Take a closer look at your favorite pantry ingredients. This week, it’s all about spices. (But of course, feel free to revisit the pocket guide to vinegars.)
Cooking with a well-stocked spice cabinet is a joy. It makes your food more aromatic, vibrant, and bold with relatively minimal effort. But spices are some of the more misunderstood players in the home-cooking game. Questions we hear a lot from readers: Are more-expensive brands worth it? How long do spices last? Do they go bad? Should I be buying whole or ground? What’s the best way to cook with them?
They’re all good questions, so we did a little research (nerding out over food-science king Harold McGee). Turns out, it’s not as complicated as it seems. A few easy-to-remember tips can inspire you to shop confidently and season generously.
Start with Good Sourcing
Upgrading to high-quality spices will make a huge difference in your cooking. They’re fresher, which means they have a more vibrant color, a deeper aroma, and a more pungent flavor. They might cost a bit more than the average supermarket variety, but if stored properly, they’re a worthy investment. Even within the top-tier spice market, though, it can be hard to know just what brand to buy.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of fraud in the global spice industry. Similar to what we’ve seen happen with olive oil, honey, and seafood, it’s usually a matter of diluting a product to increase profit. So how do you know when you’re getting the real thing? Our strategy is to be an informed consumer. Not that you have to read an entire dissertation about the global spice trade to buy a jar of paprika, but take a peek at some websites. Is the brand transparent about sourcing? Does it mention seasonality, particular growing regions, or specific farms? Does it have equitable trade practices with these producers? What about regenerative farming and ecological impact? If a brand is open about its supply chain and its global impact, that’s a green light. (See below for the brands we buy.)
Care for Your Spice Investment
with Smarter Storage
The best way to extend the life of your spices is to know its enemies. Light, heat, air, and humidity are the harbingers of staleness. Spices won’t ever go bad, per se, and it’s unlikely they’ll become unsafe to eat, but the color may start to dull, and the flavor might be a bit muted. The better the storage system, the longer you can keep those spices fresh.
Spices should be stored in airtight jars (usually the ones they come in are fine, but if you’re buying bulk in bags, you’ll want to transfer them). Bonus points if the jars are opaque or darkly colored to block out light. Store them in a cool, dark, dry part of your kitchen—away from the heat of an oven or stove top and not in a moist environment, like a refrigerator.
The Science of Cooking with Spices
If you read South Asian recipes, you’ll notice there’s often a step where whole spices are cooked in a hot fat, like oil or ghee. In many Latin American recipes, whole spices and chilies are dry-toasted in a hot pan before being ground. These methods make the flavor of your spices much more powerful.
Food scientist Harold McGee touches on this process (and pretty much any other food question you could possibly have) in his acclaimed book On Food and Cooking. “Herbs and spices stockpile their aroma chemicals in specialized oil-storage cells,” he writes. “[They’re] in glands on the surfaces of leaves, or in channels that open up between cells.” In the wild, these essential oils—the same ones we covet for flavor and aroma—function as the plant’s defense mechanism.
As a cook, your goal is to coax those aroma chemicals out of the herbs and spices. There are a few ways to do this.
The hotter these aroma molecules get, the more easily they’ll release flavor.
Break them down
Think of a bartender muddling herbs or twisting lemon peel to release the essential oils. Ground, crushed, and chopped herbs and spices are more flavorful for a couple of reasons. First, all of those actions will cause friction, which generates heat, and heat equals flavor. Second, by breaking down these ingredients, you’re creating surface areas for those aroma molecules to escape from and get into your food.
Since they’re oils, aroma chemicals are fat-soluble. If you add them to a warm fat like oil, butter, ghee, or animal fat, they’re able to release a ton of flavor. Also worth noting: Because fats have a palate-coating effect, a fat infused with spice will have a full and intense taste.
To Grind or Not to Grind
We like to have a mix of whole and ground spices. There’s nothing wrong with buying preground spices. It’s convenient, and if you’re purchasing high-quality product and storing it properly, it should remain fresh for a while. But because ground spices tend to lose their flavor sooner than whole spices, we opt for ground versions of the spices we use most frequently and whole versions of the spices we might need to store for longer.
If you want to grind your own whole spices, give them a quick toast in a dry pan, then crush in a mortar and pestle or blitz in a coffee grinder. Be sure to have a dedicated coffee grinder for spices…unless you want cumin in your next latte.
There are so many different ways to incorporate whole or ground spices into your repertoire, but if you’re wondering which one is best suited to your recipes, think about it this way: Based on McGee’s assessment of how grinding, crushing, and chopping affects flavor, we know that ground spices have greater surface area from which to release flavor. That means they’ll become aromatic more quickly. So if you need max flavor with a short cook time—like spiced nuts, cauliflower chorizo tacos, or spiced carrot soup—ground is the way to go.
Whole spices—while potent—will release their flavor more gradually and are better-suited for longer cook times or slow steeping, which allows them to deeply infuse whatever they’re in. We like to use them for mulled cider or wine, in a fragrant lamb tagine, or to round out brines for homemade pickles.
Spice Brands We Love
Burlap & Barrel
Social responsibility is an important part of Burlap & Barrel’s brand identity. For founders Ethan Frisch and Ori Zohar, transparency, equitable trade, and sustainability are the big priorities. By working directly with farmers, they’re able to source spices that are a much higher quality than what you’d get at a supermarket. Burlap & Barrel has all the essentials, but look out for its more unusual offerings like ground black lime, Turkish oregano buds, and wild Icelandic kelp.
Diaspora Co. started out in 2017 selling only turmeric. Today it sources thirty different spices from India and Sri Lanka. Founder Sana Javeri Kadri is passionate about ethical sourcing, paying above industry standard to provide a living wage for her farm partners. Diaspora Co. works directly with farmers, wholesalers, and consumers, removing many of the middlemen distributors in the traditional spice trade. You not only get high-quality specialty varieties from multigenerational farms but also get them at their freshest. We’re currently swooning over the brass dabba and katori spice storage set.
Spicewalla founder and James Beard Award–winning chef Meherwan Irani focuses on freshness and potency with small-batch production and in-house roasting and grinding at his North Carolina factory. Spicewalla’s offering of blends is especially impressive—everything from BBQ rubs to chai, everything bagel, and pumpkin pie. Plus, the tins are so fun and colorful—they make you a little happier when you cook with them.
We hope you enjoy the products recommended here. Our goal is to suggest only things we love and think you might, as well. We also like transparency, so, full disclosure: We may collect a share of sales or other compensation if you purchase through the external links on this page.