Experimenting with new spices and herbs can be an exciting culinary adventure.
However, if you buy a large supply at one time, it can also be a costly one. And if you don't use the spices and herbs within a reasonable length of time, they will get stale, and you have lost money.
Find a few recipes that appeal to you. Spend some time in the spice and herb section of the grocery store and introduce yourself to new flavors one at a time. Add herbs and spices lightly at first, tasting as you go.
If you need a list of "must haves" to start your experience, try basil, bay leaves, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, ginger, oregano, sage and thyme. Remember to buy the best quality you can afford.
Store herbs and spices in a cool, dark place. Moisture, heat and light are spice and herbs worst enemies. For something that is seldom used, you can put the container inside a freezer bag and store in the freezer.
Test your herbs and spices for freshness by rubbing a bit between your fingers and sniffing. If the aroma is faint or nonexistent, toss it out.
It is better to buy ground spices in small amounts; spices bought in bulk packages may lose potency before you can use them all.
When stored properly, leaf and ground spices and herbs can remain fresh for about one year. Whole spices, such as nutmeg, peppercorns and cloves, can last up to five years if kept properly.
And speaking of pepper, you can't beat the taste of freshly ground pepper. A good pepper mill is a must. Black peppercorns are unripe green pepper berries that are fermented and sun-dried. White peppercorns are mature red berries that are soaked, skinned and bleached. Green peppercorns are mature berries picked before the color changes. They are air-dried or packed in brine to retain their color. Peppercorns are the same berries, just at different stages of maturity.
When you are confused about whether to use cayenne or red pepper, don't worry. Cayenne is red pepper with a varying heat value. Red pepper is not hotter than cayenne; however, you may notice a difference in the heat level among different brands since different companies select different blends of red peppers. When you discover a brand you like, stay with it. All red pepper is not created equal.
If you are unable to find ground seasoning blends, such as Beau Monde, you can make your own to have on hand.
Be sure you store your blends in tightly sealed containers in a dark, cool, dry place for up to six months.
Source: North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension
Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension. Contact: 770-535-8290.