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Spicing it up - Am I doing it wrong?

Hello! My name is Kim and I am relatively new to home cooking. I've been working hard to try new recipes over the last year. I'm a vegetarian and so is everything I cook.

I've got a question about spices. I never seem to really be able to get the flavor of spices to come through in my food. I started off following recipes exactly, so that I'm doing the right quantity of spice at the right time during the cooking process, but the flavor always seems to be mild if there at all. A few examples:

One of the dishes I like to do involves Spicy Corn Cakes and black beans. I've changed it up alot since I started, because if I did it as directed, it was incredibly bland. The corn cakes call for Cayenne Pepper in the cakes. If I use the amount directed, you could barely taste it. Even doubling the amount of spice didn't seem to bump it up all that much. I thought maybe my peppers was old and had "expired" in terms of flavor, so I bought new but it didn't change anything.

Another example is with Curry Powder. I make a Chickpea, Pea and Yam Curry, and I practically have to dump half the jar to get it remotely curry tasting. I tried buying some bulk curry so that it would be fresh, but that didn't really make a difference.

A third example came last night. I was making a quinoa pilaf to go with some Sugar Dumpling Squash. It called for Cardamom - a flavor that I love. I used a whole bunch, and while the quinoa tasted way less bland than it would have if I hadnt used spice, it still didn't really have a cardamom flavor.

I don't think I'm under sensitive to spice - If I go to a restarant and order a "mild curry", my mouth is on fire. My husband can handle an enormous amount of spice, but has the same feeling about the use of home cooked spices that I've been doing.

So any idea what might be going on? Do I need to be buying really high quality spices? I generally just pick them up at the local grocery store, sometimes the "spice islands" and sometime the store brand.

Please let me know of any thoughts, I'm anxious to learn!! Thanks in Advance.

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  1. Welcome to Chow.

    High quality spices, FRESH spices, purchased in small quantities (some pro-chefs recommmend changing them up every 6 months but I find that excessive), whole rather than ground spices, toasting whole seeds, pods, chilies or berries first before you grind; all these things will help increase the flavor. Beyond that, maybe you just need to add more to taste; your reaction to heat in curry isn't really the same as tasting an ingredient or a spice in a dish. Taste the steps of the cooking process along the way and adjust accordingly.

    When in the cooking process you add the spice can make a difference as well. Some spices suffer from loss of flavor in long slow cooking, some don't and need time to develop or intensify, some are best added at the end. I like to add my spices at the beginning of a dish, and allow for the flavor to develop; the flavor and seasoning can be adjusted at the end of cooking. I often add them to the vegetables when I'm sweating them, rather than with the stock, for a stew, sauce or braise.

    I use www.thespicehouse.com for my purchases, other poster like Penzey's, Spice World or numerous other dedicated spice merchants, many having online websites. Supermarket spices are often on the shelves for considerable time, really past their prime and not well rotated; not the best place to purchase them, unless you're desperate.

    1. It wouldn't surprise me if the grocery store where you're buying spices has a low turnover. If that's the case, the only thing to do is to find a new place to buy spices. Inspect the spices before buying; ground peppers should be bright red, herbs vibrant green. If the color is faded, leave it on the shelf. Once you've bought them, give them a sniff every now and again; they should smell like what they are. If it smells like old hay, junk it.

      Some people recommend changing out spices every six months; I think this is kind of silly. Most plants have one growing season per year; if you change out the spices every six months, one of the replacements each year will be from the exact same crop you're throwing out. Don't worry about going by any set calendar. Use your eyes and nose and you'll be fine.

      1. When you can buy spices whole and grind yourself. Also toasting or warming a spice in a dry pan and then grinding it will help bring out a fresh, full spice flavor. I also recommend trying a few spice blends. World Spice Merchants is my go to co. for all of my spices and their spice blend page details the individual notes in each blend for your own research. Good luck!

        1. Thanks Everyone for the great suggestions! I just ordered some spices to go with some dishes I am making next week.

          I also intend on hitting the bookstore this weekend to learn as much as I can about all the different spices!

          1 Reply
          1. re: RookieKim

            Most Indian cookbooks don't rely on store-bought curry powder--Indian cooks make their own, from what I've learned, and each one is different. Also, they're not afraid of fiery tastes. I was amazed to see my cousin-in-law's mom put a full teaspoon of cayenne in her veggie curry the other week--I thought it would burn our tongues off, but it was actually delicious. (I wouldn't recommend starting out with that amount, though--try a little, taste, try a little more...)

          2. Try the fresh(er) spices suggestions but don't ever feel like you need to adhere to a recipe. I end up altering almost every recipe I try, even heavily recommended recipes. Agricultural products, including spices, vary by season, climate, source, etc. Your tongue is not the same as mine or the recipe's author. If you think it needs more cumin, coriander, basil, cinnamon, thyme, or whatever and it tastes good because you did then you did right.

            1. It may be as simple as just adding more salt. Salt is a flavor enhancer and restaurants tend to use more than you would at home. Just try adding a little more and see if it helps.

              2 Replies
              1. re: soypower

                And I find a little fresh lemon juice punches up the flavour in a lot of cases too.

                But I'd bet that stale spices are the main problem. Another issue might be the cookbooks - if a cookbook is being marketed outside of the nationality of the cuisine, for example, it's not unusual to have the spice levels decreased so as to not scare people away. Think of 'curry' made with a teaspoon of pre-packaged curry powder, and the like.

                1. re: soypower

                  I agree with the salt suggestion. It really brings out flavors, and if it's missing everything will taste bland.

                2. Many of the flavor compounds in spices are oil soluble. Many South Asian and South East Asian recipes call for "blooming" your spices(either whole or ground) in the fat before adding other ingredients. Just have your next addition at hand so that you do not burn your spices.
                  This same concept is used to finish a dish as well, in Hindi it is called "Chaunk" छौंक or"Tadka" Often translated as "tempering" oil or Ghee is heated and herbs or spices are add directly into the oil and that mixture is poured over the finished dish.

                  1. I have found some of the Spice Islands seasonings to be weak. I do not special-order spices. I rely on McCormick/Durkee from the supermarket, an Asian market for curry and garam masala. Your reaction sounds extreme. Pre-eminent food scientist Harold McGee advises adding seasonings at the end of cooking. He explains that salt and cooking encourage flavor compounds to be released, which is why cooking aromas are so enticing. But you want them to stay in the food until you eat it. So in most cases, he says, later is better. I'd be inclined to season both at the start and finish.

                    1. It might be helpful if you posted the recipes you are following so we can get an idea of how much spice the recipes are calling for, it could just be a underspiced recipe!

                      also, echoing the sentiment that the fresher you can get your spices, the better. if you can toast and grind whole spices yourself and to the recipe, you should most definitely get more flavor out of them, even if the recipe isnt really using enough!

                      1. Fresh whole spices are important, but I suspect the primary cause of your problem is a comparative lack of salt and fat. Salt and fat open up spicy flavors. Typical vegetarian cookbook recipes don't use nearly as much salt and fat as restaurants.

                        No doubt you could take all the spices out of your spicy corn cakes and black beans but add a bunch of butter and more salt, and the result wouldn't be "incredibly bland."

                        1. Yeah I do know what you mean. Often, it's to do with the recipe you're using. For flavours like garlic, freshly ground black pepper, onion I always up the quantities (by upto 5x for garlic!!)
                          What you are describing though, sounds like more than a question of liking strog flavours! I'd suggest the following:
                          -I don't go all out and by top-of-the-line; just know that better quality does mean, well, just that! Cinnamon and cardamom especially, I'd try and go for pricier stuff. Also, look at packaging dates when buying spices - if you live in a pretty cosmopolitan area, ethnic markets will often have higher turnover of their spices!
                          -The shelf-life thing is true - if the spice isn't REALLY fragrant in its packaging, it probably won't do much in your cooking.
                          -Store in airtight, dry, cool places
                          -Curry, cumin, fennel seed, mustard seed, peppers benefit from roasting. Buy the whole form, grind and roast for super-fresh flavour. Or just plan your recipes so that the prepared powders get dry heat. Cinnamon, cardamom, clove, nutmeg, anise, allspice are brought out by wet heat. Fresh nutmeg is fantastic, and unlike other spices, requires only grating. Look for it in a WF.
                          -I find that having justthe right amount of: salt, tanginess (lemon, etc), sweetness, will provide a good backdrop (so to speak) for the flavour you wish to have stand out. The tanginess is esp true for curry and hot chillies; the sweetness, for cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg; and the salt for just about everything.

                          Hope this helps!

                          1. What an interesting post and informative replies! I think that Kim's "spicelessness" problem is probably a combination of the factors mentioned here, but had forgotten about the addition of fat and salt to enhance flavors as mentioned by Sushigirlie. Both make foods taste much better, as processed food manufacturers know so well.

                            Although I'm a big fan of butter, if Kim is not she could try olive or other vegetable oil that works almost as well. As for salt, I've found that finely ground sea salt (like the mongo Costco containers) seems much more salty that granulated salt if she'd like to cut back on sheer quantity. Kosher salt, however, has a nice bright flavor without being overpowering.

                            As for spice stores, Penzey's is great. The have one brick and mortar store in each state, I think, and are a joy to visit. They also have small containers of spices at very reasonable prices so you don't waste so much. Their mail-order catalogs are fun to read and full of recipe ideas. Here's a link: http://www.penzeys.com I haven't shopped at the other stores mentioned, but will explore them as well.

                            Happy cooking, Kim and all.