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Archive for Salts/Seasonings

TIP OF THE DAY: Check Your Spices, Dried Herbs & Canned Goods

Happy New Year!

Some people we know spend New Year’s Day in bed with a book. Others go out to brunch or a movie, watch football or go ice skating. One couple hosts an annual Bloody Mary party (January 1st is National Bloody Mary Day).

We check our dried herbs and spices for freshness (and then head to the party).

Rather than waiting for “spring cleaning,” start the new year by cleaning house in the spice cabinet.

After they are harvested, spices and dried herbs do not spoil, but they do lose their strength. Older seasonings will not flavor foods the way you want them to. That’s one reason why those jumbo club store spices are often no bargain.

Herbs and seasoning blends have a shorter shelf life than spices. Although they may look fine, dried oregano, parsley and other herbs will age to the point where they still provide a visual evidence of herbs, but no flavor.


Even if it looks good to you, use the sniff-and-taste test to check your herbs and spices for freshness. Photo courtesy McCormick.


While the packages have expiration dates, the longevity of the seasonings varies depending on exposure to air (keep those bottles tightly capped!), heat (never keep spices next to the stove or oven) and light (countertop spice racks and carousels are the enemies of freshness).

Use this freshness checklist to ensure that your spices and herbs still have the punch you expect.

Also check out the shelf life of foods.

When we’re done with the spices, we start with our top cabinets and toss out foods that have expired, those we bought but will probably never eat, and so forth. If you’re not going to eat it or don’t want the temptation (we found six jars of fudge sauce), stick it in a shopping bag and drop it off at a food bank or with friends or neighbors.

The Difference Between Herbs & Spices

  • Spices are the dried seeds, buds, fruit or flower parts, bark, or roots of plants, usually of tropical origin.
  • Herbs are the leaves and sometimes the flowers of plants, usually grown in a climate similar to the Mediterranean.
  • For culinary use, both herbs and spices fall into the category of aromatics.
    See more of our favorite seasonings.



    TIP OF THE DAY: Use Only Freshly Ground Pepper

    Pepper has been the world’s most popular spice for some 3,000 years. It has been treasured for its ability to add a kick to bland foods and, in pre-refrigeration days, to salvage food that turned rancid. (Salt, even more popular and essential than pepper, is not a spice. See the * footnote below).

    Until the invention of the pepper mill† in 1842, peppercorns were freshly ground with a mortar and pestle.

    Pepper begins to lose flavor as soon as it’s ground. Pepper gets its spicy heat from piperine, a chemical compound that’s found in both the outer fruit and in the seed (the peppercorn).

    Once the pepper is ground, the piperine is exposed to the air and begins to evaporate. That’s why commercially ground pepper is a bland product.

    And that’s why today’s tip is: Always use whole peppercorns, and grind the pepper as you need it. If you don’t have a pepper mill, get one. Here’s a good, basic pepper mill that’s battery operated, so you don’t have to twist it to grind the pepper.


    Use only whole peppercorns, ground as
    you need the pepper. Photo by Adam Kozlowski | IST.


    *Spices are aromatic seasonings obtained from the bark, buds, fruit, roots, seeds or stems of a plant or tree. Herbs are the leafy parts of the plant. Some plants yield both a spice and an herb. For example, the coriander plant provides coriander seeds, a spice, as well as cilantro leaves, an herb. Why aren’t cilantro leaves called “coriander leaves?” Cilantro is the Spanish word for coriander, and we adopted the Spanish word for the herb.

    †The pepper mill was invented by the Peugeot company in 1842. A family venture begun in a small village in eastern France around 1793, the company manufactured tools, coffee grinders and even bicycles. (A member of the family broke off to manufacture automobiles.)
    Why Not To Buy Peppercorns In Bulk

    Given the higher cost of whole peppercorns, why should you avoid buying them in bulk?

    As pre-ground pepper quickly loses its piperine kick to evaporation, the piperine in whole peppercorns also evaporates over time.

    Plus, most pepper is grown as a commodity, to be sold at a prefixed price per ton. Margins are slim and there’s no bonus paid for quality. The berries are picked as soon as they form on the vine, resulting in meager little peppercorns whose flavors have not had a chance to develop—like tomatoes that are picked from the vine before they ripen.

    So, peppercorns sold in bulk to consumers are not likely to be the best in the first place. And after they’ve been sitting on your shelf for two years, they become as dried-out and bland as pre-ground pepper.

    Introduce yourself to the world of fine peppercorns. Here’s everything you need to know about pepper. It’s hot stuff!


    There is no relationship between black pepper, which originated in India, and chile peppers, which originated in South America. They are from completely different botanical families and their heat comes from two different chemical compounds.

    Black pepper (and white pepper, which is black pepper with the outer skin removed), is the genus and species Piper nigrum from the family Piperaceae. As noted above, their heat comes from the chemical compound piperine. Chiles are from the genus Capsicum and the family Solanaceae. Their heat comes from the chemical compound capsaicin.

    So why do we call chiles “peppers?”

    You can thank Christopher Columbus for the confusion. When he first encountered chiles in the New World, he related the heat in the fruit to the heat in peppercorns, and combined the Nahuatl (Aztec language) word for them, chilli, into chilli pepper.

    And yes, both chiles and peppercorns are the fruits of their respective plants.



    TIP OF THE DAY: How To Fill The Salt Shaker

    Shake it up, baby. Salt and pepper
    shakers and rack from Tablecraft.


    Need to refill the salt shaker but can’t find the funnel?

    Pouring directly from the box of salt can create a mess. Instead, use an envelope—preferably one of the smaller return envelopes that arrive in the mail.

    1. Fill the envelope with the approximate amount of salt that you need. Seal the envelope.

    2. Cut off one corner to create a funnel. If you need additional salt, just cut the top off the envelope and add more.

    3. When the shaker is filled, place the “funnel” opening in the carton of salt to return any leftovers.

    Why didn’t we mention filling the pepper shaker as well? You’ll find out in tomorrow’s Tip Of The Day.

    Which Shaker Gets The Salt?

    Traditionally, the multiple-hole shaker is for salt and the single-hole shaker is for pepper. The original reasoning is that people want more salt than pepper. But if you find that pepper flows better from the multiple-hole top, feel free to switch.


    Life Before Salt Shakers

    Before there were shakers, salt and pepper were served in small ceramic dishes (crystal dishes for the wealthy) called salt cellars. In the kitchen, a wood salt box* was used. Some have two compartments in order to hold both salt and pepper.

    The word “cellar” doesn’t refer to the basement in this case. It evolved around 1434 from the Anglo-Norman word saler, based on the Old French salier (salt box) and the Latin salarium. Salarium is a great word. There’s more about it below, under Food Trivia.

    Back to the salt cellars: People would simply take a pinch of salt from the dish. But shakers evolved as a more sanitary option.

    The gentry used elegant crystal salt cellars (we still have our great-grandmother’s). Presumably, they all washed their hands before coming to the table and pinching the salt and pepper.


    For most of the history of the world, salt was a scarce commodity and very costly. Few countries had discovered underground salt deposits, and only those with seacoasts could evaporate salt from seawater.

    Yet, as it is today, salt was very important for culinary, medicinal and industrial purposes. People even used it as currency:

  • In Tibet, Marco Polo noted that tiny cakes of salt were pressed with images of the Grand Khan and used as coins (salt is still used as money among the nomads of Ethiopia’s Danakil Plains).
  • Greek slave traders often bartered salt for slaves, giving rise to the expression that a particular individual was “not worth his salt.”
  • In the early days of the Roman army, legionnaires were paid in salt. This “salt money” was known in Latin as a salarium—the origin of the word salary.
    A brief history of salt.

    One of our favorite books is Salt, A World History, by Mark Kurlansky. It’s a page-turner.

    *Lidded salt boxes are back in style, and are now made in split versions to hold both salt and pepper. In addition to the two-section wood salt box, here’s a handsome black marble salt box.



    TIP OF THE DAY: Make Your Own Steak Seasoning

    Ready for seasoning! Photo courtesy
    Allen Brothers.


    Many people season a steak simply, with salt and pepper (see our chef’s technique for sprinkling salt from a height to get an even application). Some may add a bit of onion salt.

    THE NIBBLE’s chef recommends a touch of cumin in addition to the salt and pepper. It adds a slight warmth and earthiness to the steak as it enhances the meat’s natural sweetness.

    There are numerous steak seasonings in the supermarket’s spice rack, and budget-minded cooks make and bottle their own blends.

    Here’s a steak seasoning recipe used by one of THE NIBBLE editors. It approximates the recipe of McCormick’s Grill Mates Montreal Steak Seasoning, a favorite of many people (it gets a five-star rating from everyone on Amazon).

    You can shake it onto just about any meat (including burgers and pork chops) or poultry; plus seafood, potatoes, vegetables, even popcorn, cottage cheese and dips.



  • 4 tablespoons salt (too salty for us, so we cut it by half)
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon dehydrated onion
  • 1/2 tablespoon dehydrated garlic
  • 1/2 tablespoon crushed red pepper
  • 1/2 tablespoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 tablespoon dried rosemary
  • 1/2 tablespoon dried fennel
    Combine ingredients. Shake or rub 1 tablespoon of seasoning per pound of meat before grilling or broiling.

    The recipe makes 8.5 tablespoons of seasoning, enough for 8 pounds of meat (and some extra). If you don’t think you’ll use that much, you may want to cut the recipe in half.

    As with all spices and dried herbs, keep the seasoning blend in an airtight container away from light and heat.

    Check out more of our favorite seasonings in our Salts & Seasonings Section.



    TIP OF THE DAY: Seasoning With Salt

    Today’s tip deals with something most of us do every day: seasoning with salt. The tip comes from THE NIBBLE’s test kitchen chef.

    Tip Part 1: Season meat with salt by sprinkling it from a height of roughly 6 to 8 inches.

    This ensures an even layer of salt, with no bland spots. Salt the meat right before or after you remove it from the heat. Otherwise, salt leaches moisture (juiciness) from the meat.

    Sprinkling at the end also preserves the delicate flavor of kosher salt or sea salt, which would dissipate in the cooking process.

    Rather than sprinkling from a salt shaker, take pinches of salt from a salt server (shown in the photo), or use a small, Tupperware-type container (or repurpose a plastic container from prepared food).

    Tip Part 2: Use kosher salt or coarse sea salt instead of table salt. These salts are no different nutritionally from table salt,* but chefs prefer them for their texture. The larger, irregular grains add a bit of crunch and hint of briny flavor.


    We take pinches of salt from this salt server. Photo courtesy RSVP.


    You also need less kosher or sea salt than table salt. Because table salt is processed into a very fine grain, a teaspoon of table salt contains as much salt as 1.5 teaspoons of kosher salt or sea salt.

    *All salt is at least 97.5% sodium chloride. The remainder comprises natural minerals found in the salt deposit (or sea water, if sea salt), or added minerals such as iodine in iodized salt. Table salt also includes a small amount of calcium silicate, an anti-caking agent that prevents clumping.

    See the many different types of salt in our Salt Glossary.



    TIP OF THE DAY: Cinnamon Toast

    Did your mom make you cinnamon toast on school days or weekends?

    Ours did, and we can still smell and taste each piece that she lovingly sprinkled with her blend of sugar and cinnamon – a blend she premixed and stored in the type of specialty jar also used to sprinkle grated cheese.

    Every morning, it was only two shakes from plain buttered toast to festive cinnamon toast. It’s like a streamlined cinnamon bun.

    Use your favorite bread. We’d say go for whole wheat bread, but raisin bread, multigrain, challah and of course, plain white bread work equally well.

    1. Mix 2 tablespoons of white sugar with 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon.
    2. Toast the bread, lightly butter it and sprinkle with the cinnamon sugar.

    This comfort food is a delight at breakfast or brunch, or as a snack with afternoon tea (or milk for the kids). And it has far fewer calories than a breakfast pastry, muffin or piece of cake.


    Whole and ground cinnamon. Photo courtesy


  • There are two different types of cinnamon. Check out the differences.


    TIP OF THE DAY: Add Colored Food

    Dark green spinach leaves, yellow tomatoes
    and red radicchio turn a sandwich from blah
    to wow. Photo courtesy Royal Rose Radicchio.


    You don’t have to read too many food magazines or watch “Top Chef” too often to see how important presentation is.

    “Top Chef” judges regularly comment on a bland presentation, telling cheftestants that the dish needs color.

    It’s up to you, the home chef, to decide what kind of colorful vegetable or fruit complements your dish.

    Take a quick scan of the produce aisle: The fruits and vegetables that catch your eye are one way to start.

    Easy choices:

  • Red, Orange & Yellow: bell pepper, carrot (use curls for garnish), chile, grape, kumquat, pattypan squash and other miniature vegetables, radicchio, tomato (conventonal, cherry, grape, sundried)
  • Green: Many choices in lighter and darker hues, from vegetables to fresh herbs
    You’re adding more than color. Each ingredient adds flavor to the dish, whether as a garnish or a principal food (serve a side of rainbow chard, delicious and stunning).

    No time to acquire colored fruits, vegetables or fresh herbs? Look at your spices and dust the plate with a pinch of basil, curry, paprika, turmeric or other colorful favorite.


    TIP OF THE DAY: Filling A Pepper Mill

    We didn’t heed our own device when refilling the pepper mill yesterday. The result: peppercorns all over the counter and floor.

    There’s a better way to do it:

    Fill a small plastic bag or even a paper envelope with the peppercorns. Snip off a corner. You’ll be able to better aim the peppercorns into the mill.

  • Now that you’ve mastered filling the pepper mill, master all the different types of peppercorns.
  • Pepper is not related to bell peppers or hot chile peppers. The term “pepper” was applied to the Chile by New World explorers, who related the hot and spicy flavor of chiles to the peppercorn they knew. Learn more about chile “peppers.”

    Keep ‘em in the peppermill, not on the
    counter. Photo courtesy SXC.

    Find more tips like this in the handy book, Tips Cooks Love.


    TIP OF THE DAY: Zest A Lemon, Lime Or Grapefruit

    After you juice a grapefruit, lemon, lime, orange or other citrus, do you throw it away?

    If so, you’re tossing out a delicious ingredient: the zest.

    Zest is the outermost part of the rind/peel/skin. Before you juice the citrus, remove the zest for use in other recipes. Scraping or cutting it from the skin is known as zesting.

  • Add zest to your recipes: in baking, casseroles, marinades, rice, salad dressings, sauces, soups, stir frys and stews.
  • Perk up uncooked foods: from green salads and tuna/seafood salads to yogurt (plain and fruit-flavored).
  • Steep it with tea. A piece of lemon peel is traditionally served with espresso, so you can add some lemon zest in your coffee, if you drink it without milk (the acid in the fruit curdles milk).
  • Dry the zest for cooking and baking. Set it on paper towels or wax paper overnight; then store it in a recycled spice bottle. Save empty spice bottles so you can store different types of peel.

    Zesting a lime. Zest got its name from the “zestiness” it adds to food. Photo by Villy Fink Isaksen Wikimedia.

  • Make gremolata, a flavorful condiment of fresh lemon zest, minced garlic and chopped parsley. Here’s the recipe. Gremolata adds so much flavor, you can reduce the salt.
  • Make lemon butter: a compound butter that can be used atop grilled fish, shellfish and vegetables; on canapés; creating maitre d’hotel sauce and other uses.
  • Make zesty ice cubes. Keep a “lemon ice cube tray,” adding some zest to each compartment. As the ice melts, it adds flavor to cocktails, iced tea, soda and (of course) lemonade/limeade.
  • Add zest to sorbet. Along with the fruit’s juice, it will add intensity of flavor plus texture and eye appeal. Or, sprinkle store-bought sorbet with strips of zest.
    The fresher the zest, the more aromatic and flavorful; so don’t let it wane in the fridge.


    Be sure to wash and dry the fruit well before zesting. If you can, buy organic or unwaxed citrus.

    While some people use a paring knife, it’s much easier to use a zester (which creates julienne strips) or a zester grater like a Microplane, or the fine side of a box grater.

    First decide how you’re going to use your zest: grated or strips. If the zest will be used for flavor and then removed (marinades, steeping in tea) it doesn’t make a difference. For garnish/eye appeal, use a regular zester. To dissolve into recipes (vinaigrette, sorbet) use a zester grater. We love our Cuisipro box grater.

    If you’re going to buy a zester, get a combination zester-stripper, which also creates strips of peel for cocktails or garnish.

    What are your favorite uses for lemon zest?



    TIP OF THE DAY: Correcting Too Much Salt

    You’ve added too much salt. Now what?
    Salt server available on We
    use this one in THE NIBBLE test kitchen.


    It’s happened to all of us: too much salt inadvertently added to a recipe, making it inedible. How can you salvage your dish?

  • With a liquid dish like soup, you can dilute it with more liquid (unsalted broth or water, for example)—essentially creating 125% of the amount of the original recipe. You can add more ingredients—or rice or noodles cooked without salt, plus herbs and nonsalt seasonings, to round out the dish.
  • A trick from our Nana: Cook some white rice without salt. Purée (use water as necessary to thin the purée) and add to the soup or stew as a salt-free thickener.
  • You can also try adjusting the recipe with cider vinegar and brown sugar. Both of these ingredients will add a complexity of seasoning, reducing the impact of the salt.
  • Similarly, a salty sauce can often be softened with the addition some cream or vinegar.
  • Since the opposite of salt is sugar, brown or white sugar (brown sugar adds more flavor), honey or agave nectar can help to diminish the saltiness in certain dishes.
  • If the dish is only moderately oversalted, toss in a peeled raw potato or two, quartered or in thick slices. Potato can help to absorb the extra salt. In the case of soup or stew, the potato can enhance the recipe. In a recipe like chili, you can remove the potato at the end of cooking, or present a new take on the dish.
  • Whichever technique you try (except for adding potatoes), use a bit at a time, tasting along the way.

    And remember next time: the longer food cooks and reduces, the more the salt intensifies. Consider adding half the amount of salt and adjusting it at the end of cooking.

    Do you have a favorite salt-minimizing technique?
    Share it here!


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