Out With the Old: Spice racks start the new year fresh

After a disastrous homemade Valentine’s Day dinner in college, Ryan Tyer, a software engineer for St. Louis-based Asynchrony Solutions, was cautious in his use of chili powder.

Mustering up the courage years later, Tyer pulled spicier ingredients out of the cabinet and began experimenting with barbecued ribs; the result was encouraging. “Strong spices have now bridged the gap from my barbecue into all other facets of my cooking, to my great delight.”

Whether it’s a bad experience with a particular spice or a fear of trying something new, some spices never make it to the table again, while other spices enter every dish, boring the palate.

While you aren’t expected to start throwing cinnamon, dill weed and orange peel into every dish, forgetting what you think you know about them is the first step.

When it comes to dill weed, the tangy flavor pairs well with mild-flavored foods such as seafood, potatoes, salmon and cucumbers. Linda Schmitz, owner of Soulard Spice Market, mixes dill weed with lemon juice to create a rub for fish. Dana Holland, owner of Brentwood-based Sun Drenched Foods, said the spice’s pronounced flavor works well with sautéed fish.

If grilling fish, Schmitz recommended mixing your spice of choice with mayonnaise and letting it sit. “It makes a nice encrustment, but keeps the juices on the interior,” she said, adding that you need not add a lot. “You use it to enhance the flavor instead of taking over the flavor.” Schmitz also uses dill weed with mayonnaise on pork sandwiches as a condiment.

Tyer creates dry rubs from a base that can be tailored to almost any dish and allows for the addition of cabinet-hibernating spices. His standby includes six parts brown sugar, three parts paprika, three parts salt, two parts ground pepper and minced garlic or garlic powder to taste. From there, he adds two parts chili powder and a bit more paprika to yield a spicier rub.

He’s also created a poultry rub of three parts chopped rosemary, two parts minced garlic, two parts minced thyme, one part lemon juice, one part olive oil, zest of one lemon, and salt and pepper to taste.

Tyer learned to create appetizing dry rubs through experimentation. “After a few times, you’ll become comfortable in what you like and don’t like,” he said.

Spices such as orange peel and cinnamon can also lend themselves to many main courses. A small pinch of orange peel added to barbecue sauce will give a distinct zing. Cinnamon is another baking basic that can leap from gooey cinnamon buns to lend itself to poultry dishes. A few cinnamon sticks can be added to a simmering chicken soup, according to Holland.

Cinnamon is a morning meal staple that can be combined with maple syrup and brushed onto uncooked bacon. Sprinkle the slathered raw bacon with some chili powder and bake for a sweet and spicy mix.

Wake those other spices up early, too, and mix them with your bacon and eggs. Holland suggested sprinkling mild chili powder – ancho or even guajillo – and Mexican oregano on fried eggs for a kick. For a poached egg, similar flavors can be added along with cumin and simmered in a tomato sauce. Holland serves the poached egg over mashed potato pancakes or refried beans and tortillas.

He created a new twist on home fries by adding a small amount of cumin and nutmeg. “Another delicious change-of-pace breakfast is an Indian egg masala,” Holland said. “It’s eggs scrambled with onions, tomatoes, peppers and spices like curry or even cumin, coriander and pepper. [Serve] over rice or even in a tortilla.”

For another quick “low-tech” twist on the breakfast burrito, Holland prepares scrambled eggs seasoned with his company’s Carnivale Rub, a Rio-inspired chile and herb rub. “It is a little spicy but not overly so.” He then adds pepper jack cheese, scallions, black beans and tater tots for crunch.

It is essential to use only the freshest spices and Holland gave a good rule of thumb: If you can’t remember when you bought it – pitch it.

“Spices will lose their power,” Holland said. To avoid pitching expensive spices and herbs, buy in small quantities.

Maryland-based spice maker McCormick & Co. advises consumers to pitch ground spices after two to three years. Whole spices have a shelf life of three to four years, seasoning blends will last between one and two years, and herbs are expected to retain their flavor for one to three years.

For storage, Tyer uses airtight containers and stores them in cool cabinets. “I never make more of a rub or other mixed spice than I need at one time.”

Fresh and dried herbs and spices should be allowed to bloom or release their flavors, a process Holland likened to steeping tea leaves. This occurs as a normal part of the cooking process in dishes and sauces with longer cooking times, but fast-cooking dishes would benefit from allowing the spices to soak in the stock, wine or other liquid used in the recipe. Holland also suggested soaking herbs in a liquid if a recipe calls for cooking over high heat.

When cooking with dry spices, Holland commonly reaches for his holy trinity: basil, marjoram and thyme. After warming it in a dish, the mixture is rubbed under the skin of chicken breasts with cloves of fresh garlic. He said the result is a crisp skin without burned spices.

Holland described marjoram as one that “resembles oregano with a similar flavor without being so pungent.”

If it’s a fear of trying something new – like marjoram – that holds you back, Soulard Spice’s Schmitz said she explores new ingredient and spice combinations whenever she dines out. “The best way to overcome a fear of trying is trying itself,” she said.

Schmitz, a self-proclaimed “visual” cook, said the best ways to break out of your comfort zone are to get a good cookbook with pictures and read meal descriptions on restaurant menus. She credits trying new dishes each time she eats out with helping her move outside of the box.

“Don’t be afraid to try using spices you’re not used to – and the fresher the better,” Tyer said. “My inspiration [for new ingredients and recipes] comes from all sorts of places: TV, restaurants, friends, etc. Rarely do I try anything completely out of left field.”

“What makes the beef [restaurants] make and you make different is the seasonings,” Schmitz said. “I like to take to-go menus home with me.” Once in her kitchen, Schmitz finds ways to meld how a restaurant prepared a particular meal with what she has readily available. “It might not turn out perfect,” she acknowledged. The next time she tries to use the spice again, she’ll know what not to do and will be more likely to reach flavor perfection.