Spice blends. Not the upcoming Posh-less Spice Girls reunion tour, but rather making your own ginger, (not-so-) scary, baby (-portion), posh (/cheap) and sporty custom mix of spices to use in cooking.
You probably have an assortment of orphan jars in your pantry. The time has come to put them to good use and have a little fun in the process.
Besides the thrifty advantage of repurposing what you have, custom spice blends are just that. Custom. You can make them exactly the way you want, depending on what you like or for what dish they’re destined. Plus, your blend will be fresher than anything you can pick up at most stores.
Here are some tips to help you get blending with the best of them:
• Use good spices. Spice experts, and many home cooks, say you get the best flavor by grinding whole spices yourself. But like me, you probably have a bunch of ground spices in jars. If you have the whole ones, great. (Toast them in a dry skillet first over low heat for extra flavor.) If you don’t have whole spices, don’t worry. You’re fine as long as your jars are not too old (a year is a good cutoff) and still smell strong. The volatile oils in spices gradually dissipate, especially once ground. Plus, a blend means even if one spice is slightly waning in flavor, the others can prop it up.
• Pick a point of emphasis. First decide how you want the blend to taste, says Linda Bernard, team manager at Washington’s Bazaar Spices. Do you want the primary flavor to be spicy or smoky? That can help direct you to one spice that you can build your blend around. Or pick a particular type of cuisine that might drive your choice of spices, whether an Indian masala or American barbecue.
• Mix your flavors. Bernard likes to break flavor options into categories of sweet, spicy, salty and bitter. Try to hit on at least a few of those groups to achieve balance. But, Bernard warns, “Don’t make it too spicy, because the last thing you want to do is numb your mouth.” Spices such as ginger and garlic can quickly overwhelm too. Salt can wash everything else out. Bernard cautions to be especially careful with smoked salt. She prefers to keep blends in a savory direction, so don’t get carried away with sugar, either. Add just enough to round out the flavor.
In her two-volume “Spices,” author Fabienne Gambrelle talks about another way to classify spices, as described by botanist Michel Viard. First are “soft” spices, which can be almost sweet or “cozy,” Gambrelle writes. Those include cinnamon, vanilla, cacao, anise, saffron and poppy seeds. Next are “heady,” which tend to be strong and aromatic. Think cardamom, star anise, nutmeg, caraway, cumin, coriander, turmeric and ginger. Last are “fiery,” the spices that can provoke “vigorous, even violent” reactions. Chile peppers, obviously, and allspice and mustard.
Keeping a mental note of these labels can help you mix and match a range of spices, without dumping in too many from one group.
Spice blends don’t have to include only ground spices. “Don’t be afraid to add dried herbs,” Bernard says. “They really do help bring the flavor along.” She’s a particular fan of thyme, oregano and dill. You can get even more daring, too. Play around with things including coffee beans, loose-leaf tea, nuts and dried citrus peel.
Put it together and taste it. Bernard generally recommends working in tablespoon amounts. Smaller amounts can be harder to mix and get a good sense of what you’re doing. You might want to hold off on salt, or at least some of your salt, until you’ve taken at least one sample. Remember, it’s much easier to add ingredients than take them away. Do taste along the way so you know where you stand. Sure, you can put a bit right on your tongue, but if that is not appealing, put a little in some oil to dip bread in. Just keep in mind how the blend will evolve once it’s cooked. If you’re roasting it on the outside of meat or diluting in liquid, that will affect how potent you want the blend to be.
Spice blends can be used in so many ways, such as on roasted or grilled vegetables or meat. They can jazz up a soup or stew. Mix them in oil to create a marinade or a drizzle for hummus. Incorporate them into a salad dressing. Throw a couple of teaspoons into scrambled eggs. Flavor a compound butter.
When it comes to creating and cooking with spice blends, Bernard says to relax and see where your pantry takes you. “Be creative. Step outside your comfort zone.”