Whole spices will boost the amount of flavor you bring to a dish.
Want to know the easiest way to add more flavor to a dish? Use more flavorful ingredients...Thanks captain obvious. 🤦♂️
But it’s true. And it applies to your spices. Here in the US, we have a history of sacrificing flavor for convenience. And that, my friends, is not always worth it. Especially when the alternative really isn’t inconvenient.
I know they may be a bit intimidating. But over the last two years, I started buying whole spices. And it transformed my cooking. So let me convince you why you should do the same.
The easiest way to understand is to look at ground spices.
Flavor comes from essential oils in the spices. And those essential oils are released when the seed is broken.
Ground spices have been broken, crushed, pounded, pulverized, and blitzed. That means their essential oils have been released! But those essential oils don’t stick around. From the moment they are ground, spices lose flavor over time. So if you buy already ground spices, they’ve already started losing flavor.
Whole spices haven’t released their essential oils. They’re holding on to them. 🤗 So buying your spices whole means you’re buying more flavor.
And the difference is outstanding. Don’t believe me? Do an at-home experiment. 🧪🧫🔬
Odds are you already have previously ground black pepper in your kitchen. And you might have a pepper grinder too. Put a teaspoon of the already ground pepper in a bowl. Next, grind the same amount fresh from whole peppercorns. Then smell the two side-by-side. 👃 You’ll understand the difference instantly.
And the same applies to cumin, coriander, fennel, mustard, caraway, nutmeg, and all the others!
Unless it’s been freshly ground and is from a shop you trust, stop buying pre-ground black pepper folks! It was typically ground a long time ago and has been sitting on the shelves for a while. That means it probably doesn’t taste like much. Treat yourself to a pepper grinder! Didn’t know all that? It’s okay! Pepper late than never. 😉
The first rule I learned was less about where and more about when. You never want to buy more spices than you’ll use quickly since they lose their flavor over time. So don’t stock up on your spices.
My second recommendation would be to look for a local spice shop that sells a lot of spices. That means they have high turnover and are always bringing in fresh stuff. It could be at an ethnic market or a specialty shop. Just go talk to them. Ask silly questions. Learn about where they get their spices from. See what kind of spices they love. And how they use them. Those people love to talk about what they sell!
You can also buy from the bulk section at the grocery store. That lets you get the exact amount you need.
Or you can get high-quality spices online. It’s typically what I do. My two favorites are Burlap & Barrel and The Reluctant Trading Experiment. They’ve got some incredible spices! I’ve also heard good things about Penzeys and Curio Spice Company.
Did you know you can get single-origin spices just like coffee or chocolate? There are varieties of each spice that all taste different. And if you get a batch of a single type, typically they’ll have a more pronounced tasting note since they aren’t mixed with other varieties.
NEVER DO IT! Just kidding. 😉
Of course, you should buy ground spices! But just opt for whole if you can. Some spices typically only come ground or you might not be able to find them whole. All good!
But if you do buy a ground spice, it’s even more important that you don’t buy in bulk and that you get it from a trusted source. You want your spices to be ground as fresh as possible!
Whole spices look a bit foreign if you aren’t used to them.👽 But I promise they're a simple ingredient to use. You either use them as is or grind them up yourself so they look like something you’re familiar with.
Most whole spices can be added directly to a dish—think cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, etc. I love blooming whole spices in a bit of fat as a base for a soup or braise. Whole spices hold up better to heat and do a great job of infusing flavor into fat without burning.
Also, adding whole spices creates more contrast. You’ll get pops of flavor throughout a dish. They become little unexpected bursts of delight! That contrast makes your food more interesting.
Quick note: You will want to remove some whole spices before eating like cardamom pods or star anise. Biting into those is no fun. 🥴 Speaking from experience here!
Grinding whole spices yourself gives you the most flavor. You don’t lose as many essential oils doing it fresh.
That’s why a coffee grinder or a mortar & pestle are crucial tools in your kitchen. (I do recommend using a separate coffee grinder so you don’t get spice-flavored coffee. Or coffee-flavored spice.) They let you easily grind spices fresh. And in addition to a more pronounced flavor, grinding your spices yourself lets you control the texture. Speaking of that.
The texture of the spice impacts the flavor of the dish. How?
A finely ground spice will evenly and subtly disperse into what you cook. You get some subtle sharpness and tanginess from ground mustard. In a blind taste test, it would be hard to know finely ground mustard was used.
But you notice when you bite into a whole mustard seed.
Coarsely ground spices give you a mix of both. It blends nicely into a dish but at the same time, it can give your food texture and contrast.
Do you want the flavor to blend in? Or do you want it to be more prominent? Do you want the textural pop? There’s no right or wrong answer. But when you grind it yourself, you get to decide.
Where I learned this: mostly Milk Street’s cooking classes and cookbooks like The New Rules.