Food

4 tips to keep your spices vibrant — plus how to use them a lot more!

Cardamom, cumin and sumac are about to be in heavy rotation at your house.

Cardamom, cumin and sumac are about to be in heavy rotation at your house

(Credit: Zahrin Lukman/unsplash.com)

We all have those packets and jars of ground spices lurking in the back of our pantry. It may be some beautiful crimson sumac your cousin got you from Tehran over a year ago, or it may be the cinnamon sticks you didn't use up after the holiday baking period. Unfortunately, it isn't possible to revive spices which have lost their aroma and vibrant colour over time, but there are ways to extend their shelf life, and use them in inspired ways, if you adopt the following strategies in your kitchen.

Remember these four tips and you'll ensure your spices stay as fresh as possible over time:

1. Use airtight containers. As your whole and ground spices are exposed to air, they quickly lose their potency and flavour. So choose glass jars or metal tins, and make sure the containers are tightly sealed.

2. Keep your spices in a cool, dark spot. Any direct sunlight on your spices will cause loss of flavour. Rather than using your countertop or windowsill (as beautiful as that may look), store your jars in a dark cabinet. 

3. Heat and moisture is not your friend. As convenient as it is to keep your spices near your stove, within reach while you cook, the heat and moisture will damage your beloved spices. Keep them away from the dishwasher, too, as it is another source of direct heat. On the other end of the temperature spectrum, there is the freezer, which is also not kind to spices. Condensation can render your spices clumpy.

4. Buy and keep your spices whole, when possible. Whole spices can retain their fragrance up to twelve months — much longer than ground spices, which generally speaking, should be replaced every six months. The benefit of buying your spices whole is that you can grind them as and when needed. To do this, you will need to purchase a pestle and mortar or a spice grinder (you can find a reliable spice/coffee grinder for around $20-30). This small investment is worth it in the long run, rather than spending more on ground spices which lose their intensity and have to be thrown out. Label and date your spice jars and tins, and purge when necessary.

Once you've familiarised yourself with your spice cabinet, what's fresh and what needs to be replaced, the next step is to use those spices, frequently and in versatile and fascinating ways.

For some inspiration, I'm sharing my top three spice pantry favourites and their uses. However, I'd add, do what my mother has always taught me to do in the kitchen: use your intuition. When it comes to these beautiful flavour enhancers, there are no rules; use them in whichever way you like, to complement spring and summer's bounty. I know I'll be roasting some rhubarb with cardamom and brown sugar very soon.

Cardamom

Cardamom seeds are tightly packed in a tiny pistachio-green pod. When ground in a pestle and mortar, you will fall in love with its floral, citrus and peppery fragrance. The beauty of this spice lies in its versatility; it can be used whole or ground, in both sweet and savoury dishes.

Pop a pod or two into a pot of boiling water when preparing your basmati rice. Or grind the seeds in a pestle and mortar, then dust a bit on top of those grilled Ontario peaches you like to enjoy over a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. Add a gently crushed pod in your morning coffee — believe me, try it.

Cumin

Cumin is warm, earthy and musky and it hails from the dried fruit of a plant in the parsley family. Cumin seeds are tiny, oblong and ridged, and this is one of those spices which should always be purchased whole.

You can lightly sauté cumin seeds in a bit of olive oil, then add sliced potatoes, ground turmeric, sea salt and chili pepper flakes to the pan. This is a quick side dish perfect for serving with grilled meats or tofu on the barbie. When cumin is toasted and ground, the flavour deepens; scatter a few pinches of it on top of a cooling cucumber and garlic raita, then pull out some potato chips and crudités, and watch your guests enjoy this fragrant, smokey yogurt dip.

Sumac

Sumac is found on small trees and shrubs in round, fuzzy, fire-red clusters. Though found all over the Middle East, sumac is native to several parts of Canada, too. Sumac is tart, with an earthy flavour.

Dust some sumac on a simple salad of sliced red onions, cucumber, mint, sea salt and olive oil. It's also great on creamy, feta scrambled eggs for your weekend brunch. With its herbal, lemon-lime flavour profile, sumac adds a subtle depth to dips, grilled meats and pasta salads. You can even try it this summer on your picnic potato salad.  


Shayma Owaise Saadat is a Food Writer and Chef. She lives in Toronto with her husband and son. You can follow her culinary journey at www.ShaymaSaadat.com or on Instagram.

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