Salt and Spice
Salts, herbs, and spices are at the forefront of a culinary movement of change
Culinary rules are meant to be broken, or at least revised, as food trends ebb and flow, and as new generations of chefs emerge. Today, it’s mutiny: all combinations of ingredients are up for invention, makeover, or reinterpretation.
Driven by the desire to “eat healthy and clean,” and anchored by the globalization of ingredients with lots of flavor and texture, every type of cuisine fusion has become fair game. For example, consider a Greek Caesar Salad via Germany, or a Chinese Bourguignon. Mustard in ice cream or herbs in cakes. Such combinations are laying down new rules in product development.
While some product flavorings are developed to satisfy the need for new and exciting options, many formulations are modernized in order to “keep up with the times.” To accomplish this, research chefs are experimenting with an expanding array of spices and seasonings. And when something sticks it becomes a huge trend, like sriracha, lemongrass, or turmeric. On the other end of the spectrum, favorites of a generation ago, like raspberry vinegar and sun-dried tomatoes, are making a comeback.
Even so, ingredient makers and processors do face some challenges when it comes to spices and seasonings. “Requests to adhere to more parameters, such as gluten-free, allergen-free, and non-GMO, have caught up with the herbs and spices industry,” says Raul Pero, director of product development for The J.R. Watkins Co. “The need to look for, and test for, these parameters has impacted the supply chain as well as quality assurance procedures.”
Pero also notes that consumers’ attitudes and knowledge of spices and flavors shifted dramatically in the past several years. “Consumers’ flavor preferences are becoming more complex, as they are more open to try new things and different ethnic flavors and spices.”
As more people elect to try different ethnic foods, Pero sees the results reflected in an overall increase in usage of spices. “Food processors are clearly taking advantage of the new acceptance of more ethnic foods,” he says, noting that this is evident in the proliferation of new products. Such trends typically start at the restaurant level and move to food processors.
The more complex and many-layered the seasoning, the better—as long as it isn’t so complex as to complicate a label in this age of short ingredient lists. Developers must walk a fine line in this regard. But as they mine the global arena for ethnic ingredients, they find a wealth of new seasonings and seasoning combinations to test.
India, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Korea, the Middle East, and South America are trending sources for seasonings. France, Italy, Mexico, and China have less appeal, unless specific regions take the limelight. Think Alsace, Puglia, and Yucatan instead. Millennials are a force, bringing refreshing food ideas to the fore, as long as the flavors are authentic and the ingredients are pure and clean.
While older consumers still adhere to time-honored foods, they too are exploring new twists on old favorites. Developing seasonings that are brand new, while also tweaking the classics, is an exciting yet challenging balancing act for the producer. That’s where the artful use of spices comes in.
Spices can make the difference between a good, simple dish and one that charges the palate. Whether the producer is creating a new product or revitalizing an existing one, spices are a boon. Favorites such as cumin, coriander, smoked paprika, cilantro, and fennel remain popular, but there are some new tastes to explore as well.
“There are a few lesser known spices on the rise, such as fenugreek, grains of paradise, Szechuan peppercorns, and star anise,” says Jody Denton, executive chef at Frito Lay. The former restaurant chef brings his expertise in exploring new cuisines to developing lines of savory snacks that have helped remake what Americans used to perceive as the humble potato chip. Denton and the company have been completely upending the nearly stale category with chip flavors such as Wasabi Ginger, Greek Tzatziki, Indian Tikka Masala, and Korean Barbecue.
Up and Coming
Fenugreek is widely used in Indian curries, spice blends, and tea. The seeds have a complex, sweet yet slightly bitter taste. When toasted, they add a bittersweet counterpart to pickles, yogurt, and tomato sauces, as well as to spice blends containing coriander, cumin, and paprika.
Grains of paradise (also known as Guinea pepper or Melegueta pepper, but not to be confused with Malagueta pepper, a South American chili pepper with a confusingly similar name) could be the next best peppercorn-like ingredient for new formulations. A favorite of craft brewers and distillers, the warm, pungent-spicy-citrus-flavored grains from West Africa are used in the same way as black peppercorns, but their intriguing flavor is more complex, with notes of ginger and cardamom. They work well in mustards and pickles, as well as spice blends, rubs, and marinades for meat.
The mysterious flavor of Szechuan peppercorns is at once woodsy, minty, earthy, and citrusy. Not true peppercorns, but rather, dried berries from the prickly ash tree, these peppercorns are a key ingredient in Chinese Five-Spice powder. Providing a cooling, tingling sensation, they add Asian flair, particularly to hot and spicy styles of cooking, as well as to sauces and blends for stir-fry and noodle dishes.
Another essential ingredient in Chinese Five-Spice powder is star anise. It has a stronger, more floral and less licorice-like flavor than European anise or fennel. It also is the chief ingredient in Chinese “red” cooking, along with soy sauce.
Red cooking is a style of Chinese cooking that involves slow braising with soy sauce and fermented red tofu or fermented bean paste. When used in subtle amounts, star anise imparts a classic Far East flavor to poultry, syrups for fruit, blends for crackers or breads, and even ice cream.
Lemongrass is a Southeast Asian staple gaining significant traction in many creations lately. Mixed with coconut and chili peppers, or standing alone, lemongrass brings its citrus-herbal brightness to soup, seafood, salad, rice, and even confections or dessert. In its powdered form, lemongrass adds a spark to rubs, dressing, and glazes.
Zingy galangal is a member of the ginger family found in cuisines of dozens of countries, but lately familiar to the Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian cooking making big inroads on the American culinary scene. Related to but different from its cousin, ginger, galangal is a larger root with lighter, smoother skin.
Earthy and sharp, with an almost camphor-like aroma, galangal brings heat and citrus notes to curry pastes, satay, stir-fry, and soups. But it must be used with care, as just a little of this powerful flavoring goes a long way.
Other spices previously unfamiliar to Western palates are picking up fans among chefs and culinologists. Ingredients such as nigella seeds and sumac berries are just two examples. “We recently added nigella seeds to our range after having a number of requests,” says Brett Fuss of Pereg Natural Foods Co. Nigella seeds have many confusing names, such as black cumin or black onion, but are not related to any of those spices. The seeds—which come from Nigella sativa, an annual flowering plant of the Ranunculacae family—are crunchy and have a nutty, oniony flavor.
Nigella seeds have been used in India and throughout the Middle East for centuries, especially in vegetable dishes and salads, and on flatbreads. They add a surprising savory burst to potatoes and root vegetable dishes, as well.
Ground sumac berries are a Middle Eastern staple, and almost indispensable in Persian cuisine. The spice is on every Iranian table next to the salt and pepper. Its deep, rich, red color belies its tart, astringent taste, and it is sprinkled on everything from lamb dishes and rice to eggs, salads, and vegetables. Ground sumac does not have to be limited to Middle Eastern cuisine; it adds a bright note to vegetable medleys, vinaigrettes and dressings, and fresh greens.
Spice blends provide a greater depth of flavor and open the door for new combinations. Trends in spices have benefited from consumers’ quests for new tastes with health advantages. Turmeric is the latest, with its combination of powerful health benefits via the compound curcumin, but it is also a versatile spice in formulations. “Turmeric can be added to a range of recipes for nutritional benefit as well as great color,” says Fuss.
A staple in many Indo-Asian curry blends, turmeric—a rhizome related to ginger—contributes its striking gold color without adding overwhelming flavor. The flavor is mild, earthy, and adds unique appeal to rubs, and braising liquids as well as dressings, marinades, and even beverages and smoothies.
Blended with ginger, chili peppers, and black pepper, turmeric can make pickled vegetables pop and soups sing. Coupled with trending ingredients such as carrots, kale, Brussels sprouts or added to vegetable burger preparations, turmeric adds excitement to healthy favorites and elevates them to cutting-edge offerings.
Mint is not new, but is perhaps the most-used herb globally. Whether it is featured in an English mint sauce, an Indian raita, a Middle Eastern tabbouleh, or even a julep, mint refreshes and awakens the palate. It has the remarkable ability to give an illusion of freshness, even in its dried form.
Whether used alone or in combination with other spices (such as sumac), mint makes a perfect addition to meat or grain dishes, sauces and pesto-like pastes, as well as ice cream and chocolate confections. And fresh leaves, while strong when eaten on their own, add a spark to salad green blends when used in moderation.
While mint is appearing everywhere, caraway seems overlooked these days. This ancient European staple is prized as an aid to digestion and works well with hearty meat, cabbage, and potato dishes. The bitter-earthy-sweet-sharp flavored seeds are standards in breads and seed cakes, as well.
Caraway is an important spice in Georgian cooking, and makes an appearance in several spice concoctions, such as harissa, the Moroccan red chili-caraway relish. When used sparingly, caraway adds tremendous old-world flavor to modern meat, vegetable, grain, and tomato-based formulas.
Bay leaves are best known for their role in the parsley-bay-thyme triad used to flavor most European soups and stews. Yet they are also indispensable in Mediterranean dishes. The leaves add herbal depth to bean and lentil stews, chick pea soups, and other slow-cooked formulations. In powdered form, bay enhances the earthy flavors of meats when used in a grill rub mixed with sea salt and other herbs.
Spices are the best way to add unique and sometimes complicated flavors to food. Yet flowers are increasingly used as spices in sweet and savory formulations. For example, lavender buds can be soothing and relaxing in a bath, but when added to food, they contribute a powerful, almost menthol-like quality. Lavender pairs surprisingly well with both sweet and savory dishes, and has been finding new audiences in beverages such as herbal teas and sodas.
A key ingredient in Provençal spice rubs for meats, especially lamb, poultry, and shellfish, lavender adds a traditional Mediterranean note. Add lavender to sugar and a dusting gives a unique flavor to shortbread, tea, soda, and lemonade. And it pairs particularly well with lemon and fruit, making it an ideal addition to jams and preserves. Mixed with sea salt, a few sprinkles of lavender elevate chocolate truffles or sauces and caramel or butterscotch sauces.
Other edible flowers gaining popularity are rose, orange blossom, and chamomile, in keeping with the tremendous popularity of cuisines from the Middle East and surrounding areas. Edible flowers have been used throughout the Mediterranean to add their perfume and a touch of the exotic to dishes. Rose is an essential ingredient in the Eastern Mediterranean blend Baharat and appears in many versions of the North African blend Ras el Hanout (see below).
Strongly scented orange blossom mixed with sweet syrup infuses fruit or pastries, and chamomile contributes a lemony-apple flavor to white chocolate and honey desserts. “People are always innovating new ways to enjoy spices—adding them to sweet dishes is a great new trend to bring some extra flavor or heat to traditionally sweet items,” adds Pereg’s Fuss.
Some blends are made with a dozen or so spices, others with many more. As foundational as single spices and herbs are in cooking, when spices are blended together, they transform an accent into a formula.
“Indian spices are on a consistent upward trend right now, especially as blends rather than as individual spices,” says Denton. “Moroccan spice blends such as Ras el Hanout, Middle Eastern, Korean, and Vietnamese flavorings are all strongly trending, too.”
Ras el Hanout typically is a mixture of the best quality spices a merchant has to offer. (The name is Arabic for “head of the shop” or “top of the shop”—similar to “top shelf” in English.) The blend is a mixture of peppery and sweet spices that give it a warm and enigmatic flavor.
With consumers’ love affair with Middle Eastern food in full swing, Baharat is emerging as another popular spice blend. An elaborate, captivating medley, Baharat is a staple seasoning of Mediterranean Arabic cuisine. And as with Ras el Hanout, there are as many different blends of Baharat as there are people who make it.
A mixture of several spices and herbs, Baharat is used to season meat, bean, pilaf, and vegetable dishes. With big flavor, Baharat used on its own makes a perfect rub, or it can be mixed into a marinade. It also adds warmth to soup, hummus, or sweet vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes, especially when they are made into chips.
Dried grated citrus peel plays a key role in these spice blends and in others from Levantine and Eastern culinary traditions. Typically, dried lemons or limes are used, although some traditions use dried oranges. Lime leaves, too, are used in many dishes, and it’s hard to imagine a Thai soup or stew without kaffir lime in it. Greater availability of these more exotic components and blends are helping stimulate their attraction to Western chefs.
Peppercorns are having a moment in the limelight now, particularly in conjunction with sweet ingredients, in fruit dishes, and in cocktails. Syrups made with wine, sweet vinegars, and juices benefit from the heat of peppercorns. In spice cakes, cookies, and bars, peppercorns add a kick to the buttery, sweet flavors.
A spectrum of tastes exists under the peppercorn umbrella. Different types of peppercorns have distinct flavor profiles, and their subtle differences bring an authenticity to global preparations. Tellicherry and Wyanad varieties for Indian dishes, Cambodian kampot, and sarawak from Malaysia add various levels of heat and subtle spice overlays to traditional formulations.
Pepper isn’t the only source of good heat. It’s hard to imagine a shrimp cocktail sauce or a Bloody Mary without the bite of horseradish. And roast beef bathed in creamy horseradish sauce is still a favorite comfort food. But there are many other reasons to sneak this fiery root into formulas. It adds a nice kick to fish rubs, sauces, and pickles, and is a spicy surprise in apple or cranberry sauces.
Mustard in its many forms adds intensity—and opposition—to many products. While the condiment is used to wake up flavor in everything from dressings to sauces, variations in form (seed, powder, or oil) afford options to introduce a different kind of heat. Mustard seeds play heavily in Indian food, and mustard powder is a key component in many Far Eastern spice blends.
Some chefs are taking horseradish (especially wasabi) and mustard powder into new zones, blending them with sea salt or sugar, and using the hot spices to add a boost in unexpected formulations, such as fruit sauces, chocolate confections, and even ice cream.
Worth Its Salt
With so many spices and herbs available to create new taste sensations, that most elemental and fundamental of seasonings—salt—also has grown in popularity. There is no doubt that consumer attitudes toward salt have shifted to the positive.
Some of this may be attributed to a “backlash” following decades of misdirected anti-sodium efforts. (Contrary to longstanding rumors, there is no definitive evidence that dietary salt intake causes disease in healthy persons.) Or, it could simply be that nothing beats salt for the combination of flavor enhancement, preservation, and low cost.
Salt has now become popular to such an extent that plain white table salt will no longer do. Consumers want unique flavor combinations and exotic sources for the no-longer-basic flavorant. Sea salt from just about every shore, from Baja to Bali, is easy to acquire. Gray salt from France, pink salt from the Himalaya region, Hawaii, or Peru, and even black volcanic salt all make a perfect base for building new and unusual flavor expansions.
Not only does salt naturally bring out flavors in food, it embraces and bridges other ingredients. This includes sweet flavorings, as seen in the recent salted caramel and salted chocolate trends. Infused salts, and salt in combination with other flavorings, are building on this trend.
Salt blends are the easiest way to convey a myriad of tastes into a formulation. Build salt out with different spices, herbs, and sweeteners and the result is an explosion of complex flavor. Whether all savory or with a touch of sweetness, sea salt can readily host an array of ingredients ranging from vanilla to sumac, smoked paprika to wine. The result is a new seasoning with uncommon taste that brings innovation and new directions to the kitchen.
While spices and seasonings are upping the ante in today’s cooking, the contrasting flavors and textures consumers crave remain the springboard from which chefs develop new ideas. The challenge is to offer products that include both classic and new categories, remaining relevant with new ideas while offering comfort with tried and true favorites.
Originally appeared in the April, 2017 issue of Prepared Foods as Salt and Spice.
Turning Up the Heat
Adapted by permission from the “Melissa’s The Great Pepper Cookbook: The Ultimate Guide to Choosing and Cooking with Peppers” (Oxmoor 2014)
The first chili pepper ever to leave the Americas, brought back to Spain by Columbus in 1493, was likely dried in view of the months it had to spend at sea. Although there are more than 250 varieties of peppers worldwide, and more than 5,000 hybrids, only about 21 fresh, and 16 dried peppers, are commonly used in the US. But that’s changing as the great pepper boom continues.
With peppers today, it’s not just a matter of heat. Rather, what’s driving experimentation with and adoption of specific peppers is each pepper’s unique flavor and the flavor it, in turn, adds to a formulation. Pepper proliferation also goes beyond Tex-Mex, Hispanic, and Indo-Asian food trends. This invites some rules of thumb for choosing and working with chili peppers.
In general, the smaller the chili, the hotter it is. Anaheim peppers, for example, can be up to 8 inches long and are very sweet and mild, having almost no heat. On the other hand, one of the hotter peppers is the small Savina habanero, which is 30 to 50 times hotter than a jalapeño pepper. But there are exceptions. Some Hatch chili peppers are big and blisteringly hot. And the hottest peppers commercially available—the notorious Scorpion peppers and the Ghost pepper (Bhut Jolokia) are about the same size as the Scotch bonnet and jalapeño, respectively, yet thousands of times hotter.
The hottest part of the chili pepper is the veins, followed by the seeds. The skin contains the least amount of heat. Peppers produce volatile oils that are easily absorbed into the skin. This is why it is so important to properly wash hands and surfaces with warm water and soap when working with peppers, and to avoid touching the eyes, face, or any other sensitive areas when processing peppers.
Roasting chili peppers brings out an abundant array of flavors and sweet notes inherent in the fruit. Also, adding a hint of smoke helps meld the heat and the flavor in the pepper. Peppers can be roasted over an open flame or under a broiler, in an oven or on a grill. Peppers should be washed and patted dry before roasting, and kept whole with stem intact.
Chili peppers have been dried and smoked as a way to not only change and intensify their flavor but to preserve their nutritional value and keep them available all year. In fact, drying chili peppers is so effective, remnants of peppers dried as long ago as 9,000-10,000 years have been found at archaeological sites.
Simple and Sweet
Whether tempering the fire of chili pepper or augmenting the tartness of citrus, vinegar, or sour fruits and vegetables, a touch of sweetness plays a significant role in kicking up flavors. For example, Asian cooking has long incorporated sugar in small amounts in sauces, marinades, and dipping sauces. Few cultures have developed the salt-spice-tart-sweet complex better, adding layers of flavor in a simple, ancient form.
Sweeteners offer an abundance of nuances when used as a seasoning to balance, enhance, and complement other flavors. While it might seem counterintuitive, adding a touch of sweetness to savory or spicy seasonings works well to create more complicated taste profiles in a formulation. Adding a touch of sweetness to savory drinks and smoothies, yogurts, cereals, sauces, marinades, rubs, and spice blends is a quick and easy way to hit all regions of the palate for a complete flavor experience.
Sweeteners come in many forms, such as cane or beet sugar, honey or maple sugar granules or powder, and coconut palm sugar. (See “Sweeteners Round-up,” page 00.) One of the more popular sweeteners in today’s seasoning blends is coconut palm sugar. It has a subtle, malty flavor and adds a touch of savory enhancement as well as sweetness.
Another sweetener, with a more complex flavor profile, is caramel. The sweet/burnt balance of caramel easily adds depth and dimension—and a touch of color—to many foods, especially salty snack blends such as popcorn, nuts, pretzels, rice crackers, and others. Caramel can also add a unique background flavor to sauces and marinades for meats, poultry, and seafood, especially shellfish.
Pulverized caramel runs the risk of clumping, as it absorbs moisture when exposed to air, making it difficult to work with. Large-batch oven toasting sugar at low heat can make a very workable alternative that does not clump. This method opens the door to an array of sweet and savory foods with the added benefit of being pure and natural.
The love of smoke flavor goes back to the beginning of cooking. The natural flavor of smoke evokes campfires and sizzling meats. Smoked spices add an intriguing level of flavor that is readily associated with barbecued or wood-grilled food. Fortunately for producers, there are several options to choose from to add a layer of smoke to formulations without the expense and extra steps of actual smoking.
The jump in popularity of smoked paprika is easily explained by its ability to add the complexity of smoke without tasting too “smoky.” It’s finding its way into new formulations that extend from rubs and salt blends to dressings, soups, stews, snacks, and corn and bean combinations. Smoked paprika is a new “secret” ingredient that adds amazingly deep flavor and color.
Another smoked spice with great potential for adding that unexpected twist to food is smoked cinnamon. It presents an easy way to enliven dishes, even sweet food and beverages where a little smoke would shine, such as chocolate and caramel desserts or coffee or tea blends. It also goes well in Chinese Five-Spice blends.
Smoked sea salt has really moved to the forefront of late. It adds a tremendous boost of flavor in soups and braised formulas. Some smoked salts are stronger than others, so when looking for a big flavor, experiment with different ones to find the one most suitable for the formulation at hand. Combining the flavors of smoke and spice makes things more complex.
Sea salt with smoked mustard or herbs like thyme and oregano add multilayer flavor to meat and vegetable dishes. Add smoked peppercorns for an even deeper level of flavor for all kinds of formulations, especially meats and seafood or mushroom dishes. For vegetarians, smoked peppercorns are a way to add a suggestion of hearty umami flavor.
An unusual new entry to the smoked seasonings palette is naturally smoked sugar. Use it in streusel toppings for fruit desserts and coffee cakes, or on cookies and shortbread, in syrups for cocktails, or in caramel or chocolate sauces. Smoked sugars are especially suited for crème brulée. Or, add it to rubs, glazes, and sauces for meat, pork, poultry, barbecue, or salmon.
Smoked sugars also are an excellent way to season roasted root vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, or turnips. It also excites squashes (winter squash or summer squash), and can be included in slow-cooked bean products for an extra level of sweet smoky flavor.
Powders are not spices per se, but they are a simple way to add big flavor. Whether mushroom, tomato, citrus, or vegetable powder, these ingredients can both complement and boost flavors. Mushroom powder, especially, with its umami appeal, is available in many varieties. Some, such as Porcini or morel, build up robust dishes. Others add a lighter touch to soup and sauces. Tomato powder brings a tart-sweet undercurrent to spice blends and sauces. Citrus zest powders give sweet and savory dishes a snappy, upbeat tartness, working well in such items as hummus, yogurt sauce, spice blends, and drinks. Vegetable and fruit powders contribute their color and savory-tart flavors to pasta, sauces, and smoothies.
By Raul Pero, director of product development for The J.R. Watkins Co.
Product adulteration is more common than expected. It’s easy to do and, if done well, is hard to detect. Not all spices test the same, either. Black pepper, for example, is not just black pepper—it varies greatly depending on source and processing.
Manufacturers have to develop high quality standards to ensure the consistency of the flavor profile from lot to lot. One way food processors can help control quality is to buy spices processed in the US. Manufacturers need to build long-lasting, trust-based relationships with suppliers that have proper quality assurance procedures and can ensure third-party certification for food safety.
Packaging also plays a key role in the way spices maintain their freshness and flavor. Protecting spices and seasonings from air and UV light exposure is critical to extending overall quality for a greater period of time.