Contrary to popular belief, culinary school isn’t all that different from regular college. Sure, your classes are filled with mise en place and prime cuts of meat, not Powerpoint projectors and uncomfortable desks. But you still leave the first day of class laden down with more textbooks than you can reasonably carry, have an excessive amount of reading to get through each night, and homework, and papers, and tests.
It caught me a bit by surprise when my very first night of class, while being walked through the program syllabus by our Director of Education, that we had our first paper due in just two weeks! Not to mention, our first quiz in a week, and our first exam less than a week after that. Talk about diving head first into the deep end!
That being said, I’ve really missed being a student since I graduated from the University of Maryland over two years ago, so I was excited to hear that there would be more academia involved in our culinary curriculum than I had anticipated. I eagerly flipped to the instructions for our first written assignment, and what did I find?
A Study on Spices
Learning the proper use and execution of spices is a technique that separates good cooks and chefs from great ones. Toasting cumin just enough to release the essential oils, but whisking it off the stove a second before it burns; infusing oil with smoked paprika to perfume a whole dish with a slow-grilled, smoky flavor… You don’t see that at The Olive Garden.
But anyone can toss some onion powder on a turkey burger, and thus, like most things in life, this is easier said than done. So far, from what I gather, it’s important to not only have working knowledge of a wide variety of spices, their origins, and how they can best be used to enhance cooking, but also to be comfortable not “over using” spices, as overzealous cook new to the exciting world of spice may. A small amount of the right spices, in a well-executed combination, will be much more successful in elevating a dish to a higher level than adding a little bit of everything in the kitchen sink.
For this assignment, I selected five spices that I’ve either never used, or know very little about, with the hopes of broadening my own (and with any luck, your own) culinary horizons. This might be a bit drier than what I usually post on the blog, but it’s sure as hell informative, and hey, there are pictures! So at the risk of sounding cliche, passe, and slightly bossy, I say to you: go ahead – spice up your life!
Saffron, a spice which consists of stigmas picked from the saffron crocus (a flower), is one of the world’s most expensive spices by weight, and used extensively throughout European, North African, and Asian cuisine. The resulting spice produced from the stigmas of the saffron crocus is a dusty red in appearance, and takes the form of thin, brittle threads.
Experts describe the aroma of saffron to be similar to that of honey, with underlying grassy, hay-like, and metallic notes. The taste can also be compared to hay, but with underlying bitterness to it. Because of these earthy flavors, saffron is an ideal seasoning for a variety of foods, including baked goods, cheeses, liqueurs, confections, curries, and meat dishes.
Saffron is most commonly known, however, for being one of the three essential ingredients in paella, or paella valenciana, a traditional Spanish rice-and-meat dish. It is also essential in making the spicy French fish stew, bouillabaisse, the Italian risotto alla milanese, and saffron buns, which are rich yeasty buns flavored with saffron and raisins. To all of these dishes, saffron contributes a rich yellow color in addition to its inherent flavors.
Similar to Saffron, Cardamom is also a very expensive spice – the third most expensive in the world – and is produced mainly in India. The cardamom spice itself comes from the ginger-like seeds of the cardamom plant, where the small brown-black sticky seeds are contained in pods. These pods may be roughly triangular, oval, or oblong, with rough, furrowed surfaces. Green cardamom seed pods are smaller and a pale green, while brown and black cardamom are larger and more ridged.
This spice has a strong, unique taste, with an intense aromatic, resinous fragrance. The flavor can be described as “Warm and eucalyptine with camphorous and lemony undertones. Black cardamom is blunter, the eucalyptus and camphor suggestions very pronounced.” Green cardamom, which are the “true” cardamom dried fruits, are sweetly fragrant with a slightly pungent flavor. Brown or black varieties of cardamom are larger, courser in flavor and have a slightly cooler, smokier scent.
Cardamom is used most widely in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indian cuisine, where it is used as a flavoring in savory and sweet dishes. It features in curries, being one of the spices comprising the Indian spice blend garam masala, and rice dishes as well as Indian sweets and drinks. In the Middle East, whole and ground cardamom seeds are also commonly added to coffees and teas, and in confections and baked goods. The aromatic properties of cardamom have also made it commonly used as a breath freshener to be chewed after meals.
Turmeric is a spice that is native to South Asia, and is derived from the rhizome or rootstock of the Curcuma longa, a leafy plant in the ginger family. Once gathered, the rhizomes are boiled for several hours, dried in hot ovens, and ground into a powder that becomes Turmeric. Turmeric is distinctive in its deep orange-yellow color, earning it the nickname “Indian Saffron,” which it became a much less expensive alternative for.
Turmeric has an earthy and slightly acrid aroma, with hints of orange and ginger. Its flavor can be described as warm and aromatic with a bitter undertone.
This spice is used extensively in Middle Eastern and Asian cuisine, particularly in curries and curry powder, where it is often the principal ingredient because of its distinctive color. Interestingly, turmeric is popularly used in fish curries because it masks fishy odors. Turmeric is also used extensively in Moroccan cuisine to spice meat, especially lamb, and vegetables.
While the origin of Juniper berries is obscure, the spice is commonly cultivated across the Northern Hemisphere, most commonly in Hungary and Southern Europe, particularly Italy. The berries themselves are initially hard and light green, but eventually ripen into a blue-black berry surrounding three sticky, hard brown seeds. While best if used while they’re still green, juniper berries are commonly used in their dark, ripened forms.
Juniper berries are often described as having an air-freshening, piny aroma – one that is fragrant and flowery, a cross between gin and turpentine. In flavor, it is very “clean,” aromatic, bittersweet, and piny. The flavor of juniper is often compared to gin, as it has been used to flavor gin since the 17th century.
Because of their distinctive clean flavor and aroma, juniper berries play a unique role in cuisine, which is to contribute to a dish by “freshening it.” In addition to providing flavoring, juniper can reduce the gamey flavor of game or the fattiness of duck and pork dishes. As such, juniper berries go well with all sorts of game and meat, including pork, duck, veal, lamb, venison, rabbit and wild boar. It also blends well with a variety of spices, including thyme, sage, oregano, marjoram, bay leaves, and all spice. Juniper flavors are often featured in goulash, sauerkraut, fruit dishes like apple tarts, and any dish requiring alcohol.
Caraway figures prominently in the cuisines of Germany, Austria, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. It seems to have a special affinity for apples, pork and sausages. The spice has been said to counter act the fattiness of pork, duck and goose. Caraway comes from a flowering plant; once the plant flowers, the seeds produced are brownish in color, are ribbed and slightly crescent shaped. The spice resembles cumin and the two are often confused in Asia.
The caraway seeds, usually used whole, have a pungent, anise- and fennel- like flavor and aroma that comes from essential oils, mostly carvone and limonene.
Like many spices, caraway seeds should be toasted before many applications, particularly when being used as a flavoring for meats like beef, pork, and lamb. Caraway is also sprinkled on rye breads and added to sauerkraut, potatoes, stews, cauliflower and cottage cheese. It can also be used in cakes cookies, soups, omelets, rice and pasta dishes, cheese spreads and vegetable dishes.