Whether they’re found in a cupboard, a drawer or a rotating rack, a host of little-used spices are probably taking up valuable real estate somewhere in your kitchen — and they’ve probably been there for years. Maybe it’s a jar of allspice you only crack open for gingerbread cookies at Christmas, the sumac you were inspired to purchase by the Ottolenghi cookbook on the coffee table or that jar of Himalayan pink salt that just seems too fancy to use.
Use it all, says chef and spice purveyor Lior Lev Sercarz, and use it now. “Your spice cabinet should be a place of inspiration,” he says, “not a place to gather dust.”
Raised in a kibbutz in Israel where he recalls the food as being either bland or vinegary, Sercarz sees spices as the place where recipes should start, rather than an afterthought sprinkled on just before serving. “A potato can be transformed into a meal, just with the addition of spices,” he says.
Start by taking stock of what’s tucked away in that cabinet, beginning with the darkest recesses, which most likely house the spices that have seen the least use. If they’ve been there longer than a year — as Sercarz suspects they have — you don’t have to discard them, but you could consolidate several. Try creating blends with them, to use as seasoning for dips and sauces, dry rubs for meat, poultry and fish, or even to amp up the flavor in coffee and cocktails.
“If you make blends, you will find ways to use them across recipes, from sweet to savory,” says Sercarz. “It’s an edible tool.”
He suggests using the spice pantry the way you use your refrigerator, where items are regularly eaten and replaced and stock is rotated every few months from the back to the front. New additions should be marked with a date one year from when purchased, just to give you a deadline for using it up, or, at the very least, creating a new blend with what’s left.
Take ground cloves, for instance. As a spice with a tongue-numbing quality, it can frighten home cooks with its intensity, yet Sercarz sees it as a versatile vehicle for flavors — when used in moderation. In his latest book, “The Spice Companion: A Guide to the World of Spices” (Clarkson Potter, 2016), he recommends blending cloves with other spices that might also be found in the back of the cupboard, such as juniper berries, galangal and licorice root, to create a seasoning for sauteed savoy cabbage, or to add a spicy note to a traditional old fashioned cocktail.
“Most people don’t need a recipe, they just need the application,” Sercarz says. Hence, he’ll suggest dusting fresh scones with a mixture of cloves and confectioners’ sugar or mixing cloves with balsamic vinegar and grated apples to accompany pork chops.
Sercarz particularly urges home cooks to stop thinking of individual spices as relating to specific cuisines. He points out that black pepper, a native of Kerala, is hardly limited to Indian recipes, yet we tend to use chipotle powder only in Mexican recipes, or relegate curry leaves to, well, curry.
“It’s a spice,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where it comes from.”
Not only is pepper used across all cuisines, different types of pepper have specific flavor profiles, so it sometimes makes sense to switch out the black peppercorns for other varieties, such as herbaceous green or delicate white. This practice enhances different recipes and allows for a deeper appreciation of the characteristics of that variety.
When cleaning out the cupboard, take time to taste the spices. (Sercarz considers anything that can be dried and used to add flavor a spice, so this includes herbs, bark, berries, leaves and so forth.) Then start consolidating them into new combinations, such as celery seed with cayenne pepper. You could use that blend to flavor a compound butter, bloody mary or crab cake. A blend of marjoram, dried mint and fennel seed can season grilled fish, be sprinkled over bruschetta or lend a grassy note to emulsified olive oil and orange juice to drizzle on raw baby turnips.
“You probably already have a signature chicken recipe where you use a certain combination of spices,” says Sercarz, “like salt, pepper, paprika and oregano. Just go ahead and make a batch of that blend for yourself, consolidating it into one jar, then try it on eggs, or roasted fish or whipped into goat cheese.”
At La Boite, Sercarz’s New York spice store, you’ll find more than 40 spice blends for inspiration, with combinations that can seem unusual or spark an “aha” moment. Fenugreek, cumin, dried onion and garlic become a perfect foil for spinach and lamb, while lemongrass, ginger and palm sugar can highlight either a fruit smoothie or a spicy dish of clams and chorizo. That little jar of pumpkin pie spice that’s hiding in the corner of your cupboard would be just as much at home in a chickpea curry as on the Thanksgiving table, because, in Sercarz’s philosophy, a blend really has no limitations.
“I’ve never had spices that don’t work together,” Sercarz says, “it’s just about adjusting the ratios. And even when I think a blend is very savory, I’ll have a customer put it into a brownie and prove me wrong. I love that.”
Kristen Hartke is a Washington food writer and editor. Watch Sercarz and Food editor Joe Yonan work with spices in their Facebook Live session here.