The World of Spices
In this column, Ann gets right to the flavor of the topic, so . . . . . take notes! With no further adieu, we turn the mike to Ann. You're on Ann . . . . .
Pepper is not Pepper is not Pepper . . .
At one time, spices were the most expensive item in a household account and were usually locked away in drawers for safe keeping. A pound of
ginger would buy a sheep, a pound of cloves was worth about $20 and pepper,
the most expensive spice of all, was sold by individual peppercorn. Today,
however, the price of spices is the least expensive ingredient in any dish
and oftentimes makes the most significant difference in the final outcome
of that dish.
Barbecue cooks know the importance of selecting and purchasing the best
spices. However, finding the best is often a problem. There are four
major determining factors in selecting spices: flavor, aroma, heat and color.
Volatile oils are largely responsible for a spices's characteristic flavor
and aroma. On the world market, spices are graded according to the amount
of volatile oils present in the product. Naturally, the higher oil
content, the more flavor, and the better spice. Ask your spice supplier
what the volatile oil content is of the particular spice you are interested
in purchasing. Of course, this question is more critical to some spices
(such as cinnamon, paprika and nutmeg) than others.
Also, the country origin of herbs and spices, the growing conditions such
as soil content, rain and heat are all factors which will give you
information on the quality of a specific spice. Just like wine grapes,
whose flavor differs depending on where they are gown. A spice's flavor is
characteristic of the environment in which it is grown.
Pepper, as well as most other spices, grow in a band within 10 to 20
degrees of the equator around the world. Any country within that band
probably grows pepper, however, quality varies widely. Most spice experts
agree that Tellicherry pepper is the best of the black peppers with Malabar
pepper rating second. Both grow on the east coast of India. Tellicherry
is a large berry, very black, with a bold flavor, whereas Malabar is
slightly less black, smaller and less pungent. Pungency is the hot
sensation produced in the mouth by constituents of spices such as pepper,
chilies or ginger which also contribute to flavor.
Other peppers of good quality can be found in Indonesia, Malaysia and
Thailand. The most abundant pepper, and the one usually available in the
U.S. market, is Brazilian black. Unfortunately, it is much less flavorful,
less uniformly black and smaller.
Freshness is also a critical factor in flavor and aroma. Whole spices
retain their flavor best, but as soon as spices are ground, the flavor and
aroma begin to fade. The aroma deteriorates first. If you can buy whole
spices and grind them yourself, you will have a much better product,
however, that is not always possible. My advice is to demand freshly
ground spices whenever possible. Beware, many spice companies hold spices
in warehouses for months, even years.
Aroma and fragrance are perhaps the most important and least understood
factors in spice buying. We know our sense of smell excites our sense of
taste, and when both senses are excited, foods taste better. Therefore, if
a spice is not fresh, the fragrance is the first noticeable loss. Herbs
and spices should have a fresh, clean, distinct aroma.
Heat, another determining factor when selecting a spice, is measured in the
spice trade in scoville units. Heat units, or scoville units may run from
mild (1,200 units) to a very hot (6,000 units). Chilies particularly are
bought often by selecting the amount of heat units. I found a chili in
China reported to be 20,000 units!
On the whole, pepper and ginger are less hot and are more often described
as pungent. Peppers can be purchased that are more or less pungent.
Tellicherry pepper is the most pungent, while Sarawak is the least pungent.
Finally, color is most important for the visual impact of a dish. Once
again, some peppers are blacker than others. Tellicherry is the blackest
of the black peppers, where Brazilian black pepper is often rather gray.
Imagine the difference that would make if one was grilling peppered salmon
The color in paprika is determined by ASTA levels. ASTA level is the
amount of color that can be extracted in water. ASTA levels run from pale,
90 ASTA to rich, 140 ASTA. In the same context, a pale paprika would be
unappealing to the eye on potato salad.
Knowing how to select spices for flavor, aroma, heat and color and how to
combine flavors to achieve a simple and pure result will make us more
Copyright (c) 1998, by:
Ann D. Wilder, President
VANN Spices, Ltd.
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