I was recently invited to a lovely test kitchen at The Chopping Block in downtown Chicago for a “cutting” of Spice Islands spices. (It’s an odd word which refers to when they first started freezing ice cream in containers and the brick of ice cream was often sliced in half to reveal how well-dispersed the ingredients were.) Now it’s a term commonly used to refer to sampling a food product, sometimes mixed in with a base, like milk or applesauce.
A lot of us, me included, see spices in the grocery store, and just reach for whatever we feel like. But, because they are natural products, spices and herbs vary by origin. And how they’re cleaned, milled, and packaged is another important part of what differentiates one brand from another.
Spices and seasonings arrive from various countries around the world; crystalized ginger arrives from Australia, anise seeds come from Spain and Turkey, and cardamom comes from Guatemala and Hondouras, in addition to herbs and spices grown and cultivated in the United States, like marjoram and bay leaves.
After arriving at the plant, all Spice Islands spices are evaluated and tested to make sure they’re clean and free of any foreign matter. (Because they’re grown close to the ground, many herbs need a gentle, but thorough, cleaning.) Herbs and spices that don’t make the cut can end up in discount stores, sometimes selling two for $1, and should be avoided if you’re looking for top-quality seasonings.
Spices like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg are full of natural volatile oils. And to avoid creating a slushy mess, the mills where these spices are ground must be kept cool during the grinding, to preserve the oils that create that special taste and texture that we find when we twist off the top of a jar of ground cinnamon.
After learning all of this, we smelled – then tasted – traditional grocery store cinnamon alongside Spice Islands ground Saigon cinnamon, using bowls of plain applesauce as a base for our explorations. Most cinnamon that one comes across in supermarkets is from Ceylon and has a milder flavor than Saigon cinnamon, which is brisk, bold and sassy. Saigon cinnamon has more oil too, which makes it an ideal choice for baking. When we tasted them side-by-side, the difference was profound. The Saigon cinnamon was zippy and fresh, the other was dull in comparison.
Terri Etzel, who is one of the food scientists in the Spice Islands research and development brand group, was our leader through our cutting of spices, and pointed out what makes one spice or seasoning better than another.
For example, one might think “the greener the better” when it comes to dill weed. But Terri explained that the most fragrant part of the dill plant is the yellow flower buds that are just starting to form during the three-day window for harvesting, giving the dill weed a rounded, more complex flavor. That’s why Spice Islands dill weed has yellow blooms. It may not be as deep-green as other brands, but the aroma is much more potent and intriguing.
Speaking of green, it seems I’ve developed quite a reputation with the Spice Islands team for being a big fan of their wasabi powder, ever since I used it to make a spiced vinaigrette to pour over cold noodles. I tasted their wasabi alongside another brand, which was far greener, and I was surprised that the Spice Islands wasabi had much more pizzazz. But when I read the ingredients, I noticed food coloring in the less-tasty one and realized that color isn’t everything. What matters is how things taste! (I think I also gave the Spice Islands team a start when they saw me taking big spoonful-sized tastes of the wasabi paste. I guess now they have even more stuff to say about me!)
Bay leaves were also evaluated by our group, for color, freshness, and flavor. Spice Islands California bay leaves are much brighter, and moister, and have a far more powerful taste than crumbly Turkish ones. They’re also nicer looking as well and I was thinking of all the uses for bay leaves that people don’t think about, like bay leaf ice cream, perhaps infused with some orange or even crème brûlée, with a crunchy sugar topping. People don’t think of using bay leaves in desserts but the elusive flavor can be a great counterpoint to citrus. And a few leaves baked at the bottom of a pound cake can give it an exotic, yet familiar, flavor.
Black pepper is one of the most popular and widely used seasonings. It goes well with meats and vegetables, but a few grinds can dial up the flavor of strawberries and cherries too. One can get it in various grinds, but I like buying whole peppercorns and crack them myself. Spice Islands offers a certified organic black pepper (along with other spices) and Terri explained that they have separate facilities to process the organic spices to ensure their purity.
Garlic is very popular in America and I learned that presently there is a worldwide garlic shortage due to drought conditions. So, the Spice Islands team has been scouring the globe for garlic. At the cutting, we smelled powdered garlic alongside other brands and it was noted that the darker ones were from brands that toast their garlic, which gives them a dull, ‘cooked’ flavor.
The smell of all these seasonings and fragrant herbs was making us hungry, so I (and my stomach) was happy when a local chef came in to the kitchen to make us lunch. He started with a pizza with a Mediterranean-themed topping of onions, tomatoes, and peppers, topped with cayenne pepper, garlic powder, ground cumin, sweet paprika and cinnamon. The vegetables were sautéed until soft, then spread over the pizza dough and placed into a very hot oven on a pizza stone.
While we waited for the pizza to cook, the chef peeled fresh pears and made a poaching liquid, which he spiced up with star anise, cinnamon, and vanilla bean. Then he slid the pears in, where they cooked at a leisurely simmer until they were tender and fully infused with the spicy flavors.
When it was done, we thanked Terri and the Spice Islands brand team for giving us a lesson in spices and seasonings, and learning what goes into the various bottles of spices that we reach for when cooking and baking.