Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Ground, Rubbed & Whole Herbs & Spices

Since I've been getting some feedback from recipe testers, it's become clear that many don't understand what I mean by "rubbed" when I call for "rubbed basil" or "rubbed oregano" or "rubbed whatever" in my recipes, so I thought I would try to clarify.

The fine, green substance in the bowl on the right side of the picture contains ground oregano. I don't generally use or recommend purchasing ground herbs. The more the dried leaves have been broken up, the more surfaces there are that will lose flavour as they sit, whether in the store or on your shelf.

Rubbed herbs - and this is the term that is generally used on packaging - are dried herbs that have been processed to mimic the texture you would get by rubbing the whole dried leaves between your fingers until they crumble. Because they have fewer broken edges than ground herbs, they keep better. The bowl on the lower left contains rubbed thyme.

Herbs aren't generally sold whole, but rosemary leaves are an exception. That's what's in the bowl to the top left. If you can get whole herbs, that's great - as you would expect they store the best, although they do tend to be more bulky to store. To use them, either grind them in a mortar and pestle just before use, or if they are soft enough rub them through your fingers until they are finely crumbled.

Herbs which are also seeds are generally available either whole or ground (no picture). I infinitely prefer to buy them whole, and grind them myself. Seeds in particular tend to contain volatile oils which will quickly dissipate once the hard outer shell is broken. Coriander seems to be the worst for this - the flavours seem to vanish in as little as 5 or 10 minutes after the seed is ground if left exposed to the air. Or as with black pepper, nutmeg and celery seed for example, they will tend to go rancid and develop a bitter flavour.

I like a mortar and pestle for grinding my herbs and spices; I rarely grind so much as to make an electric grinder a necessity. However, if you want an electric grinder a dedicated coffee grinder will not be expensive and will do a good job. Run a piece of stale bread through it once you are done to remove any lingering flavours.

And finally, however you buy your spices, never buy them in a little glass jar if you can possibly avoid it! You will pay through the nose for a big piece of glass and a tiny amount of something that is probably not terribly fresh. Go to a shop that sells them in bulk or at least in plastic bags and has a good turnover. Those of you who live in larger towns and cities should have not difficulty finding a number of places with wide herb and spice selections and good turnovers. For those of us in the boonies, Bulk Barn is, well, a boon. Although even there, it's a good idea to give a discreet sniff before you buy - I have found some bulk spices that were not fresh as the turnover just doesn't seem to be there sometimes. Try not to buy more than you think you will use in a month or two. Keep your herbs and spices stored in a cool, dark spot. Some, such as sumac or celery seed, will keep best well wrapped and sealed in the freezer.

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