Most people talk about how to incorporate the right type of spices in their cooking or the spices’ health benefits. Before learning how to cook well with spices, it is more important to learn how to source and purchase fresh, quality spices.
There is increasing interest in knowing where your vegetables, meat and dairy come from. Don’t you want to know where your spices come from as well?
Would you make a green smoothie with moldy fruits? Use rancid oil in your salad? Of course not. Similarly, you should aim to use the best spices and herbs possible. Good quality spices are much more potent than average grocery store spices, and can elevate a dish with little effort and minimal cost.
After being educated on how to choose my spices, I was appalled about the ugly facts in the spice trade and we, in Malaysia, are sold Grade C & D spices. It is imperative that we be informed about the good, the bad and the ugly facts about buying spices. So do you think you know what you are buying? Think again.
RULES FOR BUYING SPICES
Unbeknown to most of us, the spices that most of us store are in a pretty bad state that you should just “Throw away your spices and start over”. It’s a pretty harsh statement, but that’s often what I see when I go into someone’s kitchen. Here’s some tips I learnt from Shaury Spices on choosing and stocking your spices.
1. Use Your Senses
- Physical Appearance: First, check is the physical appearance of the spice.In general, the seed, pod, or flower must be big in size, whole and natural in colour. This is to rule out unadulterated crop. Do not buy a spice with bad physical quality.
- Aroma: Aroma is one of the most crucial and important quality control aspects in assessing the quality of spices. Do not use any spice without aroma or with unusual aroma. There should be no moldy, musty and bad odour aroma. The aroma for different grades of each spice are distinctively different too.
- Taste: After qualifying both the physical appearances and aroma, taste the spice to determine if the spices are still acceptable. For example, the taste of the fennel seed must be sweet with a flavour of mild anise and after grounding, the taste of fenugreek seed is really bitter and gives of bitter after taste. Do not taste any spice without aroma and with poor physical appearance.
- Flavour: Flavour is the final combination of the aroma and taste of spice. The combination of spices makes the flavours stronger and more aromatic. For example, fennel seed is always used in fish dishes, meanwhile fenugreek seed is always used in curry preparation. Using bad quality spices will produce awful flavours and destroy the purpose of spices in flavouring a dish.
2. Purchase Whole Spices
- Purchase whole spices and grind them yourself to retain maximum potency and ensure a fuller flavor.
- Whole spices will stay fresher, longer. Since ground spices have such a short shelf life, chances are every ground spice in your cabinet right now have gone stale.
- You know what you are getting with whole spices. Ground spices may have other ingredients such as salt, rice or flour mixed in and FDA regulations do not require suppliers to list these add-ins as ingredients. Also, ground spices are not required to be free of contaminants.
3. Buy The Best Possible Spices You Can Afford
Cheap spices are cheap for a reason. Not only the lowest grade spices are normally used for the ground products, not many countries have health regulations on ground spices. And in countries that do, they are lax. The ASTA (American Spice Trade Association) cleanliness specifications states that “…it is not possible to grow, harvest, and process crops that are totally free of natural defects”. *So let’s just grind them in and sell them?* Somewhat right. What are these ‘defects’ and foreign matters? Well if you really want to know, a few of them are mold, excreta (yup, that’s poo), dead insects, rat hairs, wire, string and a list of other ‘foreign matter’. And the shocking truth – ASTA allows for this up to 20% for some spices, the average is much less.
4. Buy Small Amount of Spices At A Time
Do not buy spices in bulk unless you are a very active cook of heavily spiced recipes. Spices do go stale pretty quickly, as the freshness of spices only last for 6 months especially the ground spices. A little good quality spices goes a long way because you won’t need to use as much for cooking as they will be much more potent than standard grocery store ones.
5. Stay Far Away from Typical Grocery Store Spices
Products at your average grocery store may sit on the shelves for a year or more, and not forgetting they were probably in a warehouse maybe another year before that. Furthermore, the average shelf life of ground spices maxes out around six months, and we are not able to check for poor quality and nasty contaminants of the sealed packages / bottled spices.
So where to source for better spices?
- Go to Indian or Ethnic Markets, where they often have good quality whole spices at affordable prices, that are re-stocked much faster than an average grocery store. You get to use your eyes and nose to select carefully.
- Source for a local spice merchant, like Shaury Spices in KL. These spices shops nearly always guarantee quality and freshness. The best part? The staff might give you some samples to try.
- Source for quality spices Online. If you cannot locally source whole spices, consider purchasing online from a reliable company.
If you’ve been to your local ethnic market and/or specialty spice merchant and experienced the real thing, you can easily just use your eyes and nose to identify the frauds. Most spices are incredibly pungent, and should never smell musty.