Spices 101: A Primer on Spices

Learn the best way to buy and store spices.

Wars were fought over them, kingdoms were lost because of them, and new lands were discovered in search of them. In ancient times and for centuries to follow, spices were often more precious than gold.

Bharat B. Aggarwal, PhD. Healing Spices: How to Use 50 Everyday and Exotic Spices to Boost Health and Beat Disease, p.3

We seldom consider plants as a significant historical and cultural influence and that’s a shame; not only do plants form the basis of our food chain, but they are a major contributor to the world’s economy and have changed the course of history – several times. Some plants have altered the world’s history simply because they were desirable, some because they offered medicinal relief,  while others have fed billions of people over thousands of years.

Spices were highly desired plants that shaped civilizations and initiated cultural exchanges through exploration and commerce. In 2500 BCE Egyptians developed a thriving trade in spices that eventually spread. The Romans introduced spices to Europe, and Marco Polo contributed significantly to the popularity and access of spices in medieval Europe. Since many of the spices could only be found in tropical regions in the eastern hemisphere, the spice trade first developed an overland route, known as the Silk Road, using donkeys, camels, pack horses, and caravans as transportation, taking months to get to western markets. For over 2000 years, the spice trade influenced migration, travel routes, the European exploration of “new” lands, and created a complex economy that offered many opportunities for people to make money through taxes, tolls, and piracy. The increasing number of tolls and increasing risk of theft and piracy motivated countries to seek water routes. The trade of spices helped mariners to discover new sea routes and is responsible for the accidental European “discovery” of America. 

As the East and West developed a spice economy (along with silk, metals, and medicine), cultural information was also a significant form of the trade economy. Many indigenous cultures were destroyed through conquest and conversion to three of the world’s major religions: Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam. Small seaports became major centers of commerce and wealthy merchants built enormous mansions and temples to celebrate their success (apparently some things never change). Spices influenced culinary traditions and medicinal practices throughout the western hemisphere.

What is a spice?

The basic definition from a dictionary: “an aromatic or pungent vegetable substance used to flavor food” hardly does justice to the many other historical and current uses, but we must start somewhere.

More specifically, a spice is edible, aromatic, and it comes from a plant’s root, bark, stems, buds, leaves, flower, fruit, seeds, or reproductive parts. 

Some examples:

  • Flower buds = cloves
  • Fruits = pepper, allspice, nutmeg, vanilla
  • Seeds = anise, caraway, cardamom, coriander, mustard
  • Rhizomes = ginger & turmeric
  • Stigmas = saffron
Photo: Unsplash

Historical Uses

While we associate spices with cooking in the west, spices have a much longer history as highly versatile plants. The ancient Egyptians used anise, cumin, and cinnamon in their embalming practices. In addition to flavoring food and drink, spices were also used to preserve food. The ancient Greeks and Romans loved the exotic and mysterious scents, adding them to their cosmetics and perfumes and using them as incense to scent their rooms. In the East, Asian and Indian cultures developed knowledge of botanical medicine over a span of 5000 years, utilizing spices and herbs as remedies. These medicinal applications are seeing an expanded interest as modern science confirms many of the healing powers of spices. Many spices offer powerful antioxidant and antimicrobial properties which the plants develop to protect themselves from diseases that are common to their humid and hot natural environments.

Where are spices grown?

Many spices like cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, and cardamom originated in the tropical areas of Asia between the latitudes 25° N and 10°S  of the equator where the climate remains consistently warm and humid. Other spices like allspice, vanilla, and peppers originate from similar tropical regions in the western hemisphere. As the demand for spices increased, large plantations of cultivated trees and plants were created in these limited regions. Attempts to grow some of the spices in northern regions repeatedly failed and it was early botanists who revealed some of the highly specialized ecological relationships that spices needed in order to reproduce. To this day, some spices can only grow in their land of origin, while other spices like vanilla require hand pollination when grown outside of their land of origin. Exotic spices are expensive because of their limited growing conditions and are labor-intensive, usually harvested and processed by hand.

Where to Buy Potent Spices

The quality of spices can vary widely; the last place to buy spices is at your local grocery store. Those little plastic bottles may have been on the shelves for many months exposed to lighting for 12-24 hours each day.  For the best quality, purchase from a specialty herb and spice retailer. Because that is all they sell, they have a higher rate of product turnover and they have a genuine interest in selling the highest quality.

I buy from companies that sell organic or sustainably grown spices and offer working wages and safe conditions for the farmers and processors. The global world of herbal commerce is not always transparent about quality and conditions so I offer the quickest way to eliminate an herb retailer: if the prices are much cheaper, and if their website includes no information about their relationships with spice suppliers then I move on to a different retailer.

Should I Buy Whole or Ground Spices?

Though convenient, ground spices lose their flavor and aroma (through oxidation of their volatile oils) more quickly than whole spices so buying smaller quantities of ground spices is a wiser choice. Those gargantuan containers of ground spices at Costco? Not a good value unless you are cooking/baking in volume. Whole spices require grinding and screening before using but generally offer a more robust aroma and flavor. Whole spices can also be toasted before grinding to increase their flavor and aroma.  

Buy spices and herbs in glass bottles and jars rather than plastic whenever possible. I often buy in bulk (especially when making gifts like my Holiday Spice Blends), and I transfer the plastic-packaged spices to glass jars.Tins are another choice for storing but avoid the magnetic display of spice and herb-filled tins on the refrigerator; your fridge is a major source of heat in the kitchen and will quickly destroy the volatile oils that give the spices their flavor.

What’s the Best Way to Store Spices?

Where do you store your spices? My grandmother had a set of two Spice Island racks that held the glass bottles of Spice Island herbs and spices and they hung on the wall just above her stove. It looked quaint and seemed logical. While it makes for easy access to store your bottled spice

While it makes for easy access to store your bottled spices and herbs close to the stove, it is not the best choice for preserving their quality. Constant exposure to heat, steam & light can quickly degrade your collection of herbs and spices.

Display of spices
Display of spices Photo by Christina Rumpf on Unsplash

If you do purchase ground spices and herbs, storing them in your freezer is a great way to preserve their flavor. My smaller bottles of herbs and spices are stored in a cabinet over a counter that I use to prepare food but my larger Mason jars are stored in a room I have designated as my still-room – a room dedicated to making herbal medicine and products.

Preparing Whole Spices

If using whole spices (rather than ground) you will need a few tools to help prepare spices for your intended uses. Crushing and grinding can be done using mortar and pestles or electric coffee grinders.

A classic mortar and pestle
A classic mortar and pestle. PHOTO: Chris from Unsplash

I have multiple mortar and pestles that I use for smashing and grinding small amounts of spices but when I need to grind large amounts of spices to a consistent texture of fineness, I use a coffee bean grinder that is dedicated to only spices. I found mine at a local thrift store – it works just fine. (I think some coffee drinkers become less enchanted with grinding their beans as time goes on.)

Don’t use a grinder that you will also use for coffee beans; both spices and coffee beans contain high levels of aromatic oils that will carry over to both your coffee and your spices. I use a small metal mesh strainer to screen the ground spices to ensure there are no larger particles. Another option is to use a micro-plane to grate small amounts of spices each time.

Dry roasting some spices helps to bring out their aromatic oils and many Asian and Indian recipes recommend this quick practice. A small cast-iron skillet is perfect; heat the pan until it is hot and then add the whole spice and heat until you begin to smell their aroma and they begin to brown. This can occur in a few minutes so never walk away from a hot skillet with whole spices in them. A few other cooking traditions include roasting whole spices in oil or liquid or using ground spices to make a paste that can be used as a rub, marinade, filling, or condiment.

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