Like you, I know that a few spices and herbs will lift a dish from ordinary to spectacular but what I didn’t know was how to blend my own spices. In spice shops around the world we see traditional blends and I always wonder how they knew how much of each type of spice to add to get the blend to impart just the right flavour.
Last Saturday I took a spice blending master class from Vicki Taylor, owner of Red Hot Chilli Pepper in Caloundra. Vicki’s spice shop is fairly new because for many years she was an investment banker in New Zealand. When she left that job she decided on a new career and one day when in a spice shop on one of her travels around the world, she knew what that new career would be. Vicki and her shop have won several business awards and she’s highly regarded in the community for her business acumen as well as her knowledge of spices. She’s a clever woman.
She and her husband moved from New Zealand to the Sunshine Coast and then Vicki learned all about spice blending from my hero Ian Hemphill from Herbie’s Spices. I’ve written about Herbie’s before and I knew if Ian had taught Vicki, I was in good hands.
Vicki began the class by telling us that India, Bangladesh and Turkey are the first, second and third top spice producing countries in the world and spices have been used at least since 2600 BC. The Dutch East India Company was the first multinational corporation in the world in 1602.
Spices make our food taste good but they are also used for health reasons. According to Vicki, nigella seeds are the remedy for everything but death. Its healing properties are stronger than turmeric and work as a pain killer, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal and many more. To get the health benefits you can eat the seeds plain or mixed with honey. You can also boil them in water, strain and drink or heat them in milk. It’s also advisable to mix them into spice blends and sprinkle on roasted vegetables or on bread and pastries.
She went on to the top ten spices that are used for health, the most expensive spices in the world (saffron and vanilla) before explaining the difference between spices and herbs. Herbs are the leaf of a culinary plant only. If you use the root, bark, seeds, berries or buds in cooking, then it’s a spice. Garlic is a spice and dill or parsley are herbs.
One thing I did learn was the difference between cassia bark and cinnamon. Cassia bark, also known as bakers cinnamon, is not a true cinnamon and does not have the wonderful health properties of cinnamon. If you buy something labeled cinnamon sticks, you’re getting cassia and if you buy something labeled cinnamon quills, that’s real cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon is more expensive and is heavily studied for its ability to regulate blood sugar.
A ground spice or spice blend will last about a year. The spice flavours come from the volatile oils in the spice and after a year, those oils poop out. Using fresh spice means your dish will taste just the way you want. The entire jar might seem expensive but you rarely use more than a little bit to make a big difference in a dish. Whole spices stored in an airtight container away from heat, light and moisture will still be good up to 2 years from purchase.
Now we get to the good part and the bit I had no clue about – how do they know how much of each spice to use? There’s a formula based upon the basic properties of the different spices.
Each herb or spice fits into one of five categories.
- Amalgamating – Coriander seeds, Cumin seeds, Fennel seeds, Poppy seeds, Sesame seeds and Turmeric
- Hot – Chilli, Horseradish, Mustard and Pepper
- Pungent – Arjowan seeds, Caraway seeds, Cardamom pods, Cloves, Cumin, Dill, Fenugreek, Garlic, Hing (Asafoetida), Juniper beries, Mace, Nigella seeds, Onion and Star Anise
- Sweet – Allspice, Aniseed, Cassia, Cinnamon, Nutmeg and Vanilla
- Tangy – Amchur, Pomegranate molasses, Suman, Tamarind, Ginger and Galangal
Vicki taught us that each of these categories has a weight in a spice blend. For instance if you use 5 teaspoons of an amalgamating spice – that’s the spice that holds everything together, you’d only use 3/4 of a teaspoon of something from the hot category, 2 teaspoons from the pungent group, 3 from sweet and only 1 from the tangy. Within that, you can use whatever you like. You could use 2 teaspoons of coriander seeds, 1 of fennel, 1 of sesame seeds, 1/2 teaspoon of paprika and 1/2 turmeric and then move to the next category of chilli and choose 3/4 of a teaspoon of that.
My eyes opened so wide when I realised there was a formula and couldn’t wait to get home to make up my own blend.
Then it was time to start blending our own spices. We began with Panch Phora, an Indian spice blend and we sampled some potatoes roasted with this spice mix and I fell in love. I don’t know if the nigella seeds cured all that was wrong with me but the taste was fantastic.
When we finished with the Panch Phora it was time to start grinding our Cape Malay spice blend. We did it in two parts to keep all the spices from splashing on to the floor and Vicki kept coming by and saying, “grind more, it needs to be really fine or your curry will be gritty.” It was quite noisy for a while and nearly everyone kept swapping hands with the pestle when one hand got tired. Finally we were done, our spice blends were approved as fine enough and we packaged them up.
Then Vicki served us a sample of Cape Malay curry which has chicken, onions, tomatoes, garlic, ginger, brown sugar, chicken stock, coconut cream, dried apricots and it was served over rice. I can’t wait to make this at home once the Easter festivities are over.
My thanks to Vicki for a very enjoyable afternoon. I learned so much about spice that will make my food even better in the future. Do you know a lot about spices? I think Vicki should write a book about spice blending. There’s very little out there that is simple to read and to follow. Vicki sells spice grinders, spice drawers, tagines, tea and just about any spice you’re likely to need. I love this shop.
Manal Obieda says
What an amazing experience!! Love the shop so much I can only imagine spending hours there 🙂
Looks like a lot of fun and a great place to buy fresh spices!! I wish we had a store like that in our area! I hope you guys have a wonderful Easter weekend! 🙂
Marilyn Lesniak says
I have to find a class on spices. I never considered making my own or even coming up with my own blends. You gave me me some food for thought!
What an entertaining post this was, I love the pictures- I almost felt like I was there!!! 🙂 Thanks for sharing!!
Rachel (Rachel's Kitchen NZ) says
Oh, what a fab class – Maureen – you are so right if Vicky learnt from Herbie she was in good hands – I love his latest book. I knew him and Elizabeth when we lived in Sydney and loved their shop. He is also one of the most generous people with his knowledge – a true food hero! I also remember visiting and meeting his parents at Somerset Cottage when we first arrived in Sydney – amazing:)
Glamorous Glutton says
Oh I’d love to do a spice blending day. It sounds like you learnt so much. I’m going to try making some blends using your ratio tips. GG
I envy you the chance to participate in such an informative and fun workshop. I grew up with a mom whose spice pantry contained salt, pepper and paprika. Oh, and I guess garlic. That’s IT. Herbs were only slightly more common but nothing special. I’ve expanded my pantry quite a bit since then.
I was disappointed to learn that those cinnamon sticks that I was buying were actually cassia bark. I don’t know that until fairly recently. I’m hoping that the stuff I buy in the jars IS actually cinnamon. 🙂
Lizzy (Good Things) says
What a fabulous way to spend the day! Love this! And thanks for the introduction to Red Hot Chilli Pepper, who learned from the spice master!
Caroline @ Shrinking Single says
What a great class. So interesting that there is a formula. I have made a couple of spice blends recently from recipes on the internet and they have tasted great. Would love to try creating some of my own and having a formula makes it sound doable.
What a terrific workshop! We have a spice shop nearby and I need to check out what they have to offer. Thanks for sharing your experience with us—and Happy Easter!!! xo
Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella says
What a great post. I learnt how reliant I was on spices when I was cooking dinner at a house we rented and they didn’t have any. The food was just not as exciting as it could have been! Happy Easter Maureen!! 😀
Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella says
Oops I’m not sure if my comment went through! I was just saying that this was a great post and I realised how reliant I was on spices and herbs when I cooked at a rented house that had none! Happy Easter! 😀
John@Kitchen Riffs says
I’m not really all that interested in working (retirement is good!), but if I was, a spice shop would be a wonderful thing. Never knew real cinnamon sticks were called quills. Love learning new things! Fun post — thanks.
Joanne T Ferguson says
What a great class Maureen and love learning new food things along the way!
On Easter Sunday morning a big ‘thank you’ for a couple of things of which I was unaware. Have made use of turmeric on a ‘grand’ scale for decades, but have barely dipped into nigella seeds! And [hanging my head in shame] did not realize the difference twixt cinnamon quills and sticks [dunce’s corner with me immediately!] And do hope that those it has passed by dip their learning time into the East India Company and the Raj Era: methinks some of the most interesting areas of reading of all . . .
I agree with everything you said, Eha.
pamela hayward says
Really interesting blog.thank you.
Formula? Wow! I had no idea!! This is totally my kind of workshop. I’m jealous 🙂 I love spice mixes – Middle Eastern is one of my fave cuisines! I am forever making spice mixes for particular dishes, why on earth I don’t stock some is beyond me 🙂
Veronica (Roni) says
Who knew Nigella seeds were so versatile??? Thanks for that tip Orgasmic Chef….
& what an amazingly eye-opening experience.
Have to put that on the to-do list!!! :))
Nancy | Plus Ate Six says
Who knew there was a formula? But then I guess it makes total sense. I have a ‘Moroccan’ spice mix I make up so I’m going to apply the formula and see how it goes. What a great way to spend the day.
Anna @ shenANNAgans.com says
Wahoo… What an fab experience, and a brilliant way to spend a day. I’d totes love to do this, and kinda wish my screen was scratch and sniff. 🙂
Karen (Back Road Journal) says
Thanks for sharing such an interesting afternoon with us…really enjoyed the post.
Hotly Spiced says
Amazing to go from banking to spices! This would have been a very interesting day. I would love to make my own spice blend and thankfully there’s that formula to go by. I’ve never thought of dividing spices up into different categories! Happy Easter Maureen and Charlie xx
WOW. This is such an awesome class–I’m so glad you had the chance to really broaden your knowledge of spices! Totally bookmarking this page for future reference. Thanks for sharing the info, spices really do spice up life 😉
Choc Chip Uru says
What a cool class to go to, my mum is always hammering me to learn my spices 😛
Choc Chip Uru
Amanda (@lambsearshoney) says
Wow – what a fabulous way to spend an afternoon. I’m suffering envy +++!
I had no idea there was a formula – how brilliant.
Laura (Tutti Dolci) says
What great tips, this is such an informative resource!
Toasting and grinding your spices is an amazing way to get a real punch into your dishes. This looks like a fun workshop. 🙂
Norma Chang says
I know very little about spices and would benefit greatly from a class taught by Vicki. Good to know there is a formula, am looking forward to reading about your creations.
Kathleen | HapaNom says
Oh my gosh! I love using lots of spices in my cooking – the more exotic, the better! I SO want to take a class like this – it looks like you had a ton of fun and learned a great deal!
Vicki Bensinger says
Wow Maureen what a wealth of information! I wish I could have taken that class. I have books on spices but now I’m going to have to pull them out to see if they have a formula for combining them. Great info. Please share that yummy looking chicken and curry dish when you make it. Thanks so much for sharing all these details, I’m printing them off to save. What a fabulous resource.
That formula is great to know! And, I didn’t know nigella seeds are so good for you. Can’t wait to start adding them to more things!
Marissa | Pinch and Swirl says
What a fantastic class, Maureen. I haven’t done much in the way of spice blending, but you’ve definitely piqued my interest!
Shashi at RunninSrilankan says
Your post reminded that a little knowledge can indeed be dangerous! Here I was thinking there was only one type of Cinnamon – when there are 3 – and the most expensive one has the name of my birth country on it! Yikes!
This sounds like such a wonderful class Maureen – thanks for sharing it with us!
Thank you for sharing some of your newfound wisdom! I am craving a class like this myself, now!
Sherry from sherryspickings says
Oh wow this class looks fabulous maureen. I had no idea there was a formula for spice blending. How clever. Nor did I know bout nigella seeds being so healthful. Great post.
What fun! Our local farmer’s market has a huge spice stall and I pick something different every week, I’d love to take a class in how to mix them!
That is my kind of heaven. What a fabulous idea and what a fabulous place. Spices are my life..can’t live without them. I need to check out SF for some places like this, not too sure if they have any. I remember going to a rural place in India. A lady taught me the benefits of some spices. She also discussed in detail how some spices worked well with some dishes. Interesting eh.
Loved this post. Thanks so much for including us in your trip. xoxo.
What a fun, fun class!!! Thanks for sharing!
Those proportions are fascinating. I am so used to throwing in what I like without too much thought to what I am doing. Thanks for the information.
What an amazing workshop ! I would like to participate it, it must be so interesting. I love spices but I don’t know how to works with them !
Hester @ Alchemy in the Kitchen says
Hi Maureen, that sounds like a fascinating workshop. It´s an area I really have very little knowledge about so I was delighted to read your post. Also, very interesting to consider the health properties – I´m all for food over pharma.
I learned so much from this post! That is great to know that there is a formula for blending spices. And what a neat store to open as a second career! We have a similar store near us that I’ve been meaning to go to for a long time.
Mary Frances says
Wow, sounds like such an incredible class, Maureen!! I wish they offered it in New York! Fresh spices truly bring a meal to life.
The Ninja Baker says
Thank you, Maureen, for this post. I’ll have to look into nigella seeds. Thank you too for the reminder about Ceylon cinnamon. Last and not least, I appreciate Vicki’s inspiring story. Love it when people follow their passions and make their dreams come true =) And help a whole lot of other people in the process. =)
Emma @ Bake Then Eat says
What an amazing class to attend, it must have been so interesting and the smells must have been amazing!
Emma @ Bake Then Eat says
What an amazing class to attend, the smells must have been amazing!
Chineka @ Savor The Baking says
A spice blending master class seems like a lot of fun. Thanks for taking us along to share in the experience with you.
This is great info right here. I wonder if this formula can work for African Spices. I would love to attend a master class you had soo much fun. Thanks for sharing.
This is great info right here. I wonder if this formula can work for African Spices. Would you know what category thyme and rosemary fall into. I would love to attend a master class you had soo much fun. I am curious to know if Vicky recommends blending spices with a food processor. Thanks for sharing.