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.

As always,

(photocredit: Gernot Katzer/ peppercorns)


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, Jasmine,

I am a Legacy Participant who was banned from eGullet for being a gadfly. I saw your post in the Michael Ruhlman thread (and it IS his thread) and came here to post, not anonymously, about the existence of other food forums. Your anonymous commenter was, in fact, quite accurate in calling eGullet corrupt. In fact, I would no longer call eGullet a "forum."

"Forum" is defined as being a place for open discussion and the voicing of ideas. I would not call eGullet open, not after what I experienced.

Witness the idealistic beginnings of eG:


I would be happy to provide details if you would like, of my own termination, and the circumstances that led up to it.

There are several food boards that have started as the result of hundreds of people either being banned or resigning in disgust and frustration at the censorship and power abuse emanating from management at eG. I was quite bitter myself, at first, but I'm better about it, because I've taken action.

I have been working steadily to notify people in the media about the abuses. And many of those people are media folks who currently post at eG. Why? Power abusers always piss me off. I consider censorship unAmerican (and it's rude, too, which is unCanadian). Heh.

You might find a more liberal, tolerant and easy-going (and better informed) food community at MouthfulsFood.com. It's not perfect, but none of the seven hundred members, most of whom came from eG, have been banned yet.

And while you are allowed to mention eG there, you are not allowed to mention any other food forums that spawned from eG at eG. Are you detecting the hypocrisy? Chowhound likewise will not brook mentions or reference to eG in its discussions. Pretty funny stuff, actually, when you consider that eGullet was started when Jason Perlow e-mailed hundreds, if not thousands, of Chowhounders when they started up eGullet, which caused a great rift between the two boards. Some people manage to straddle all the fences without the politics, but you should be aware of the politics.

At MouthfulsFood.com, you can post about eG and discuss, but open criticism of eG members is not allowed. But hundreds of people have staggered in, wounded and stunned from their encounters with the policies that stifle free speech and self-expression.

There is also the very irreverent Mongomania.
URL = s10.invisionfree.com/mongomania/
(Be sure to read all about eMullet. You will undoubtedly laugh out loud more than once. Warning: it's crude in places. I can handle it: I'm an alto, a salty broad.

Mongo himself was banned (the same day I was), and his food blog, which was the most-visited in the history of eG, was locked and then heavily pruned. Mongo actually started the AnotherSubcontinent.com forum, but I can promise you that he did not leave the anonymous post on your blog. He's not chickenshit.

I like your blog, and will subscribe with Bloglines. I just acquired an entire set of Indian spices, delivered to me from a friend I met at eG, from NYC. She hasn't been banned, but was demoted to "general membership," so that she can only read posts. She cannot PM or use their system.

Feel free to visit my blog, too: I photograph and write about small farms. I started a thread about it at eG and that thread was first co-opted then locked. Why? Because I dared to state that eG isn't particularly supportive of sustainable agriculture. Lip service, perhaps, but merely that. And recently eG forbid (forbid!) people to discuss composting. Said it wasn't food-related. Unbelievable. It's ONLY food-related: compost comes from food, and grows food.

Well, I've bent your ear long enough. I am glad I discovered your blog while lurking on the Michael Ruhlman thread, the nuances of which will undoubtably be discussed at MouthfulsFood and Mongomania.

Feel free to e-mail me: tana(at)tanabutler(dot)com. Or not. I hope eG doesn't give you too much heat.

Tana Butler
Legacy Participant