Take the 2-minute tour ×
Seasoned Advice is a question and answer site for professional and amateur chefs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I know using spices while cooking is often subjective and you would use spices that you deem appropriate for certain dish but it is undeniable that when you do use them, you should use fresh and good ones.

Now, this question is being made with intent of it becoming community wiki and a great resource for people trying to get good spices. To get to the question, how would you recognize superior spices when you go shopping? What would be some objective (and subjective) tests for determining spice quality.

In case this doesn't become a community wiki, I'll add a specific question so that this one doesn't get deleted and also to start the list of spices - how would you recognize great saffron from a lousy one?

share|improve this question
    
I think you're trying way too hard to make this turn into a community wiki question. There aren't all that many different categories of spices, and it should generally be possible to provide an answer that covers most common things, even if it misses a thing or two (e.g. vanilla beans) where there's some very specific knowledge to be had, and it's fine to ask separate questions about those. –  Jefromi May 28 '12 at 22:03
    
OK, will edit my question and make specific ones for other spices. –  John Doe May 28 '12 at 23:29

1 Answer 1

Well, let me just cover bottled spices here, since that seems like enough to bite off:

  1. Age: while often difficult to determine, age is the #1 determinant of spice quality. Unfortunately, most mass market brands of spices do not print packaging dates on bottles (deliberately). Try asking the staff at your market. Dried herbs are at their best for 3-6 months, and ground seeds (cumin etc.) are good for 6-12 months.
  2. Vendor: different brands of spices have different levels of quality of sourcing, preparing, and packaging spices. For example, I buy spices from Penzey's specifically because I know their high-quality sourcing and preparation. Cook's Illustrated rated Spice Islands superior among supermarket brands.
  3. Variety: some varieties of certain common spices are better than others. Ceylon cinnamon is superior to Mexican; Tellicherry peppercorns are superior to the common variety; and Turkish bay leaves are better than Californian. Also, because they are more expensive, finer varieties of spices are often packaged and stored better.
  4. Storage Conditions: heat, moisture, and/or direct sunlight all cause spices to age much faster. To check for moisture, look for caking. To check for exposure to sunlight, look for faded colors, especially on only one side of the bottle.
  5. Smell: if you're buying in bulk, or you already have the bottle open, most spices should have a strong and distinctive aroma. If they don't, they're probably old.
  6. Taste: Spices should taste of themselves and not have extra musty or bitter flavors. These off tastes are generally indications of age and/or poor storage.
share|improve this answer
    
Note that all but variety are true for basically all spices, and you can usually deal with age and storage conditions by just finding a good vendor, so finding a good place to shop (and evaluating the first things you do buy on smell and taste) is kind of the main answer. –  Jefromi May 29 '12 at 3:33
    
@Fuzzy, great answer. The only thing that I would add is to look for labeling. The better spices will clearly label what they offer ("Ceylon Cinnamon", rather than just "Cinnamon", etc.) The vendors that offer quality want to tell you about it, others just obscure their product in a generic name. –  Cos Callis May 29 '12 at 3:40
    
@CosCallis: You have to be careful with that advice. Some spices have multiple perfectly good varieties (perhaps they're just different), and manufacturers aren't shy about labeling them to make them look better. –  Jefromi May 29 '12 at 4:17
    
@Jefromi, perhaps I should have been more clear. I was referring to the completeness of the label not the "visual appeal". When spices come in 'equally good' varieties the better spice vendors will label them so that you know what you are getting. –  Cos Callis May 29 '12 at 11:48
    
@CosCallis: I understood you just fine - and I'm saying, a "complete" label is appealing to many people (it clearly is to you), and while sometimes the information might be important ("ceylon cinnamon" vs "cinnamon"), other times it might not be ("mediterranean oregano" and "oregano" are almost certainly the same thing). –  Jefromi May 29 '12 at 15:33

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.