Spice It Up!

While many foods are flavorful on their own, incorporating certain spices into dishes can make for exquisite flavor profiles. It can be difficult to understand which spices and foods mix most uniformly together, but it is all about experimenting and testing them out! If you’d a visual representation of these pairings, Cooksmarts has a wonderful infographic that identifies specific spices and their possible food pairings.

To start, let’s discuss the reasons why we would want to add spices to a dish. First and foremost, spices are an excellent way to add flavor and aroma to a dish. Whether your main ingredient is a food that is bland or has a distinct flavor profile, spices are an excellent way to expand upon that profile – adding either a sweet, spicy, or earthy characteristic to the dish. Think of the sweet kick that’s added to an Italian sauce when basil and oregano are added, the burn that sits on the back of your tongue when adding cumin and cayenne peppers to a chili, or the sweet warmth you get when roasting root vegetables with ginger. In regards to aroma, think of opening the oven while roasting ginger and turmeric, or smelling thyme and rosemary infused with sauteed olive oil: they release a unique fragrance that attract attention and thus attract attention towards whatever dish is currently cooking, making it more likely whether or not someone is going to divulge in it.

Spices not only add flavor and aroma to a dishes, but they can enhance the natural flavors of a dish. Whenever meals tend to taste a bit too bland, we tend to throw a bit of salt in to even out the dish. Acids can go a long way in helping with this issue, whether it be the addition of a vinegar, either apple cider, red wine, or white, or the use of lemon juice or lime juice. Dark, leafy greens lose much of their bitterness and gain a more palatable taste when some salt, vinegar, and oil is tossed among it, while lemon or lime juice and salt do wonders for salsas, hummus, and guacamole.  Furthermore, think of roasting root vegetables – beets, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, radishes, etc. – using other root vegetables like ginger and turmeric are fantastic ways to enhance the earthy flavors that are natural to the foods. In this case, the ginger, both sweet and warm, will pair wonderfully with the turmeric, both bitter and peppery, to produce an excellent bite and pleasantly warm aroma to the dishes.

Now, we’ve all made dishes that come out looking disgusting, stews especially – they tend to look rather messy and brownish, or as Gordon Ramsay might say, “It looks like the inside of a soiled diaper!” Well, even if your dish looks like literal shit, spices are a nice way to either add or enhance the color of your food. The first thought that comes to mind is Indian cuisine – think of any curries you may have eaten in the past, whether red, yellow, orange, or green. The overall tone of these dishes tend to differ from cook to cook, and much of that has to do with the ratio of spices being used. Spices such as turmeric will provide a dish with an orange tone, cumin will give it more of an earthy brown/tan, paprika will add a rich, deep red, ginger will add a yellowish, light tan tone to the dish, and so on. They are great ways to produce a dish that will be both brighter and more appealing to the eye, rather than being absolutely dull.

Thankfully dark greens and some veggies are a way to bring some life to a plate, but to those meat eaters out there, have you ever seen or eaten a plain chicken breast? It’s quite boring and looks like the quintessential American diet. Use some spices to give it some life!

The key to all of the above is that spices are incorporated into dishes to enhance the natural flavors of food – they should not be used to disguise or hide other tastes to a dish. While certain spices will compliment dishes quite well, expanding on the overall flavor profile, if something core to the dish is lacking, adding spices is not a surefire to make up for this mistake. Likewise, adding spices at the very end is not a means of fixing an inherent issue of the dish – the dissue. If we’re talking about cooking for yourself, then this sometimes works, such as painting the top of a dish with sriracha. In this case, you’re not trying to impress anyone, and this is totally acceptable.

While adding spices and creating blends, be just as mindful as before. Same as the “don’t use spices to disguise” rule,  don’t over do it with too many spices. When you combine an amalgamation of spices in one dish, you might end up with too many flavors, where one might over power another, or where the taste of each spice becomes quite indistinguishable from the others. If this is the case, you’ve created a meal that is too complex. The point to cooking is simplicity. Many recipes and the matter of learning what spices to use might seem complicated, but in the end you want a dish to be simple, palatable, and enjoyable, not one where your thinking too much about what you might be tasting.

In the end, keep it simple. Use spices wisely and sparingly. It can be more beneficial to be conservative with the spices than to grab each from the cupboard and tossing it in. Use spices to enhance the flavor, aroma, and color of dishes. If you’re adding them to disguise an essential mistake, another mistake is going to become apparent. Test out spice mixes with different foods and see where it takes you and your dishes. Happy cooking!

Photo: Taken from Zenberry

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