09 November 2005
You want a pinch of what? Herbs, spices & flavourings part two
The other day I posted about the basics of spices, herbs and flavourings—how to tell the difference between them, how to purchase them and how to store them. This article builds on that one, providing a set of guidelines of experiencing and using them.
More than a few words on flavour and taste
Unless you’ve been on a bland diet, devoid of even salt, pepper and sugar, you’ve tasted herbs and other flavourings your entire life. But do you know what qualities they, individually, bring to a meal?
Before we get to that, there are some realities to face when trying to broach the subjects of flavour and food.
“Flavour” shouldn’t be confused with “taste.” I suppose taste is to flavour as colour is to a painting: flavour is the effect of taste and aroma, just as a painting is the result colour and composition—yes, I know there’s more to a painting than that, but work with me on this one...
We rely upon what food writers call “a referential culinary language,” forcing comparisons that give ideas of taste. In most cases (I would argue all cases) the comparisons don't work well—think of the number of times crab is purported to “taste like chicken”…I don’t know about you, but I've tasted both. I know crab doesn’t taste like chicken, however crab, like chicken is rather mildly flavoured, hence the comparison.
This leads to another point--not everyone experiences taste and flavours in the same way—time may heal all wounds, but it also kills taste buds. Small children are notoriously picky eaters, which I think is because they have more taste buds than adults, allowing them to pick up on nuances that adults may miss…well that and asparagus is just gross.
If you want to experience an herb or spice’s true flavours, simply take a leaf or a small bit of spice and rub it between your fingers for a few moments and sniff. As home cooks, it’s important to remember heat unlocks exotic flavours and fragrances.
To experience their truest flavours, take a half-teaspoon of chopped herb or crushed spice and steep it in a half cup of water just off the boil for 20 to 30 minutes…then sip. Just be forewarned that what you taste when you try the tisane will be much stronger than when you add a little to your sauces, stews or marinades.
As suggested in Part One, I think it’s important for home cooks to buy whole spices in small quantities because once they’re ground, they quickly lose their flavours and aromas. Perhaps the best way to draw out their flavours, is to dry-roast them—it’s quick and simple and will help you create wonderful flavours in your cooking. All you need to do is put the spices in a small frypan over medium heat and stir them around for a couple of minutes, or until they begin to look toasted and jump or pop about in the pan. Then either grind them in a mortar and pestle or a grinder.
I think it’s important to state that I don’t follow the fashion of fresh herbs over dried since both can be used effectively. Dried herbs are excellent for adding deep tones and flavours at the beginning of the cooking process while fresh herbs add brightness at the end, just before serving.
Using herbs, spices and other flavourings is incredibly easy and I hope these pieces will help you to explore your store’s spice aisles and try out something new when you create your next culinary masterpiece.
(photocredit: Gernot Katzer/ peppercorns)
tags: cooking oil herbs sauces spices vinegar