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February/March 2013

Getting to Know: Herb and Spice Blends

Most cuisines around the world, including our own, have characteristic spice mixes. Here’s a look at 12 spice blends, old and new, home-grown and foreign.

Pumpkin Pie Spice

Most Americans reach for pumpkin pie spice just once a year. But in the test kitchen, we don’t limit its use to our pumpkin pie. We use it to flavor carrot cakes and spice cookies or as a shortcut to Moroccan chicken. No need to buy a jar—you can make your own: Combine 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ginger, and 1/8 teaspoon each nutmeg and allspice for every teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice called for in a recipe.

Herbes de Provence

An aromatic blend from the south of France, herbes de Provence combines dried lavender flowers with rosemary, sage, thyme, marjoram, and fennel, and sometimes chervil, basil, tarragon, or savory. A natural partner for poultry and pork, herbes de Provence is worth trying in an herb butter to brush under turkey or chicken skin before roasting the bird.

Curry Powder

As many as 20 different spices are blended to make curry powder, among them coriander, cumin, cinnamon, clove, turmeric, and black and red peppers. Madras curry powder is a hotter version; sweet (or “mild”) is more versatile. Curry powder adds flavor to recipes like curried spiced nuts. Penzey’s Sweet Curry powder is our top pick.

Blackening Spice

In the 1980s, New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme became famous for dipping fish fillets in melted butter, dredging them in spices, and cooking them in a searingly hot skillet, thereby igniting a national “blackening” obsession. Not long after the trend swept the nation, blackening spice mixes hit supermarkets, combining paprika, onion and garlic powders, coriander, and red and black peppers.

Za’atar

In Arabic, za’atar can refer to a specific herb (Thymbra spicata); to several herbs that are related to thyme, savory, and oregano; or to a blend of spices that contain these herbs, along with sesame seeds, salt, and (tart, sour) sumac. Za’atar (the blend) is traditionally sprinkled on kebabs and vegetables. To get to know its earthy, pungent, floral flavors, dunk bread in olive oil and then dip it in za’atar.

Italian Seasoning

This blend tries to cram the flavors of Italy into a single jar. It’s chock-full of the Italian mainstays oregano, marjoram, rosemary, basil, sage, thyme, and savory. Toss potato wedges with oil, Parmesan, and Italian seasoning for a fast Mediterranean take on steak fries, or add a few pinches to a slow-simmered tomato sauce for an all-in-one flavor boost.

Chinese Five-Spice Powder

This pungent, aromatic blend contains five ingredients, namely cinnamon, clove, fennel seeds, Sichuan peppercorn, and star anise. Chinese culture values the balance of flavors that these spices represent. In recent years, Americans have taken to the spice, too, using it for both sweet (five-spice panna cotta) and savory (grilled pork chops) dishes. Frontier Natural Products Co-op Five Spice Powder is our favorite blend.

Ras el Hanout

This North African seasoning translates as “head of the shop” because traditionally each blend was a unique combination of some 25 spices, seeds, dried flowers, berries, and nuts determined by the spice shop’s proprietor. Blends often include cumin, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, dried rose petals, galangal, and paprika. Use ras el hanout in tagines, rices, and hearty meat dishes such as braised lamb shanks.

Crab Boil

Boiling huge pots of seafood, potatoes, and other vegetables is a time-honored culinary tradition, be it crawfish boil in Louisiana, Frogmore stew in the Carolinas, or a clam bake in New England. What to season the pot with? Crab boil. Popular brands include Zatarain’s, Rex’s, and Old Bay. Crab boil usually contains mustard seeds, celery seeds, coriander, peppercorns, bay, and allspice.

Pickling Spice

Now that there’s a pickling revival sweeping America, reacquaint yourself with this blend. Pickling spice is a fruity, tart mixture of whole and coarsely crushed spices like bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, allspice, mustard seeds, cloves, coriander, and ginger. Not a pickle maker? Try grinding the blend in a spice grinder and using it to season poultry.

Garam Masala

Like curry powder, garam masala (literally “hot spice blend”) is an Indian seasoning made from warm spices like cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns, cardamom, and cumin. Add a little garam masala to couscous or use it to flavor a tagine. The test kitchen prefers McCormick Collection Garam Masala for its “citrusy,” “smoky” flavors.

Chili Powder

Before chili powder became a commercial product in the early 20th century, cooks had to mix their own from ground dried chiles (usually about 80 percent of the blend), garlic powder, oregano, and cumin. The quality of store-bought chili powder depends on both the chiles used and its freshness; if your jar is more than six months old, replace it.