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Feb 13, 2008 08:57 AM

Layering spices

Does anyone know anything about "layering spices" to get base notes, middle notes and top notes? Much like perfume, I suppose. I've heard/read bits and pieces about this, and it's something I sort of do instinctively, but I'm wondering if there is any formal thought on the method? Or tips for knowing which spices function in which position, and on combining flavors?

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  1. Becky,

    I watch Always Cooking on PBS, with Chef Prudhomme, and he often talks about using the seasonings in stages, or layering as you put it. I goggled it and here is a link to look at. I'm glad you asked because I was curious, too.

    1. I have seen this addressed in detail in some Indian cookbooks. Unfortunately, don't recall which ones... This site has amazing detail. He touches on layering a little, but you have to really read through the information.

      1 Reply
      1. re: meatn3

        Both of these look good -- thanks to you both! The hardest thing for me is knowing exactly how each spice functions, and how they combine. Thanks for the links.

      2. Becky, the first thing I thought of when I read your post was an Italian-style cooking show I saw that talked about adding spices as you cook rather than at a single point in the process. For example, today I am making braised short ribs. I will start by sauteeing onion, pepper, garlic, celery, carrots in oil with salt, pepper and bay leaves, then I will salt and pepper the ribs before I dredge them in flour and brown them. And so on and so on. I think that adding the spices a little at a time at different stages adds a depth to the final dish.

        I think I have to go start my ribs now, I just made myself hungry!

        1. Comparing spices to notes is, at best, an analogy, and all analogies break down if carried too far. But I can think of various ways in which it can apply.

          When cooking with chilies, I think of mild ones like anchos as the 'base notes', and the hot ones as 'high notes'. Some add a depth or complexity of flavors, others just the spike of heat.

          Another distinction is that some spices are added at the start of cooking, others at the end (in between). Long cooking tends to blend and mute flavors. But you don't have to use different spices at different times. Adding the same spice at different points in the cooking can add different flavors.

          Competition chili cooks often add their 'special spice mix' in several stages. Indian cooking adds spices at several points. Garam masala ('warm spice mix') is often added at the end. But many of its constituent spices (e.g. ginger, cumin) are included in the mix that is pureed and fried with onions at the start.

          An Italian example would be osso buco. It starts with sauteed vegetables like onion, carrot, and garlic (and maybe lemon rind). And it is finished with gremolata - parsley, lemon rind, and garlic.