Learning About Spices
Spices are what separate an average cook from a great cook. Plain, bland food can get very boring, so you do need to have a few things on hand other than plain old salt and pepper. Here is a good group of spices and their characteristics to help you begin adding zip to your cooking.
Bay Leaves - these are leaves from the Bay Laurel tree and have a lovely fragrance and flavor. You can use these in just about anything and are essential to have in your collection.
Paprika - this red spice is made from ground red peppers, but isn't really hot unless you use a lot. Small amounts give a nice color to breading on fried items and a lot will add zing to barbecue sauce.
Oregano - this traditional Italian spice is used in sauces and for seasoning on certain meat dishes.
Basil - another traditional Italian spice. This is the one that gives good pizza sauce its special flavor.
Italian Seasoning - this is a blend of several spices including oregano, basil, and thyme and is a quick and easy shortcut to spicing pasta sauces.
Thyme - this relative of oregano is used most often in chicken dishes.
Rosemary - very aromatic spice that can be used fresh or dried to season chicken and lamb. Be sure to rub fresh rosemary between your hands to bruise it and release the oils before you use it.
Sage - an essential spice for poultry that can be used fresh or dried, but is easiest to use in powdered format. Native Americans used sage as a purifier because of its lovely fragrance.
Poultry Seasoning - this is made mostly of sage and is for use on chicken, turkey, and other poultry. Each brand has a different mix, so try a few to find the one you like best. Most will contain thyme and black pepper in addition to the sage but may also have marjoram, rosemary, savory, or allspice.
Chili Powder - use this in chili or anything you want to give a Mexican flavor. It has a very strong flavor so don't add too much without tasting first.
Cinnamon - comes in powdered form or sticks of dried cinnamon bark. Use it to spice up fruits, pies, cobblers, and cakes.
Cloves - this is another that comes in both whole and ground forms and often in conjunction with cinnamon. It has a much stronger and sharper flavor than cinnamon so it usually used in much smaller quantities.
Nutmeg - this is also used a lot with cinnamon and/or cloves for spicing fruits and other desserts. It is also great if you add a small amount to mashed or scalloped potatoes. You can get it ground or whole, but the whole ones will require you grate it to powder yourself to use it. Very strong flavor so a little goes a long way.
Ginger - the whole fresh format can be used as an ingredient in cooking, but the powdered format is used as a spice. This is another that is often combined with cinnamon in desserts like pumpkin pie. It has a very strong flavor so use sparingly.
Pumpkin Pie Spice - this blend of spices can be used to substitute for individual spices where more than one of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, etc. are called for. It is a blend of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. Just total up the individual amounts and use that amount of pumpkin pie spice to save time and avoid dirtying multiple measuring spoons.
Cream of Tartar - this is a natural by-product left behind after grape juice has fermented to wine. It is used to stabilize egg whites for whipping and as a leavening agent in baking.