Salt, Pepper, and Spices

When living tiny, it's important to make the most out of the things you have.  And if you're cooking for yourself, one of the best ways to get the most out of your food is with thoughtful use of salt, pepper, and spices.

Fresh Ground Pepper

I never buy pre-ground pepper.  So many of the best flavor compounds in pepper are volatile, meaning they evaporate at room temperature.  The flavors in fresh pepper are are so strong and bright because they are actively evaporating, filling your mouth and nose as you eat.  But because they're volatile, many of these rich flavor compounds are lost within minutes or hours of pepper being ground.

All that means one thing—regardless of the expiration date, that pre-ground pepper in the store is already stale.  But whole peppercorns can trap those flavors for years.  Grinding your own is the only way to go.

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You can purchase disposable pepper mills if you want to try fresh ground pepper before you jump in with both feet.  I like the McCormick pepper mill because it allows you to select your grind size.  Use a finer grind for more delicate foods like fish or potatoes, or where you want the pepper to disappear into the dish like soups or sauces.  Use a coarser grind for roast chicken, beef, or steaks.  Try the medium grind on popcorn, salads, or roasted veggies.

Once you're committed to using a pepper mill, you'll want to buy a refillable model.  Pepper and other spices are usually a lot cheaper and fresher if you can find a store that sells it in bulk bins.  And as a bonus, you'll create less waste.

Be sure to find a pepper mill with an adjustable grind size.  I use a set of these spice mills from IKEA for both salt and pepper.

 

Why Would Anyone Need Fresh Ground Salt?

Salt is a rock.  It has no volatile compounds, so it doesn't benefit from being fresh ground in the same way that pepper does.  So why do salt mills even exist?

The reason: particle size.  If you only have one kind of salt in your house, it helps to be able to customize the particle size to your purpose.  Use super fine salt for popcorn, coffee, or things like baking where you want it to blend evenly.  Use big chunky salt for steaks or roasted meat where you want the granules to stick around and stand out in the finished dish.  Medium grinds are good for general cooking, like roasting or sauteing vegetables, or general table use.

I use the same model IKEA grinder for my salt as my pepper (it comes in a pack of 2), and I fill it with bulk Himalayan Pink salt, which has a nice clean flavor.

I do keep one other kind of salt on-hand at all times, a small package of kosher salt.  I don't eat it—I use it to clean my cast iron skillet and, occasionally, to quickly chill a bottle of white wine.  An old waiter's trick to chill wine quickly is to put a bottle of wine in a bucket of ice water along with a few tablespoons of salt.  The salt both melts the ice, and lowers its melting point, so the water gets super cold and the wine chills perfectly in about two minutes.

The United States and Canada use salt as a vehicle to transport iodide, a nutrient your body needs to prevent thyroid problems.  Artisan salts like Himalayan Pink and most sea salts don't typically contain iodide, so if you're not using iodized salt, make sure you're eating enough iodine rich foods like eggs, greens (especially sea vegetables), and seafood.

If you have room for more than one or two kinds of salt in your home, and you enjoy culinary experimentation, check out Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History.  You'll learn about salt's outsized role in human history, and you'll discover more types of salt than you ever knew existed.

Getting the Most from Your Spices

Spices, like pepper, contain lots of volatile compounds that escape fairly quickly.  When possible, you want to buy whole spices and grind them as needed.  You can use a blade type coffee grinder for this (though I don't recommend using the same one that you use for coffee), or a mortar and pestle

If you use a mortar and pestle, you want to get one with a fine textured surface like porcelain or unpolished stone so the spices can grab on to the surfaces as you grind them.  Too coarse, and it can be impossible to clean.  A smooth mortar and pestle is useless for spices.  The fastest way to grind tough spices like peppercorns or mustard seeds is in small batches, crack them so that they don't fly out of the mortar, and then pulverize them by moving the pestle in a stirring motion while pressing down.  You can also make fantastic flavored oils, salad dressings, and marinades in a mortar and pestle by adding your ingredients including fresh herbs and oil, and grinding it into a paste to release flavors locked deep inside the herbs.

Kick it Up Another Notch

When you're using whole spices, you can turn the flavor way up by roasting your spices just before use.  Spice flavor and aroma compounds come from both volatile and nonvolatile oils.  Roasting spices gets the oils flowing inside the spices so that they're more accessible to your palate in the finished dish.  Toss the whole spices in a dry skillet over medium heat, just until they start to smell toasty and delicious.  Immediately remove them from the pan to prevent them from burning, and let them cool before grinding.  

Dried herbs are often grouped with spices, but they're a slightly different animal.  Herbs generally have a shorter shelf-life than whole spices, losing their flavor after 6 months to a year.  If your jar of dried herbs doesn't smell strongly, it's stale, and you should replace it.  Herbs don't usually benefit from roasting the same way spices do, so for the biggest flavor, try to add them toward the end of cooking.  To release the flavor in dried herbs, rub them in your hands or in a mortar and pestle immediately before use.  If the herbs will be suspended in a liquid in your recipe, try grinding them into a paste in your mortar and pestle along with a small amount of the liquid.

Spice Storage for Small Spaces

You can help keep spices and dried herbs fresh longer by keeping them in a small, airtight container, outside of direct sunlight.  The popular aluminum magnetic spice tins are not airtight, so they're a terrible way to store spices.  Magnetic kits with glass spice jars are airtight and can make a beautiful display, but they need to be kept in a dark place to prevent the light from damaging your spices.  Putting spices in clear glass jars inside the pantry or a cabinet is OK, but I wouldn't leave them out in the open for storage and display.  If you don't buy your spices in bulk, an organizer that fits the original package might be the best choice.  Don't pay extra for a spice rack that includes spices—those spices are probably already stale.

If you can, I encourage you to buy spices in bulk.  You'll tend to pay less for fresher spices, and you'll generate less waste.  I find that grocery stores with "organic market" or "co-op" in their name will typically have a good selection of bulk goods.  I like these reusable mesh bags for most of my bulk goods and produce, but they can sometimes be impractical for spices.  Go ahead and bring your empty spice jars shopping with you and put your bulk spices directly into the jar.  Remember to bring an extra empty jar for the cashier to use to zero out the scale—you don't want to pay for your jar's weight in vanilla beans.

Most spices, even whole spices, lose their flavor within a year or two.  It can be tempting to buy a bunch of spices when setting up your kitchen so that you have everything you need.  But a lot of those spices will end up going stale before they're used.  The best plan is to buy spices as you need them in relatively small amounts, just like the rest of your perishable food.  If possible, only buy as much as you're going to use over the next three to six months.  Bulk spices can be very convenient for this, since you can buy any amount, even just a teaspoon at a time.

If you're interested in making your own spice rubs for the grill, check out Meathead Goldwyn's Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling.  It's a fantastic primer on grilling techniques, using smoke as a spice, and building amazing spice rubs and sauces.  And it's one of the very few books I keep a physical copy of in our tiny house on wheels.