How to Get Smarter With Your Spices

May 15, 2019 Updated: July 2, 2019

The layers of earthy, smoky, pungent flavors in a warming curry; the tingling bite and subtle crunch of a peppercorn crust on a juicy steak; the zing of hot chili oil drizzled over a finished dish—spices, in their many forms, bring foods to life.

A new cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen, “Spiced,” is all about how to harness these culinary powerhouses.

Beyond providing a primer to the colorful world of spices, the book, in the Test Kitchen’s characteristic methodical, educational spirit, delves into the “hows and whys” of using them with an array of simple, foundational techniques (and plenty of recipes to practice on). Lessons range from mastering the building blocks of seasoning, salt and (sometimes) pepper; to properly toasting or blooming your spices at the start of cooking, to heighten their flavors and aromas; to making and using your own spice blends and condiments, whether for an initial rub or a finishing touch.

“Our main goal was to unlock the potential of spices for our readers,” said Dan Zuccarello, executive food editor of books at America’s Test Kitchen. “There are so many ways to incorporate spices into your food—beyond simply sprinkling them on your proteins.”

Below, Zuccarello shares a few of them, plus other tips for getting smarter with your spices.

The Epoch Times: What are some of the simplest yet most effective ways to incorporate more spices into your cooking?

Dan Zuccarello: We dive into several different techniques in our book, but one of my favorites is spice-infused oils. They are simple to make and an easy way to add richness and flavor to your food.

For our spiced oils, we kept the method fast and easy: We heated the spices in the oils over medium-low heat for a few minutes to extract their flavor (the process is efficient; the main flavor compounds in most spices are fat-soluble), and then let the oils steep off heat for an additional four hours. This off-heat steeping was perfect for ensuring maximum flavor transfer, as any more heated steeping made the spice taste harsh.

Consider serving our fennel oil [made with cracked fennel seeds] with a log of goat cheese and some rustic bread for dipping; drizzle it on pizza, seared white fish, or roasted chicken; toss it with roasted vegetables; or even use it to finish vegetable stews.

The Epoch Times: What are the most common mistakes that home cooks make when using spices?

Mr. Zuccarello: Improper storage is a big one. Jarred whole spices are typically at their best for two years while ground spices stay fresh for about one year. Keep spices away from heat, light, and moisture, all of which shorten shelf life.

To check the freshness of your spices, crumble a small amount of the dried powder or herb between your fingers and take a whiff. If it releases a lively aroma, it’s still good. If the aroma and color of the spice have faded, it’s time to restock.

Another is forgetting to toast and bloom your spices. Spices contain a host of flavor compounds that give them character and complexity. But without the initial cooking, these compounds can remain largely dormant so that the dish tastes bland and dusty.

For whole spices, we recommend toasting them in a dry skillet over medium heat until they just become fragrant, one to three minutes, then immediately remove them from the skillet to stop the toasting. Ground spices can also be toasted, though we prefer to bloom them in hot oil. Blooming draws out maximum spice flavor without really adding an extra step—you’d need to add the spices to the dish at some point anyway!

The Epoch Times: For home cooks looking to expand their spice cabinets, the choices can be overwhelming. Where do you start?

Mr. Zuccarello: Spices offer a great opportunity to travel the world without leaving your kitchen. If you are looking to incorporate new spices into your cooking, I recommend you look into the spices commonly used in a region of the world that interests you and start incorporating them into your favorite dishes.   

The Epoch Times: On the flipside, what are some of your favorite surprising, unexpected ways to use more everyday spices—the ones home cooks probably already have in their kitchens?

Mr. Zuccarello: Everyone has salt on hand, but they are most likely missing out on the world of flavored salts. There are a lot of excellent flavored salts in our book, but one that I am particularly fond of is the sriracha salt. Consider sprinkling it on French fries, baked potato, avocado toast, or fresh noodles.

Another spice cabinet all-star is cinnamon, but more likely than not, it is only being pulled out for dessert recipes. We like to incorporate the warm spice in a variety of savory applications, from chilis and curries to spice rubs for proteins and hearty vegetables.

The Epoch Times: Do you have a favorite spice?

Mr. Zuccarello: Coriander is a universal spice in my mind and seems to make its way into most things I cook. I really enjoy its sweet, almost fruity or citrusy flavor. I usually have both coriander seeds and ground coriander in my spice cabinet. The seeds are great for all manner of pickles, relishes, chutneys, and infused oils, while ground coriander is great for enhancing spice rubs and blends for meat and fish.

The Epoch Times: In addition to more savory applications, there’s a section toward the back of the book dedicated to spices for baking and desserts (including an intriguing strawberry-black pepper sugar). What are some fun, perhaps unexpected ways to spice up sweets?

Mr. Zuccarello: The strawberry-black pepper sugar was a big eye-opener for us, too, and a great example of how savory spices can work really well in sweet applications! Another favorite recipe from this chapter was the Pink Peppercorn-Pomegranate Panna Cotta (try saying that five times fast). The fruity, floral flavor of the pink peppercorns—which are actually not true pepper—pairs really well with the clean, rich flavor of the panna cotta.

RECIPE: Spice-Crusted Rib-Eye Steaks
RECIPE: Chicken Tagine With Fennel, Chickpeas, and Apricots
RECIPE: Pink Peppercorn-Pomegranate Panna Cotta

Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Spiced america's test kitchen book cover
“Spiced: Unlock the Power of Spices to Transform Your Cooking” by America’s Test Kitchen ($29.99).