Ask Ottolenghi: what’s the best way to use and store spices?

If you were an amateur cook (me), would you buy spices whole or ground? Would you keep them for a month or a year? And how would you use them? Add them at the beginning or mainly at the end? Merci beaucoup!
François, Paris, France

Bonjour! The short answer is: all of the above, not least because spices are so easily available, and a very economical way of adding layers of flavour to your cooking.

At home, I buy spices in small jars or packets (though maybe larger bags in the case of cumin seeds, which I find very easy to get through). Wherever possible, buy spices whole, then toast and grind as you need them, which is by far the best way to get maximum fragrance and flavour out of them. Lightly toast in a dry frying pan or spread out on an oven tray and toast in a 170C (150C fan)/340F/gas 3½ oven, for seven to 10 minutes, depending on the spice. You don’t want them to take on much colour, just to cook enough that they smell lovely and fragrant (a sign that the oils inside are being released). Once cool, roughly grind in a mortar or blitz to a powder in a spice (or coffee bean) grinder.

As to when to add spices to a dish, that all depends on what you’re making. If you’re sweating down onions and garlic, for example, as one does at the start of all sorts of sauces, stews and soups, and want to use whole spices, then by all means add them at the start: the moisture in the onions will stop them burning. Just remember to stir frequently. If using ground spices, however, it’s best to stir those in after the onions have softened or caramelised. I also love adding whole spices at the end, be they toasted or untoasted, or roughly crushed. Coriander, cumin, caraway, cooked whole in oil, perhaps with a few fresh curry leaves, make a wonderful finishing touch for dals and all kinds of soup.

I’d also suggest playing around – so long as you add spices in small quantities, there’s no harm in experimenting, particularly if the dish is one you know well, such as scrambled eggs. It’s a very low-stakes way to make a dish your own. Ground turmeric and spice blends such as garam masala or curry powder all work well in such circumstances.

And if you fancy delving deeper into the world of spice, you could do a lot worse than a book I turn to time and again, The Spice Companion by Lior Lev Sercarz, where you’ll find the full orchestra, their origin, helpful pairings and recipe ideas.

A few final practical notes. Store spices out of direct sunlight; if they come in a tin (as, say, paprika often does), don’t decant them into a nice glass jar – the whole point of the tin in the first place is so the spices don’t get to see the light! If you have too many, freeze them; just make sure they’re sealed tight and that no liquid has got in there. And spices do have a best-before date: if they’re a year or two old, they’ll have little or no taste, so chuck them and endeavour to cook with the next batch a lot more frequently.

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