A Guide to Checking the Quality of Spices
Spices come in many shapes, forms, and sizes. Chilies for example come in over a hundred commonly sold varieties around the world, sometimes as pods, sometimes powdered, and always with subtle differences. So how do you tell whether what you have is a good quality spice? How do you know how much to put in cooking – too much in cooking can ruin a dish; too little can leave a dish bland, and unsatisfying. Below are practical consumer tips compiled as a result of the 60+ years that our family has bought, manufactured, traded, and sold spices to household brands, restaurant chains, wholesalers and distributors.
With spices, the most important thing to remember is that it’s all about freshness and storage. Most spices already pass through many months in the supply chain before they even reach you, so it’s imperative that at all stages of the process it is stored and transported correctly. Spices that are exposed to the elements for prolonged periods of time rapidly decrease in quality, and also reach their expiration dates much faster. This may seem like common sense, but a slight pause and a think would show that it’s rarely ever followed: think about all the spices you see in transparent glass or plastic bottles? Such long exposure to light (and in many environments, heat too) will undeniably lead to a less tasty product – the only purpose served is making the spices more attractive on supermarket shelves. Correct storage can even make average quality spices outlive and surpass expensive ones.
Things to look for in spice packaging:
- Airtight seal: It goes without saying that packaging must be airtight. Allowing air to go in and out of packaging will make the ingredient inside oxidise faster, which is one reason why restaurant tabletop spice powders, including pepper, often taste stale.
- Minimal exposure to light: The best packaging doesn’t have any “windows” for spices. Although it means you cannot inspect what’s inside, it should give you huge confidence that the brand knows what it’s doing. Light exposure is one of the biggest causes for spices to start becoming weaker.
- Origin of the spice: Spices come in many varieties. Even Nutmeg for example is grown in over 10 countries, each crop resulting in a varying quality. What many brands do to save on cost is not declare where the ingredients are from, or more commonly still, mix different varieties together. This results in an uneven product, where parts of the spice taste very strong, and other parts comparatively much weaker. In terms of quality, it may all be good, but in terms of taste, it’s unreliable and not very helpful to the precise cook.
After approving the packaging, you can then begin to examine the spices themselves – this will be the indicator of how good of a “start” they have, as being an agricultural product, over the years even the best will no longer be tasty. Each spice is different, so it’s important to know what to look for in each one. Below are some of the most popular, feel free to share any more insights you may have on ones covered and not covered so that they can be combined into the resource.
Specific factors for different spices
Bay Leaves: Pieces should be green. Brown indicates old and lacklustre. Slight blemishes are normal, as it’s an agricultural product, but larger black blemishes indicate poor treatment, although they have minimal impact on flavour. Broken pieces mean that parts of the bay leaf essential oil has been released. Small and large pieces are more or less equal in flavour per gram, but larger pieces are easier to use and remove than smaller ones or scraps.
Black Peppercorns: The weight is the key here. Black Pepper is measured is curious unit of “grams/litre”. This refers to how many grams the black peppercorns weigh when confined to the space taken up by 1 litre of water. A heavier weight indicates that the pepper flavour inside each peppercorn is more densely concentrated. The average market peppercorns weigh around 500g/l. Regular Tellicherry and various Vietnamese Black Peppers reach 550g/l. The best quality standard in the industry is “TGSEB” (full form: Tellicherry Garbled Special Extra Bold) – where you can be assured that the density is 570g/l or better, amongst other key factors such as size of each peppercorn. Taste can be easily distinguished between good forms of TGSEB, and weak 500g/l peppers. Lighter peppers in between cannot be distinguished so easily by cooking at first, but will show their milder taste within 3-6 months, as they lose their flavour faster. Darker colour is also an indication of quality. Most black pepper inevitably has lighter coloured peppers, but these should be only 2-4% of pieces at most. In trade, peppers are usually sold as mixed varieties, because the same peppers that are heavier tend to also be a slightly lighter colour. In the industry, we use Malabar peppers for weight and taste, Sumatra peppers for colour, and Penang peppers for strength. This is why to have the best flavour, you should be able to see a few different shapes of pepper. A single shape means that certain qualities found in powdered black pepper will be missing in black peppercorns, even though they are fresher.
Cardamom: Cardamom’s telling factor is the size. Smaller cardamom pods carry only simple flavours, usually restricted to a pungent minty flavour. The larger pods have more seeds within, and the seeds can release more complex flavours including sweetness and floral notes. When making cardamom teas and desserts, the larger peppers are prized for the more appealing end results. A ballpark size to look for is 8mm in length or more. Green pieces also indicate freshness.
Chilies: Chilies are the hardest products to inspect for quality, as the different types of chilies available amount to hundreds. A common sign is to look for pieces that are not a glowing red colour. Pale or dark reds indicate that the Chili is near the end of its life, and most flavour has left it besides intense heat. Good chilies smell of more than sheer spice: herbal, fruity, floral, hays, and other aspects should be instantly ascertainable at the first sniff. Brighter chilies are also more expensive, as they can be powdered and still remain good looking. But, as with all spices, certain bright chilies can also have extremely potent levels of spice, so be sure to know the heat intensity (measured in SHU) of the chili before use to avoid overdose.
Cinnamon / Cassia: The first point to note is whether what you are getting is Cinnamon or Cassia. Cinnamon is a variety of Cassia that grows in Sri Lanka, but is much more potent than the latter. Cassia grows throughout South-east Asia, but also varies tremendously in quality. Most cinnamon sold in the United States, United Kingdom and Asia is in fact Cassia, not Cinnamon. Sellers frequently write “Cinnamon sticks” with Cassia on ingredients sections, or in other slightly hidden locations. That isn’t to say that Cassia is worse: as a centuries old spice, it has it’s own usages. Distinguishing the best quality Cinnamon and Cassia is the same however. Sticks should not have any green sections – which indicate mould. White pieces are generally speaking okay, but require further inspection to ensure that they too aren’t mouldy. The sticks themselves should crack loudly when a force is applied. If they split by bending, it indicates that there’s too much moisture inside, and therefore the end result will not be as flavourful. Sticks should also been in an even shape. Large bends and odd angles indicate poor cultivation. Finally, the thinner the sticks, the better. Thick sticks are tougher to use, and take far longer to release their essential oils. Plus, the total essential oil is similar for each Cinnamon / Cassia tree, so a thicker stick means a lower concentration of taste.
Cloves: The giveaway with cloves is the colour. Red colour indicates superior flavour within. Brown coloured cloves mean that they are usually old, or grown in odd parts of the world where the crop is much milder. Longer cloves also mean more flavour. The final factor to look for which can be tested in very fresh cloves is whether they release oil when poked hard with a finger-nail. The oil’s presence can be felt as moisture, but not easily seen, as each clove only has a very small amount.
Cumin: Cumin also grows in several varieties. Good quality cumin is very light coloured. Darker coloured cumin indicates that it may have been adulterated with other spices, such as Caraway which looks very similar.
Mace: Mace is commonly found whole in two types: whole flowers, or strands. Both are the same plant and the same concentration of taste, but come from different parts of the world. The difference is the method of peeling the Mace fruit from the Nutmeg it’s attached to. Good quality mace should ooze it’s aroma when its container is opened. Sniffing from near should not be necessary. Black pieces indicate poor treatment, although taste is very similar in both. That said, too many black pieces can have an impact on the appearance, so if you have the chance to pick from a large selection, use the coloured ones first. White pieces are naturally occuring in small speckles. Large (1cm+) spots of white indicate that the nutmeg is less flavourful. In powdered form, black and white coloured nutmeg get camouflaged amongst the rest, so it’s important to buy nutmeg whole whenever possible and grind with a pestle and mortar. Or, you can just as easily cook and strain the nutmeg flowers.
Saffron: Saffron’s most telltale factor is it’s colour. Saffron is the fruit within orchids. It requires careful picking, and comes in different colours based on the orchids it was grown with. The commonly familiar variety of Saffron is red in colour. Yellow strands are those from the root of the saffron, and are very bland, almost tasteless. But, they grow connected to the red pieces, so are impossible to separate completely. From up close, good saffron should look 70-80% red, and minimally yellow.
Sichuan Peppercorns: Sichuan Peppercorns can also be told apart from their colour. Good quality sichuan peppercorns are red in colour. Cheap varieties are black or brown – these taste very harsh on the tongue, unlike the red coloured peppercorns which also provide more subtleties. This difference is one of the main reasons why Sichuan food tastes better in China (where mainly red pieces are sold) compared to abroad (where mainly black and brown pieces are sold). Really high quality Sichuan Peppercorns also have seeds removed. The seeds carry almost no flavour, and are mainly there to add weight and a mild aroma.
Star Anise: There are many signs to look for here. The first is black pieces, which indicate poor quality crop. A lighter colour is preferred, but too light / bright and it’s very likely that the product has been treated with SO2 (Sulphur dioxide) to make it appear beautiful, when it’s in fact unsanitary and unsafe. Small sized Star Anise are also an indication of poor quality spice. These pieces are around or less than 1 gram per piece, as opposed to high quality 1.3-1.5 gram pieces. The small pieces carry very little flavour within, and taste very basic. An easy way to tell whether it’s a small piece is by seeing the length. The industry rule of thumb is that pieces 3cm or greater in length are amongst the best and most expensive. Missing petals means poor handling, and a very minimal impact on taste. Normally a large percentage of petals break off in transportation alone, around 30% incomplete stars is normal, and premium sellers can push this percentage to as low as around 10%.
Turmeric: This spice comes in a vast range of colours and strengths. The main component which gives it it’s flavour is Curcumin. The more redder the Turmeric, the higher concentration of curcumin is within it. In traditional Indian cooking, where the spice is most popular, a curcumin content of around 3-4% is preferred. At this level, the flavour of the turmeric is at it’s best, and the colour is also a light yellow-orange. When buying whole pieces of turmeric, the outside should also appear as smooth and clean as possible. Cheaper varieties, which often end up being used for powdering, are sold “unpolished”. Good looking pieces have been polished multiple pieces to reach that state, to remove all foreign matter.
Vanilla: It’s one of the most commonly used spices, and as a result also the one where cheap pods are sold everywhere. Good quality vanilla can be told almost instantly from the size and weight. Cheap vanilla that tastes very two-dimensional and flat, tends to be shorter, and each pod weighs between 1-2 grams. Good quality Vanilla, coming from traditional Vanilla-producing nations will weight 3-4 grams per piece. These are the only pieces that carry the complex range of flavours found in vanilla products from high end ice cream and dessert manufacturers. Good vanilla should also have a sharp black colour. Light brown pieces indicate old produce, usually 1+ year old, meaning the Vanilla is very weak in flavour. Finally, the shell should also be slightly oily, as an indication of freshness.