I’m building a base of aromatics for a dish, I like to add my ground spices directly to the aromatic/oil mixture to allow them to bloom.
The other way to activate these additional flavors and aromas is through toasting your spices in a dry skillet. Any heavy-bottomed pan will work— just heat it over medium-high heat and toast your spices briefly until give off a toasty aroma and start to darken slightly.
One thing to note here— if you’re toasting multiple spices at once, make sure to add the larger spices first, as they’ll take longer to toast than the smaller ones.
The Spices in My Pantry
The spices that you keep at home should reflect the flavor profiles that you gravitate towards the most. This is a very personal thing!
I cook a lot of food with Mexican and Mediterranean flavors, so my spice cabinet always has chiles, garlic, onion, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and black pepper. But I also like to change it up frequently, and I always have a few outside-the-box spices and a few interesting blends on deck.
For my class I put together this graphic showing some common spices for different cuisines.
My suggestion is to buy a few core individual spices based on the cuisines and flavor profiles you cook with most. Then buy a few versatile blends, and start with those.
Keep it small and simple— you don’t need to go out and buy a spice collection with everything in it. You probably won’t use them all in time, and soon you’ll have a lot of flavorless spices on your hands. Instead, start with a few high-quality options and learn how to use those well. Then expand from there.
If you’ve got any questions or suggestions for spices I should try, feel free to reach out!
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