Spices, as opposed to herbs, are often strong, zesty, pungent, fiery and fragrant, giving a dish an exotic and exciting taste.
Where herbs are enjoyed fresh, spices are nearly always found dried and either whole or ground into a powder. Whole spices, such as whole cloves, usually last much longer than the pre-ground form, even up to several years longer.
It is best to buy spices in small quantities so that they do retain their aroma and flavour for much longer. Although it may be cheaper to buy in bulk, for a well-spiced and flavoursome meal, it is worth using the freshest spices available and renewing them within six months if possible.
Always store spices in an airtight container and place them in a dark space such as a cupboard or pantry. A spice rack above the cooker may look very pretty, however, spices should be kept away from moisture, sunlight and sources of heat, all of which damage the spice.
If you want to give cooking with whole spices a try, it would also be a good idea to invest in a pestle and mortar to grind them in. A pestle and mortar would make things a lot easier, but you could just as well use the back of a spoon or a rolling pin to crush the whole spices.
Whereas fresh herbs can be used liberally in cooking, the same is not to be said for spices, especially the hottest ones. Only very small amounts of spices need to be used when cooking a dish unless you intend on blowing someone's head off. Most recipes call for anything between ½ tsp to 2 tsp.
Using spices or new spices may be a little daunting at first, especially if you are unsure of the amounts required. You need to add enough to give the right amount of flavour but at the same time not too much, just in case the dish became unpleasantly spicy. At first, it would probably be a good idea to follow recipes until you are more confident and intuitive.
Most spices should be added towards the end of cooking time; otherwise they may turn bitter and lose their flavour or on the other hand, give out too much flavour.
Many spices have been around for hundreds and even thousands of years. They were used as a cosmetic, medicine, dye, form of money and also masked the flavour of meat that had probably long gone past its sell-by-date. Spices, such as black pepper were held in high regard and in some places were even worth the same as gold.
Traders from the East brought spices such as cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg to Europe but charged very high prices for them. Eventually, this led to a number of European explorers setting off on voyages of discovery in order to find an alternative and cheaper way of obtaining these precious spices. During this period, the Spice Islands were discovered after which ensued hundreds of years of wars between these European empires, all trying to monopolise the spice trade for themselves.
For health reasons, some people are advised to reduce their intake of salt and in reality it is not healthy to consume a lot of salt in your diet (6g is the recommended daily amount). Substituting salt for a wonderful array of spices is a much healthier way of cooking and eating and research is now proving that certain spices can actually prevent cardiovascular disease, including strokes and heart attacks rather than causing them, which is the case of too much salt.
Our guide to spices takes a look at the most popular spices used in cooking today and gives interesting information on the history of each spice, the health benefits of consuming the spice regularly, other therapeutic uses, how to prepare and store the spice and of course which foods each spice should be used with, plus a number of recipe ideas.
Some of the spices included in this guide are black pepper, ginger, saffron, cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg and cumin.