Spices have a variety of uses from medicinal to culinary. They come from roots, flowers and seeds of herbaceous plants as well woody vines and trees. They can be used in food seasonings — added during cooking — and condiments added to our food after cooking. We have used spices for medicinal purposes for all of recorded history and many still turn to spices as home remedies for a variety of common ailments.
Spices being used for medicinal reasons are part of recorded history as early as 2700 B.C. China and the Crusades of the Middle Ages allowed for the international trade of spices like pepper, nutmeg and cloves. It was during this time that spices became more common and a bit less expensive in Europe.
In our more recent history, spices and herbs were used as a replacement for tea when drinking tea fell out of favor after the American Revolution. Sassafras bark, chamomile and spearmint were among the many tea substitutes that are still popular today.
Traditional Midwestern foods are somewhat bland compared to other regions of the U.S. Our early French, German and Scandinavian settlers created a food culture with rich flavors and very few spices. Our more recent Italian immigrants helped balance our regional cuisine with more flavor. Simply moving around our great country has allowed for the "melting pot" to really meld together. As a result, the culinary use of spice had become ubiquitous.
Today, our regional food is as varied as the spice aisle in our markets and we have access to a plethora of new flavors with which to experiment. In the U.S., we actually eat and import more spices than any other country! Many are quite expensive, however. Saffron, for example, costs as much as $1,500 per pound; a 3-gram container at the grocery store will set you back about $20.00.
On average, each of us consumes about 4 pounds of spices per year! As we continue to gain a deeper appreciation for cuisines of different cultures, our consumption will continue to rise.
Black pepper, chili pepper, cinnamon, mustard and oregano are the most imported spices in the U.S. with turmeric and paprika increasing in popularity. The vast majority of the spices we consume are imported. Not many are grown in the U.S. and those that are, grow best in the warmer climates of the Southwest.
Horseradish, however, is grown right here in Southern Illinois. Horseradish is a root vegetable that is used as a spice and prepared as a condiment. The potash-rich soil in and around St. Clair County is perfect for growing the root and we grow upwards of 80 percent of what is consumed.
How to use spices in cooking
Spices are used to add flavor, enhance taste and even change the color of our food. Knowing how to combine spices for maximum impact can open creative culinary kitchen windows.
To start, stock your pantry with these commonly used spices: turmeric, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, black pepper, cumin, paprika, garlic powder and chili powder. Along with dried herbs like basil, oregano and thyme, these few spices will add a lot of flavor and variety to your cooking.
Being familiar with the flavor profile of common spices will help you create your own unique recipes and spice combinations.
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Earthy and smokey spices include allspice, cinnamon, cloves, coriander and cumin (also smokey). Their earthy herb counterparts include basil, oregano, rosemary and thyme.
Allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and paprika add sweet elements.
Common savory and peppery spices include cayenne pepper, coriander, garlic powder, paprika and turmeric.
Using spice in cultural cooking
Using specific combinations of spices can impart a feeling of familiarity and stocking your pantry with commonly used spices of the cuisines you love means you will use up spices (and herbs) before they go bad.
If you love French food then you will want to use herbs and spices like rosemary, nutmeg, thyme, garlic and herbs de Provence.
If Mexican or “Tex-Mex” is your cuisines of choice, coriander, cumin, garlic, chili powder and cinnamon should be in your pantry.
Cajun cooks love cayenne and paprika along with oregano, thyme and rosemary.
If you follow a Mediterranean diet, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander and ginger are commonly used.
Asian cooking uses a lot of garlic, ginger, cardamom and turmeric.
Indian cuisine probably includes the most variety in herbs and spices with the list including cardamom, cayenne, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, paprika, turmeric, garam masala and curry powder!
Experimenting with new or different spices can be exciting — and can pull you out of a culinary rut. The next time you are at the grocery store, take some time in the spice aisle and select something new to try.