I have a bottle of dried marjoram in the back of my spice shelf. I have no idea how it got there, and since it’s full, I’m not entirely sure that I’ve used it. To be completely honest, I’m not even sure what marjoram tastes like. But it’s there, next to a dozen other dried herbs and spices that I only use once every six months or so, when I get adventurous and decide to find a recipe that’ll use up some of that za’atar I got in a promotional gift bag.
Raise your hand if your spice life sounds like mine. I have the spices that are in good rotation, and the rest sits there and takes up space. But according to Chef Michael Armstrong at Bodega Nera, a modern Mexican restaurant in New York City, we all need to suck it up and throw out our spices. “What people don’t know is that after 6 months to a year, dried spices have lost most of their flavor. Everyone has those couple jars that they bought for a holiday meal and never used again… but it’s best to just discard them if they have been there for a long time.” The first step is to think about what spices you usually reach for. If you use it a couple times a month, you’ll likely go through it before it turns to dust.
Now that you have your fresh, lively spices, what to do with them? It’s one thing to salt and pepper to taste, but another to try to experiment with your own flavor profiles. The first rule is knowing that dried herbs are much stronger than fresh ones, so if you substitute, take that into account. It doesn’t work all the time, though. “Some herbs like parsley and basil are not worth using dried – there is really no substitute for fresh! But other herbs like oregano, thyme, and epazote are great when dried.”
The next rule is that you can definitely experiment, but keep everything in the realm of whatever cuisine you’re making. Don’t just throw some garam marsala into your coq au vin and expect it to make “fusion,” though now that I think about it, miso guacamole doesn’t sound half bad. As basic as it sounds, it just matters that it tastes good. “Experimenting is never a bad thing!” says Armstrong. “Just remember to always season little by little and taste often. Sometimes adding spices and dried herbs to dishes can take a few minutes for the flavors to develop, so you can always add more, but you can’t take it out once it’s in.”
I do have one rule in my house, which is: No curry powder. In general I try to stay away from spice blends (except for Old Bay. Love you, Old Bay). It’s hard to tell just what’s in them, and they often contain lots of extra salt or MSG. However, Armstrong admits that they can be a great shortcut, as long as you get them from a quality place, which is actually increasingly plausible these days. He recommends The Spice House in Chicago, or any place that gives you more of a rundown as to what’s in the mix.
The best way to get familiar with your spices is to just keep tasting, and adjusting to your palate. Grab a bag of black cardamom or fenugreek seeds and see what you come up with. Just be sure to replace them after a few months.
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