Those familiar unassuming little jars lined up neatly on the supermarket shelves, but perhaps never on your own kitchen shelf, are rich with wildly interesting flavors that could make a big difference in what you eat and how your cooking is appreciated by those you care about.
Spices and herbs, rich in flavor and history were valued commodities in ancient times to embalm, perfume, heal, mystify and beautify early civilizations. They were so important to early cultures that they were articles of exchange and trade, much like precious metals and jewels are today.
The Romans were the first to substantially increase the use of spices as condiments and preservatives in cooking. Spice became necessities to Westerners who demanded the aromatic flavorings brought back from the Crusades. They masked the bland and oftentimes partially decomposed foods of medieval Europe. Spices were among the cherished treasures of the East that encouraged the fierce international trade, eventually leading to the discovery of the New World.
Today, the exotic, come-hither lure of herbs and spices accounts for a $1 billion a year industry in the United States alone. The stability of shelf prices rests on the uncertainties familiar to agricultural products in general: weather, pests, diseases, and politics. Seasonings are no longer required to camouflage unpleasant odors in deteriorating food. They are integrally linked to fine dining.
Many people consider spices and herbs as one group of seasonings. Not so. The major difference is that herbs are usually leaves and blossoms of seed plants which do not develop woody or persistent tissue.
Spices, on the other hand, generally stronger than herbs, are tropical plants which develop bark. To simplify matters here, spices will be used to include herbs as well.
Spices are expected to enhance the flavor of foods, not overpower them. If the original taste is lost, the purpose of seasoning has been defeated. Gourmets recommend that you be adventurous, but sensible. It is difficult, and at times, impossible, to repair the damage of a heavy hand.
Cooking, especially for the beginner, is a skill acquired through trial and error over a period of time. The final product must be acceptable to your own taste buds and those of your guests. Mixing combinations of herbs and spices can be delightful fun. However, the wrong combination can be an embarrassing catastrophe.
The key to good cooking and seasoning begins with the care of your spices. The flavor lies in the essential oils. That is why they must be stored in tightly closed bottles. Time, light, and heat rob spices of their flavorful oils. Use them up and replace them when they diminish in potency. And never store spices near a stove or window. Unlike fine wine, spices do not improve with age.