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Mallika Basu on choosing the best-quality spices

Cookbook author and founder of Sizl Spices Mallika Basu tells us why top-quality spices add up to top-notch cooking

You get what you pay for. Never have words been truer than with that spice jar collecting dust at the bottom of your drawer. But why does it matter to the home cook? Spices get their flavour from the essential oils in them. They don't spoil, but they do weaken over time. You can warm them up or toast and grind them from whole to increase their punch. But unless you're catering, you're better off buying small quantities and then using them.

This is especially important because all spices are not made equal. Like a lot of good things in life, the higher the quality, the more the cost. Delicate ceylon cinnamon ('true' cinnamon), for instance, is pricier and less toxic than cassia, which is widely sold as cinnamon at a lower price.

There are other tricks of the trade used to bring costs down. Cheaper ingredients like rice flour, cornstarch, salt, sugar, coriander and cumin are often used as "bulkers" or "fillers" in spice blends. Chances are expensive aromatics like cardamom, vanilla, nutmeg will be minimal in percentage or even missing in action.

Also, look behind widespread marketing labels like "single-origin" spices. Climate, soil, expertise and crops all determine quality of produce. The very best brands, with global operations and scale, follow crops around the world and work nimbly with farmers and local fairtrade suppliers to create the best products, sometimes from more than one origin.

All spices are not made equal. Like a lot of good things in life, the higher the quality, the more the cost

Sizl Spices' turmeric, for example, is a blend of Nigerian, for high oil content; Indian great for vibrant colour; and Indonesian for potent curcumin. Proudly multiple-origin, it is the very best on the market, in my professional opinion.

This makes a world of difference to your plate. Spices are the ultimate injection of flavour in cooking – it's no surprise the world fell in love with them. But they do have to jostle for attention among other ingredients in your pan. Using cheaper or weaker versions of them is a disservice to your home cooking.

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I know the frustrations of brown, fragrance-free green cardamoms; garam masala my mother won't touch; and blends that don't deliver bang for their buck. And this is why, as a food writer, I started my own spice business. I wouldn't do injustice to my love of cooking with spices that aren't at their full potential. And neither should you.

Mallika Basu is a food industry consultant and the co-founder of Sizl Spices; sizlspices.com

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