So, you bought the cookbook, subscribed to the YouTube channel, and ravaged the shelves of the ‘world food’ section of the supermarket. You are ready to invite the smells, sounds and tastes of the Indian subcontinent into your kitchen.
The cornerstone of making the most delicious Indian food is using fresh ingredients. This includes your spices. Sure, they are ‘enduring’, and they may seem invincible in their plastic original packaging; they certainly don’t look any different even though they have not seen the curve of a spoon for a year, but believe me – using stale spices in your carefully prepared butter chicken or paneer masala is like putting ordinary unleaded petrol in a Ferrari. Sure, it will work, but will it make mouths water or set tongues wagging like it should? Do not let yourself and your cooking down by using stale spices. That doesn’t mean you have to grow your own cardamom, but there are tips and tricks to get the most from your spices and elevate your cooking.
Buy only what you need
Buying the ‘value-for-money’ bumper pack of turmeric or garam masala is often a fool’s bargain, unless you intend to use the spices in your cooking every day. Months will have passed by the time you use the sorry dregs at the bottom of the pack – they will have lost their aroma, kick and zest. So, only buy what you intend to use within three to six months. Moreover, though it may be obvious to some of you, a common error is picking spices from the front of the shelf. I have found spices with a “best before date” up to 6 months later from the back of the shelf. Beware of the oldest shelf-stacking trick in the book.
Lastly, there isn’t a need to stock your cupboard with the niche spices that are seldom seen in your recipes unless you are an avid cook and true enthusiast. There are a few core spices you need in your pantry. I have given a guide to these here.
Invest in some airtight jars
The best way to keep your spices at peak potency is to transfer them to airtight jars as soon as you get them home. There are few aromas more alluring in a kitchen than popping open an airtight jar of garam masala. I personally prefer to use clear glass airtight containers – that way I can keep an eye on when I need to re-stock. Also, don’t forget to label the jars. The last thing you want to do is confuse a paprika with chilli powder if you’re in a rush whilst cooking. It also avoids the ‘mystery spice jar’ conundrum that we have all encountered at some point or another when reorganising our pantries.
Image: ©StockFood/Hammond, Francis
I also have a spice box, or ‘masala dabba’, on my counter top within arm’s reach of the cooker. It’s an airtight stainless steel circular box, with 7 smaller circular bowls with individual spices I use in my everyday cooking. It is effectively a handheld pantry that can be found in every Indian home.
Store your jars in a dry and cool place if you can, preferably away from windows or the stove. Heat, moisture and light are the enemy when it comes to keeping your spices fresh.
The ‘nose-in-jar’ test remains the best way to work out how fresh your spices are – stale spices lose their aroma and ability to make you smile. As a rule of thumb, ground spices will begin to lose their flavour, fragrance and colour after about six months. Seeds and whole spices (cardamom, cloves & cassia etc) will last a bit longer – again the nose test should tell if you if it’s time to restock.