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Why You Should Take a New Look at Your Spices

James Beard

February 15, 2019


Spekulaas cookies photo and styling by Judy Kim
Photo and Food Styling: Judy Kim

In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from a lesson in chicken anatomy to a sandwich manifesto to the value of spices and seasonings, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more!

Beard on Food: Know Your Spices

Do you really get the most out of your spice cabinet? How many spices do you reach for often—and how many more just sit on the shelf, gradually losing their pungency and flavor? So often we tend to buy a different spice because a recipe calls for it, use it once, and forget it. Seldom if ever do we try to figure out other dishes that might be enhanced by that particular spice—or even by the good old standbys like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and paprika.

Take cinnamon, for instance, one of the most standard of all spices. I’m sure most people never think of putting it in anything but desserts and coffee cakes, yet there are hundreds or Greek, Middle East, North African, and Mexican dishes to which the distinctiveness of cinnamon adds a new dimension of flavor. The Greeks put cinnamon in meatballs and moussaka, the Moroccans and Tunisians use it in exotic meat pies made with layers of paper-thin pastry, and the Mexicans add it to picadillo, a kind of ground meat hash, and mole, that highly unusual sauce compounded of fiery chiles, spices, and unsweetened chocolate.

Even in our own country, cinnamon crops up in main dishes. My housekeeper, Clay Triplette, who is an expert at Southern cooking even though he isn’t Southern, always adds a good bit of cinnamon, as well as salt and pepper, to the flour in which he dips chicken before frying it, which gives his fried chicken the most haunting, subtle, and delicate flavor. Cinnamon has this trick of bringing out unexpected nuances in everyday foods. If you’re having sliced oranges for breakfast, try sprinkling them with a little powdered sugar and cinnamon. The flavors are most compatible. A dash of cinnamon is excellent in lemon-flavored dishes and a perfect complement to anything involving chocolate.

Next, let’s consider cloves, those aromatic little buds that look like tiny brown nails. Cloves are probably the most overused and misunderstood of all spices. While they are invaluable in cooking, they should always be used with great care and discretion, or their strong flavor can become overpowering and coarse. I, for one, think the habit of studding a ham with dozens of cloves to make a pretty pattern is a great mistake. If you must have cloves with ham, a light dusting of ground cloves is much better.

On the whole, cloves tend to be used here in traditional but rather unimaginative ways, such as in the mixed ground spices for pumpkin pie. Instead, I feel they should be put where they really make a contribution. If you stick a couple of cloves in the onion with which you are flavoring a pot roast or a stew or beef stock for a soup or sauce, they really give a great lift and change the usual taste to something quite delicious.

I also find that a clove stuck into a baked apple or pear, or a suspicion of ground cloves in the syrup used to poach dried prunes, can turn a rather run-of-the-mill dessert into something special.

Nutmeg is so common that we often forget how versatile it is. I own two enchanting little silver nutmeg graters, which elegant people were wont to carry in their pockets in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in order to grate fresh nutmeg on their food and drink, rather the way it is considered smart nowadays to carry your own small pepper mill. Nutmeg belongs in so many things. A pinch in a béchamel sauce, in creamed chicken or chicken fricassee, or in a cheese soufflé, heightens the flavor and introduces a piquant overtone. The marriage of spinach and nutmeg, if well adjusted, is remarkably successful, and I find that there are certain cakes, such as spice cakes, in which the assertiveness of nutmeg is a necessity.

Then there’s mace, actually the red netlike covering of the nutmeg in its natural state, which turns orange when dried. Mace, removed from the seed and sold either ground or in small pieces, or blades, tastes very similar to nutmeg, but milder and subtler. Ground mace should be carefully checked before use, for it can get rather rancid. Like nutmeg, it is marvelous in spinach dishes, especially creamed spinach and spinach soufflé, or in the stuffing for a turkey or chicken. I put mace in pound cake, where its fragrant freshness is a good counterpoint to the rich, heavy, vanilla-ish quality of the cake. I like to pop a blade or two of mace into pickles or other foods preserved in vinegar or vinegar and oil because I’ve found it gives a pleasing and interesting taste, and I have even been known to use a touch of ground mace, just a dusting, on pot roast.

Lastly, there’s that universally popular spice, paprika, which I honestly believe many people only buy to sprinkle on food for color, rather than appreciating it for what it really is—one of the world’s great flavors. Paprika is a spice of great charm, with infinite possibilities, and to look on it merely as something to make a dish colorful is to neglect its true culinary qualities. There are so many different kinds of paprika, from hot to sweet, from bright orange to rich red. The finest paprika is Hungarian, and the Hungarians are lavish with it. A goulash may have a whole tablespoon of paprika, sometimes sweet, sometimes part sweet and part hot. Paprika will turn the sauce of a fricassee of chicken to a creamy rose, and it also does something quite wonderful to the flavor of a tomato sauce.

It pays to know your spices. Take regular inventory, smelling, tasting, and throwing out those that have gone stale and flat from age. Then get out of the spice rut and learn how to use spices intelligently, adventurously, and with a very personal flair.

Spice up your baking with James Beard's recipe for clove and cinnamon–packed spekulaas cookies.

Read more essays from Beard on Food.