Using and balancing spices is a key skill used by chefs to add flavour to any recipe. Spices are natural products and include fruits, seeds, roots, flowers and the bark of a number of shrubs and trees. There are many different spices and we are only covering a small number of them in this article. Army chefs are experts at making the most out of herbs and spices, especially when they are on exercise or tour where fresh rations can be quite limited.
Here are a few key spices:
Cloves are the unopened flower buds of a tropical tree. They are green when picked but are then sun dried to a rich brown. They are also obtained in ground form and as an oil and are used in the flavouring of stocks and sauces (as a clouté), ham joints and as a constituent of mixed spice.
This is the small branches of the cinnamon shrub. After being separated from the main wood it is dried, which causes it to roll up and make sticks. Cinnamon can also be ground down to a powder form. Used mainly in bakery products, it is also one of the spices found in mixed spice.
Nutmeg and Mace
Both are part of the tropical nutmeg tree. The outer casing of the seed, the fruit, looks similar to an apricot, that when ripe splits like a conker. The inner nut is encased in a red net-like cover called mace. Although the nut and the mace come from the same fruit, they have different tastes. Mace has a delicate flavour and is used in sauces and certain meat dishes, whereas nutmeg is used primarily in sweet dishes, particularly milk puddings, and is also found in mixed spice.
Ginger is the root of a reed-like plant from the Far East. It is available fresh, ground and dried and is used mainly in sweet dishes. The fresh root, after peeling and chopping, is also used in numerous eastern savoury dishes. Ginger is found in mixed spice.
Cayenne is a ground red pepper and its hot! Made from chillies, not all cayenne is of the same strength, so be aware which type you are using when cooking with it.
Paprika is a dried sweet red pepper (not to be confused with a chilli pepper). Paprika is sometimes sold with a chilli pepper additive, which must be identified on the packaging. The colour of the powder is a brown/red. Milder than cayenne, paprika is used to flavour soups and stews.
Mustard is obtained from the seeds of the mustard plant (grown in East Anglia) and is sold in powder form. It is often diluted with water, milk or vinegar before use. A large variety of continental mustards are sold as pastes after being mixed with various herbs and wine vinegar.
Peppercorns come in a variety of colours and can be purchased in dried, fresh and preserved forms. The most commonly used varieties are black and white. Peppercorns are naturally black when ripened; white peppercorns are obtained by removing the black outer casing.
We look forward to seeing use of spices in your competition entry.