My Recipe Box

Sorting Out Spices

Tony Hill clears up the confusion on similarly named spices and substitutions

by Tony Hill

fromFine Cooking
Issue 93

Spice Tips

  • Toasting whole spices briefly before grinding expresses essential oils and brings out flavor, but high heat also changes flavors, so adapt accordingly. Toasting pre-ground spices can easily destroy their flavors.
  • Store spices away from light and heat and track their age by labeling purchase dates. Change your stock about every six months for ground spices and every year for whole spices.
  • It’s often better to make your own spice blends, such as curry powder, as you can control salt and eliminate cheap fillers.

Chili vs. Chile Powder

Q:

On my grocery shelf, I see bottles of chili powder and chile powder. What’s the difference and when should I use each? Do I need to buy both?

Timothy Martin, Cookeville, TN

A:

The terms “chili” and “chile” are often used interchangeably across North America, but they don’t always mean the same thing. Chili powder is usually a blend of ground chile pods and other spices like cumin, peppercorn, and salt. Chile powder most often refers to pure ground chile pods with few or no additives; the only way to tell is to read the ingredient label. For most dishes I prefer pure ground chile powder, as it allows me to blend (or not blend) it with the particular spices I want for each dish.

Difference Between Garlic Powder & Granulated Garlic

Q:

What is the difference between garlic powder and granulated garlic? Is there a way to substitute fresh garlic in recipes calling for these?

Nancy Clark, Portland, OR

A:

The difference in these forms is merely texture, garlic powder having a flour-like consistency and granulated garlic being coarser, like fine cornmeal. Most reputable manufacturers sell 100% pure versions of both, but occasionally you will find additives to improve flow or prevent caking. Dried and fresh garlic are really poor substitutes for each other. You wouldn’t sauté with garlic powder, as it burns too easily, and you wouldn’t attempt a dry barbecue rub with chopped fresh garlic, because it wouldn’t blend in thoroughly. What most people describe as the “heat” found in fresh garlic dissipates in the drying process, and a different sort of intensity emerges. While fresh garlic is wonderful—and I would never be without it—I believe it’s a case of “different but equally useful” when it comes to the various forms.

Paprika Varieties & Substitutions

Q:

I used to see just paprika sold in stores, but lately I notice several kinds. What is the difference and can they be used interchangeably?

Craig Henderson, Reno, NV

A:

Depending on whether you’re standing in an American supermarket or in a field of paprika peppers in Hungary, you’ll get widely varied answers as to how many different versions of paprika are produced—from as few as six to more than thirty. The variety ranges over a sliding scale of sweet to pleasantly bitter, mild to hot, and even to specially smoked versions.

You are correct that suppliers are being more liberal in their offerings, but in fact, most quality paprika is produced from a narrow range of chile peppers harvested in a handful of regions. The difference comes from how those chiles are grown, harvested, and processed. If your spice rack has room for only one, I say stock up on a high-quality sweet Hungarian version. An added luxury would be a smoked sweet paprika, called pimentón dulce, from Spain.

Substitutions are generally acceptable but you should keep in mind the relative heat, smoke, and pungency. A recipe calling for Hungarian sweet paprika will taste very different if you substitute pimentón, but the results could be equally tasty.

Photo: Scott Phillips

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