When following a recipe, there is usually an abundance of spices and herbs, but many times we absentmindedly pour the spice in without taking time to consider what its purpose is in the dish. To us, they’re simply odd powders and leaves, filling up glass bottles purchased from Safeway, while we’re busy cooking and thinking about other things. But spices are not just additions to a dish. They incorporate new flavors, punctuate existing ones and lend alluring aromas in teaspoon-size amounts. The flavors you associate with a certain cuisine are almost always due to a characteristic combination of spices. People have used them as offerings to gods, fought wars and traded cities for them. Because of their importance, it would be a shame not to know what goes down when you toss a couple of tablespoons of paprika into a curry or grind some pepper over a plate of pasta. So take a gander at the Clog’s guide to spices for an informative journey through flavor profiles, molecular explanations behind the creation of flavor and surprisingly dramatic histories of some of our favorite spices, along with some examples of which foods they pair well with.
Flavor: Spicy, pungent
Flavor chemistry: Molecular components of black pepper, mainly piperine, activate receptors in the mouth that send signals to an area of the brain that is associated with the perception of pain. Thermal heat activates precisely the same receptors, which is why we feel as if our mouths are “on fire” after eating a pepper-heavy dish.
History: The lust for this very spice is what precipitated Columbus’ search for a shortcut to India and his “discovery” of America. With all its versatility, it has garnered the nickname “black gold,” and with good reason. After sacking Rome, the Huns demanded a ton of black pepper as a ransom from the poor citizens of the city, who had proclaimed it their favorite spice.
Good used in: Everything savory, and maybe some sweet things. Put into sauces, soups, salad dressings, etc. Maybe even try it with chocolate if you find yourself with a hankering for an adventurous dessert.
Recipe: Black pepper tofu
Flavor: Mild, fruity
Flavor chemistry: The name is a bit of a misnomer. While pink peppercorns are from the same genus, Piper, as their black counterparts, they differentiate in species. These pink peppercorns are actually dried berries from the Peruvian pepper tree which offers an explanation for their fruity flavor. They are called peppercorn only because of their resemblance in shape and size to true peppercorns.
History: In 1982, the United States banned the importation of it from France because of symptoms including swollen eyelids and indigestion. The United States quickly lifted the ban when it realized its silliness.
Good used in: Toss some into your salads to add a fruity flavor component and some interesting texture. When you’re grinding black pepper into something, grind in some pink pepper along with it to add another dimension. Because of their fruitiness, they are a good spice for off-kilter desserts that are begging for a mild kick of spice.
Flavor: Sweet, spicy
Flavor chemistry: The pungency associated with ginger is due to gingerol, a close chemical cousin to piperine, which lent black peppercorn its characteristic pungency. Much of this pungency is lost, however, during the cooking process because of the transformation of gingerol into zingerone, the key component in the creation of ginger’s distinctive flavor. This is why you experience a much smaller amount of heat while munching on a gingerbread cookie than on pickled ginger on the side of your sushi .
History: Surely we’ve all had a parent give us some ginger ale for an upset stomach or brew us a cup of ginger tea when fighting a bout of the flu. These actions are part of a long tradition of people utilizing ginger as a homeopathic medicine. Folk medicinal practices of China, India and the Middle East have long incorporated ginger as a cure for a great deal of ailments, a pathway to spiritual enlightenment and a potent aphrodisiac, thus making this nubby root quite the commodity. With desirability comes high asking prices, of course. In the 14th century, a pound of ginger could have fetched you a whole sheep.
Good used in: Add it to anything in which you want a subtle zing. Throw it in a stir-fry with some peppers to add interest to your vegetables. Sprinkle the crystallized version of it into the batter of scones and muffins. Also, try slicing some of it up and adding it to your spice mixture when making masala chai. It also makes a nice addition to smoothies if you’re on a healthy kick.
Flavor: Sweet, earthy
Flavor chemistry: The aroma of cinnamon, much like that of other spices, is responsible for its flavor, because our sense of smell and taste are tightly linked. Molecules such as cinnamaldehyde, cinnamyl acetate and cinnamyl alcohol are volatile components of cinnamon’s smell.
History: References to cinnamon date all the way back to 2000 B.C.E. in Egypt, where it was used in the embalming process. Through the spice trade, it would eventually reach Greece, where it would receive as much commodification as it had in other places. Herodotus, a historian living in fifth century B.C.E. Greece, claimed it was heavily guarded by winged serpents who would carry the spice to their nests high up in the mountains, far from the reach of humans. Only through the birds’ clumsiness would the nests fall and allow humans to collect the spice.
Good used in: This is the granddaddy of dessert spices. Use it in apple pie, pumpkin pie, banana bread, Mexican hot chocolate, etc. Much of their flavor is what cinnamon contributes to them. But cinnamon is not a one-note spice. Many countries, such as Turkey and Iran, use it in savory dishes.
Flavor: Sweet, earthy
Flavor chemistry: In large doses, nutmeg can be a hallucinogen. Myristicin is the chemical component most likely to be causing the narcotic effects. Research on the digestion of nutmeg in rats has shown that myristicin breaks down into MMDA, a known psychedelic, in the liver. It is still unknown if this same process occurs in humans, but if it does, the effects would generally not be felt if the nutmeg was consumed in small doses.
History: Nutmeg is indigenous to Indonesia. This area of the world was long fought over by colonial powers just for the ability to grow and sell this plant. In fact, the Dutch traded Manhattan — at the time an unassuming village in the New World — to the British for control of Run Island, which was teeming with nutmeg. Strange to think some crushed-up plants could have such an influence on major political moves.
Good used in: Its flavor profile is strikingly similar to that of cinnamon, so the two are often coupled together. Adding nutmeg to any dessert will impart a holiday festiveness to it, while sprinkling it onto sweet potatoes, butternut squash and pumpkin will complement the natural sweetness found in these tubers and gourds.
Recipe: Nutmeg cheesecake