"We don't have a culture for using spices" in America, says Lior Lev Sercarz, chef and owner of New York spice store La Boite, "but, at the same time, everybody uses them, so there is hope." If you take his suggestion to blend the spices in your pantry into new combinations, he says, those blends can be used endlessly -- in scrambled eggs, stir-fries, stews and soups, sprinkled onto toast, or even infused into sparkling water.
When creating blends, add varying amounts of ingredients to a bowl, tasting every so often to adjust to your palate. Some spices -- such as cumin, caraway and mustard seeds -- do well when they've been lightly toasted in a dry pan over low heat or in the oven, to help release their oils. Remember to play with textures as well, which creates layers of flavor: keep some seeds whole; finely chop dried citrus peel, and lightly crush dried herbs.
Where to buy spicesWhether it's the internet or ethnic grocery stores or the farmers market, there are plenty of places to find pretty much every spice under the sun. When shopping for spices, consider purchasing small quantities so that you can use them up while they are at their most flavorful. Lior Lev Sercarz, author of "The Spice Companion: A Guide to the World of Spices" (Clarkson Potter, 2016), suggests storing spices in glass, if possible, but says acrylic or wood containers are also good options if you're concerned about breakage.
Also, try to avoid storing spices in direct sunlight, too close to the stove or directly above an unintentional heat source such as under-cabinet lighting, as this can affect the spices' flavor and longevity.
Here are some national spice suppliers:
Bazaar Spices: A wide assortment of cuisine-specific spices and botanicals are available along with specialty salts in a variety of flavors. bazaarspices.com.
Full Moon Farm: Freshly harvested and then dried, the cured herbs from Virginia's Full Moon Farms have a fresh-from-the-farm scent and big flavor profiles. fullmoonfarm.net.
La Boite: Sercarz's store specializes in more than 40 unique spice blends along with single spices. You can purchase online or at the store in New York. laboiteny.com.
Penzeys: With a popular catalog business as well as stores in 28 states, Penzey's offers single spices and blends in small and large quantities. penzeys.com.
The Spice and Tea Exchange: This national retailer offers whole and ground spices, as well as some unusual items such as dehydrated wine and beer that can be used in seasoning blends. spiceandtea.com.
-- Kristen Hartke
For grinding, a standard coffee grinder (it's best to have one dedicated for spices) will do the job well; as Sercarz notes, a mortar and pestle looks pretty on the countertop, but it'll take a lot longer to grind those spices to the right consistency.
Which spices are essential to keep on hand? He suggests chile powder, paprika (he favors smoked), cinnamon, fennel or anise, and cumin or caraway.
"Add some good salt and pepper, and you're on your way," he says. While you're at it, change up the brands that you buy every so often, just for the sake of comparison -- you might be surprised at the differences you'll find just among basic black peppercorns.
Here are five blend suggestions that you may want to try from Sercarz's book, "The Spice Companion: A Guide to the World of Spices" (Clarkson Potter, 2016):
2 tablespoons celery seed, ½ tablespoon poppy seeds, 1½ heaping teaspoons ground caraway seeds, scant ¾ teaspoon black sesame seeds.
Adds texture to julienned raw vegetables drizzled with olive and lemon juice or a lightly salty crunch to pasta salad.
Scant ½ teaspoon coarsely chopped black peppercorns, scant ¾ teaspoon granulated dried lemon peel, 2 teaspoons ground dried dill, 1 tablespoon crushed basil leaves, ¾ cup ground dried tarragon leaves.
Use to make a compound butter for grilled meat or fish or add to sauteed shrimp and fettuccine.
3 tablespoons ground lemon grass, 2½ tablespoons crushed dried basil leaves, 1 tablespoon toasted/ground coriander seeds, 1½ heaping teaspoons Aleppo or mild chile flakes.
Use in a saute of pork, pineapple and cashews, or to brighten a mango and shrimp salad.
2 cups ground dried curry leaves, 1½ tablespoons crushed dried cilantro leaves, 1 tablespoon dried basil leaves and 1 teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper.
Good for braised eggplant in coconut milk or as a savory note in toffee pudding.
1 teaspoon ground anise seed, 1 teaspoon granulated dried orange peel, 1 tablespoon coarsely ground Sichuan pepper, 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds, 1 tablespoon fleur de sel or medium-grain sea salt.
Sprinkle over raw salmon or on fresh avocado salad.