The flavor of “fresh” is hard to beat. But when it comes to seasoning food, dried herbs and spices are convenient and typically impart ample enhancement. So, how do you get the most out of that cupboard full of flavors?
Where you store them, how you store them, how you use them and which “them” you need most are all critical to successful savoring.
We ask the owners and chefs at Pedro O’Hara’s in Freeport, Maurice Restaurant Francais in South Paris and The Village Pizza in Poland for their spice advice. So let’s curry on: Consider this the cliff notes for Dried Herbs and Spices 101.
Nearly all containers will advise storing your newly acquired seasoning in a dark, dry and cool location. Those of you who have that perfect, slim cabinet right next to your stove designated as spice central, think again. The fluctuation in temperature and humidity can age herbs and spices prematurely, experts say, leaving them with a serious case of the blahs. Convenient location, but a flavor-numbing no-no.
Another common mistake is storing your red spices in the freezer or refrigerator. Each time the spice is removed from the refrigerator and opened, according to askthemeatman.com, moisture gets in and is then trapped with the spice when the cap is twisted back on. Moisture creates clumping and weakens flavor greatly.
“I wouldn’t keep any spices or herbs in the fridge, unless they’re fresh. But dry, no, absolutely not,” said Michael Levendusky, co-owner of Pedro O’Hara’s in Freeport.
If you purchase your herbs and spices from a bulk supplier, be sure to transfer them to a container with a cover to prevent moisture from affecting their flavors.
“We buy spices in terms of pounds and that last a long time for a restaurant,” said Levendusky.
Dried spices and herbs can start to wane after about six months, although many, if handled properly, can maintain their flavors for up to two years. If that jar of basil or ground ginger has little to no smell, it’s likely time to replace it. For herbs, if there is little color left and no aroma, they should be replaced.
For that reason, consider how often you use a flavor and purchase the smallest container available for those needs. Throwing out a half-used jar of ginger is like throwing away money. Let’s face it, it’s better to have to buy more because you ran out then because you had to throw it out.
Most supermarkets have smaller containers of spices and herbs, which is great when you know you aren’t going to use them often. If you know you’re going to use a lot of something, Axis Natural Foods on Center Street in Auburn is among the places locally that offer bulk herbs and spices from A to Z at reasonable prices.
Proper dispensing and application
Much like the damaging convenience of that spice cabinet next to the stove, the shaker tops of some seasonings make it all too easy to add the desired flavoring directly into that soup, stew or sauce. There are two potential problems with that, experts say: First, shaking is not very accurate when a specific amount is called for. Second, humidity from the contents of the pot or pan rises directly into the container, which certainly doesn’t keep the contents of said jar “dry and cool.”
Instead, put the spice into a small prep bowl for measuring, either by popping the shaker top off the bottle first or shaking it into the bowl. Then add to the dish. Your spices will thank you for sparing them the sauna.
Fresh or dried? Recipes often specify the form of herb to use, and with good reason. Corey Sumner, owner and head chef at Maurice Restaurant Francais in South Paris, said that for the most part, dry and fresh can be used interchangeably, but be aware that the flavor and texture is likely to vary, and the amount you need to use may be different because of the differences in flavor intensity and moisture content.
“You can interchange fresh and dry, but it depends on what the recipe is,” said Sumner.
Recipes that don’t specify are typically based on dry seasonings, so if you choose to use fresh, just know you will need more than the recipe calls for, said Sumner.
“You can’t really make pesto with dried herb. You need the moisture in the herb to make that.”
Levendusky added, “Nothing compares to a fresh spice or herb, but it’s probably a lot cheaper and easier to buy dry.”
Levendusky said that to get the most out of those fresh herbs, try drying them yourself. Leave the leaves whole and crush them when you’re ready to use them. But be sure to store them in airtight containers.
What every kitchen should have
Not everyone cooks the same, therefore tastes vary. But what should most cooks have on hand for dried herbs and spices?
Aside from salt and pepper, the responses to that question reflected our experts’ personal preferences.
The Village Pizza in Poland buys its spices in bulk, and cook Lexi Brandt says the three seasonings they use most are granulated garlic, oregano, and basil. “We go through a lot of oregano and basil,” said Brandt. “It creates quick flavor.”
Thyme was another popular enhancer, while Sumner said rosemary is a good herb to have on hand, as well as ground mustard, which he says he uses in potato and macaroni salads.
Quick dipping oil
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon rosemary, thyme or basil; to taste
Dress up at-home pizzas
1 jar pizza sauce
2 tablespoons granulated garlic
2 teaspoons pepper
1 tablespoon basil
1 tablespoon oregano
Dry rub for chicken
4 boneless breasts
1/4 cup basil
1/4 cup oregano
Freshly ground salt and pepper
Baste chicken in butter and coat with dry rub; bake or grill.
Paul Federico, head chef at Harvest Hill Farms and the new Farm House Pizza and Deli in Mechanic Falls, lobs us a meatball — a delicious, tender hand-made meatball, the recipe for which has been passed down through the family.
• Do not store spices near or above stove or dishwasher, as the fluctuation in temperature and humidity can age herbs and spices, rendering them flavorless and unusable.
•Red spices should be stored as all others are, in a cool, dry, dark place, not the refrigerator. Each time the spices are removed from the cold of the fridge for use, moisture attaches to them, which affects the potency.
• Never add herbs and spices to recipes directly from the container, as steam and moisture can easily invade the container.
• Check out the ingredients needed for new or unfamiliar recipes before heading to the store. Some recipes call for fresh, and only fresh will do…
• Using dried when fresh is called for will alter the flavor, not to mention the amount needed. Best to use fresh when the recipe calls for it.
• When a recipe doesn’t specify fresh or dried herbs, it’s good to remember that, in general, one part dried equals three parts fresh.
• Dried spices and herbs are great for many recipes, especially rubs, since they coat well.
• Pesto, soups, salads and certain entrees are better complimented by fresh herbs.
• Garlic, onion and celery salts, and the like, should not be used in place of the real thing whenever possible.
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