A guide to common and less know spices used in cooking.

This is a brief guide to the uses of the most common, and some of the exotic, spices and natural flavorings. The interest spices is growing. As their use in cooking is becoming more popular every day, due to the increasing internationalization of cooking methods and techniques, this guide will be very useful.

How spices get to the market

Spices are usually the dried, aromatic parts of plants; either seeds, berries, roots, pods, buds, bark, and, sometimes, leaves and flesh.

No long ago, most spices had to be bought at ethnic stores, since most of them came from tropical countries and required processing before they could be used. Today, most grocery stores carry a wide selection of spices. Always buy dry spices in small quantities; preferably from a store with a big turnover. Label with the date of purchase and keep for no longer than six to eight months.

How to use and store

As a general rule, the final dish always benefits if berries and seeds are freshly ground before being added to the pot. This will produce superior results. It is easily done with a mortar and pestle, a coffee or spice grinder reserved only for this use. Spice grinders are useful for peppercorns or coriander seeds. A liquidizer can be used if adding some liquid beforehand, like cooking stock. All this tools can be used for the purees and pastes so popular in India and South East Asia.

Spices lose flavor and aroma with age. Discard them if they have been sitting in the pantry for longer than six to eight months. Keep them in tightly closed containers, away from light.

Which are the essential spices and condiments to keep at hand? That very much depends on personal tastes, although there are a few everyone uses and some that will bring new flavors and make food less boring. Salt and pepper are two essential condiments, and sugar is as much. You cover all range of sweet and savory just with these. Now for more exciting flavors, bay leaf adds a wonderful flavor to everything from soups, braises or stews, from beans, meat and adds some vitamins A and C. Paprika is not used much, but it is an interesting spice not only to add color to soups, but for the flavor. Cumin and coriander quickly bring delicious aromas when added and, cinnamon and pumpkin spice are a must if you like baking.