Spices have been used for thousands of years to enhance the flavour of foods, and range from mild to hot and spicy. In earlier times, spices sometimes were used to mask the undesirable flavour of meat and other foods that were past their prime.
Much of the early exploration of the world was prompted by the lucrative spice trade as explorers from several countries found new routes to distant lands. Spices can be obtained from berries (black pepper), fruit (paprika), seeds (poppy seeds), buds (cloves), roots (ginger) or bark (cinnamon).
Most of us have several containers of spices and dried herbs in our cupboard. Some flavourings are only used for a special recipe made a few times a year, so to check the potency of your spices, do the “sniff test” about every six months. If the aroma is weak, then the spice is not adding much flavour to your recipe. You may need to use more or buy a new container.
If you keep your spices above your oven or near your dishwasher, the heat and/or humidity are not extending the storage life of your spices. Instead, store spices in tightly covered containers in a cool, dry, dark place and mark the date of purchase on the container. Most ground spices retain their flavour for about one year, while whole spices, such as cloves and cinnamon sticks, retain their flavour for two years. Whole spices may be ground in a clean coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle. You also can crush spices by placing the whole spice on waxed paper and crushing it with a rolling pin.
To experience the flavour of spices and herbs, try mixing softened butter with a small amount of spice and spreading it on a cracker, or sprinkle dill weed on potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, carrots or scrambled eggs. Enhance the natural sweetness of fruits with a sprinkle of ground cinnamon. Bake apples, winter squash or sweet potatoes and sprinkle with cinnamon, ginger and/or nutmeg.
Spices add flavour with little or no sodium. For example, garlic powder has little or no sodium, while garlic salt may contribute a fair amount of sodium to your diet, depending on how much you use. Black pepper has no sodium, while lemon pepper may contain a significant amount of sodium. Read the ingredients label.
The usual rule of thumb is to begin with 1/4 tsp. of spice per pound of meat or pint of liquid. You can easily add more spice to suit your taste. Adding ground spice near the end of the cooking time will preserve more of the flavour.