Spices and spice books

Learning to use spices better has been a lifelong ambition for me - and many other cooks, no doubt.  I always used to have a sort of anxious feeling about the spice cabinet - what's in there? how old is it? is it still any good? am I ever really going to use it?   On bad days, the neglected and confused state of the spice cabinet seemed like a pretty good metaphor for middle age.

Last year, with Herculean effort, I re-organized my spices into magnetic canisters stuck to the side of my fridge.  Now I can see and use them easily (although some, like the pink peppercorns and the cubeb, seem destined to remain untouched for years on end).  I use more of them -  more frequently - and I just like the way they look.

But I still feel my spice education has only just begun. Every so often, a book comes along that promises further tutelage.  This year, there are two - Spice Odyssey and World Spice at Home.  Spice Odyssey's like previous spice books I've seen: nicely designed, with recipes that stretch familiar dishes in eccentrically spiced directions (almond, cinnamon, and cranberry wontons?!)  World Spice at Home emphasizes spice mixes - dukkahs, baharats, masalas, five-spice, and the rest. It's smartly organized and I have a good feeling about it, but ask me in a month how it fared in the kitchen.

The problem is that spice books are sort of unclassifiable in terms of use. (In fact, they usually end up in the "Unclassifiable" section of my regional cookbooks shelf...along with "American.")  If I want to use fenugreek and caraway, I'll look them up here at Eat Your Books.  Then I tend to choose a recipe probably more based on whether it's by an author I can trust than any other factor, which means I'm unlikely to discover great new recipes from unknown sources.  But I'm working on being more open-minded.

4 Comments

  • wester  on  8/27/2014 at 12:08 PM

    I can't really resist books about spices - my EYB library has 11 of them, and I'm sure there are more that are not in the EYB library. I do cook with spices a lot, as well. But I don't cook all that much from the spice cookbooks. When I use fenugreek, it is usually in a Jamie Oliver curry recipe. When I cook with saffron, I'm usually making a Frugal Gourmet recipe. Etc. The only exception is Madhur Jaffrey's Spice Kitchen, which has taught me quite a bit about how to use spices.

  • sir_ken_g  on  8/27/2014 at 12:57 PM

    I probably have 100 different spices and one spice book which I rarely touch. If you do lots of varied international cuisine you need that many. I learn their use when international cookbooks call for them - and often describe them in the ingredients chapter.

  • darcie_b  on  8/27/2014 at 12:58 PM

    I have but one spice book, and it sits neglected on my shelf. I also tend to search for ingredients on EYB, so don't see much need for a dedicated spice book. I really need to go through my spices and cull them (I have a crazy amount of charnushka, and probably an overabundance of other exotic spices I won't use).

  • susan g  on  8/27/2014 at 2:43 PM

    There was a period when I was learning everything I could about ingredients. The dedicated spice cookbooks are a wonderful source of this information, and I still go back to them. The recipes sound (and look) tempting, but I have made very few. Ironically, Ana Sortun;s exceptional cookbook SPICE is not this kind of book, but "Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean" and organized by the dominant spice.

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