It's Pantry Day! And the biggest variety/most expense in anyone's pantry is the spice collection. Today, I feel like focusing on some entry-level spice basics.
I was on a cooking board this week, and I ran across a thread posed by a novice cook that I thought might be a burning question in a lot of people’s minds – even some experienced home cooks. The gist was, even with cookbooks, cooking shows, and the advice of knowledgeable cooking friends, how does one go about properly spicing food?
It’s a pretty active board with some grate (oh look, a pun!) commentors, and to be fair I echoed the advice of some of the other comments – all while adding that Fat Girl focus-step-change-swing that we’ve all come to love.
My first question to you, dear reader, is this: your friends may think you are too heavy-handed/not heavy-handed enough with the spice bottle, but do YOU think so as well? If not, then I wouldn't worry so much what other people think of your cooking. You're the one doing all the hard work - please yourself first =)
When it comes to enhancing your dishes, let's first divide the issue into a couple of sub-categories. Culinary types use some fancy terminology, and while it doesn't technically matter what you call something, it does help if everybody is on the same page, and these are the terms they use:
Seasoning is adding salt to your item/dish. Not anything else, though the salt itself can be flavored (like a smoked salt, or a salt with lots of minerals like black or pink salt). Yes, I know this exclusionary definition flies in the face of common useage, but we aren't talking about real people - we're talking about chef people. ::nods knowingly::
Spicing is all the flavorful stuff that is NOT salt that you add to your item/dish. Spicing includes spices (obviously) but also herbs, infused oils, etc.
Now, I have a couple rules of thumb that I use in the kitchen, and they may be helpful to you. When deciding how to flavor meat, I think about the quality of the meat. High quality meats get very little flavoring added here, because I like to taste the meat itself. Cheaper meats tend to be less flavorful on their own, and so they benefit the most from additional flavoring - added bonus, they are cheaper, so if you experiment and it's horrible, less damage done to your wallet..
Filet mignon, ribeye steaks, tenderloin pork chops, etc., all tend to be more expensive - usually because the cut is rare (as in, 'it makes up a small relative portion of the animal'; a 600lb cow will only yield about 10lbs of filet mignon) but also often because the meat itself is especially richly flavored (like ribeye, my personal FAV!). So I always make sure to season (but I almost never spice) a high quality piece of meat. I'm paying more, and I wanna taste the full spectrum of flavor the meat has to offer. "Why even add salt, then?" you may ask. When something is properly salted, it should never taste salty - but it will taste even more like itself. That's because salt increases the rate at which your tongue can transmit OMG-flavor-signals to your brain. Awesome, right? Of COURSE right!
Cheaper meats tend to (1) be more common, (2) be tougher, and (3) have less built-in flavor, so this is where I choose to get experimental. Some default, easy favorites of mine are Yoshida's Original Gormet Sauce (kinda like a really thick, syrupy teriyaki, but ~8 times better than any other teriyaki you've ever had), and Fat Girl's Mood, which is a spice blend of 'a dash of everything in the spice rack that sounds good today'. It's a highly technical blend, and precision matters (no, no it doesn't).
After several dozen meals, you'll begin to get a feel for what spice combos you like, and what dishes you like them in. Oh, oh, don't forget that grated hard cheeses (like parmesan, romano, and/or asiago) can also become part of your spice blends. Cheese makes everything taste better =) Careful though, because some spices/cheeses can burn. Black pepper burns at 400*F. Hence, never pepper something you intend to grill over an open flame. Burnt pepper sucksgiant monkey cupcakes.