The Chef's Secrets To Great Tasting Fun

Is the fresh parsley you bought at the store the other day now sitting in your refrigerator looking black and slimy? How about that jar of cinnamon in your spice rack above the stove? How many years has it been there? Herbs and spices make our foods taste better, but if we don't store them properly, they won't last very long. How we use them in our cooking can make a big difference in flavor, too. If you want to add more zing to your recipes, consider the following tips for getting the most out of your seasonings.
Lisa Beamer

Keeping it fresh
By far, fresh herbs offer the best taste. Keeping fresh herbs fresh, however, can be challenging. How should you store fresh herbs?

"Truly, the best way is in cute little terracotta pots all lined up in your kitchen window," says Leanne Ely, CNC, author of Healthy Foods: An Irreverent Guide to Understanding Nutrition and Feeding Your Family Well.

Growing small containers of herbs indoors is very easy to do and allows you to snip off the herbs as you need them. If, however, growing your own isn't an option, and you prefer to purchase them instead, you have several storage options. Ely suggests leaving them in the containers in which they came and using them as quickly as possible.

Robert Cook, certification program coordinator for the American Culinary Federation, offers another storage option: layer fresh herbs between damp paper towels and keep them in the refrigerator so they stay cool and moist. Also, according to recipe developer Wen Zientek-Sico, stemmed herbs, such as parsley and basil, can be kept in the refrigerator in small vases of water with only the stems submerged.

When refrigerating fresh herbs, never seal them in plastic bags, as they will quickly become slimy. Try to use fresh herbs as quickly as possible because, at most, they will keep no more than two weeks.

Preserving the extras
Some herbs can be placed directly in the freezer in freezer bags for longer-term storage. For best results, though, Zientek-Sico suggests chopping or mincing the fresh herbs and placing them in ice cube trays, covering them with water, stock or wine and then freezing.

"The liquid protects the herbs and you can add the ice cubes directly to dishes, or else you can place the ice cubes in a fine mesh strainer and place under hot water to melt the ice cubes and refresh the herbs," Zientek-Sico says.

If you have an overabundance of a fresh herb, you can dry it to store for future use. Though you end up with a dried product rather than fresh, it will likely be of better quality than the ones purchased in jars at the grocery store.

Cool, dark places
When it comes to storing dried herbs, keeping them cool and in the dark is key. Ely points out that while spice racks are pretty and decorative, they contribute to the quicker deterioration of the seasonings' potencies. According to Zientek-Sico, dried seasonings can deteriorate within days if they are stored in sunlight or near a stove.

If you make sure that dried seasonings are housed in tightly sealed containers, they will stay moderately fresh for up to six months, says Zientek-Sico. "After that, there is a noticeable loss of flavor," she says.

She also points out that some spices, such as paprika, chili powder and coriander, will last longer if they are stored in the refrigerator. If you are in doubt about the freshness of a seasoning, open the jar and sniff. If the aroma is full and strong, the spice is probably still good. If the smell is much fainter than it should be, chances are your seasoning is stale.

Lastly, Clark notes that, whenever possible, you should buy spices in their whole form (such as in the case of whole nutmeg or cinnamon) for longest lasting flavor, grating them as you need them.

Timing is everything
When it comes to cooking, at what point in the process you add your seasonings has a tremendous effect on the flavor of the dish.

Culinary experts agree the best time to add herbs, especially fresh, is in the last few minutes of cooking.

"Fresh herbs not only have a delicate flavor but they overcook or even burn very easily," says Zientek-Sico. "Part of the appeal of fresh herbs is their appearance, and adding them at the end of cooking is the only way to make sure they still look bright and attractive."

There are some exceptions to this rule. The flavor of herbs such as bay leaves, rosemary and thyme tend to increase throughout cooking. When using dried herbs, Zientek-Sico likes to add half of the suggested amount of herbs at the beginning of the cooking process and then add the rest at the end.

Suggestions for success
One rule of thumb to remember is that if a recipe calls for dried herbs and you are substituting fresh, you will need to use three times as much fresh. Also, keep in mind that herbs' flavors come from the oils within them, and they are released much better after they have been crushed, crumbled or mashed. Using a mortar and pestle or crushing in your fingers is better than using a knife to cut herbs.

"When you cut them with a sharp tool, the flavor ends up in the cutting board," Clark says.

Be willing to experiment with various seasonings, but remember that it isn't necessary to "clutter the lazy Susan," as Ely says, with seasonings you use once and then will never use again. If you are trying a new recipe that calls for a seasoning that you've never used before, try borrowing some from a friend before investing in a large quantity of your own. Alternately, you might try substituting a seasoning you already own for one that you aren't sure about.

No matter how you do it, enjoy the variety and flavors offered by nature's cooking enhancers. They can make all the difference between a good meal and a great

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