In days of yore, purchasing spices was not an act that would leave you standing mouth agape in a supermarket aisle staring at a wall of bags and bottles and grinders and bespoke tin boxes that you have no idea what to do with. The varieties! The origins! Who knew there could be so many certifications attached to a bottle of cumin? I didn’t even know anyone had to worry about their spices being gluten free. The bells and whistles can be distracting and there are undoubtedly many things to be learned about the spice world—like the difference between the many varieties of cinnamon, or why pepper suddenly became available in multiple colors in the late nineties. However, if you’re at stage one of your spice education, the first lesson you need to tackle is understanding the differences between ground and whole spices.
A spice is defined as any aromatic element taken from a plant and used to flavor a food or beverage. This means there’s no hard rule indicating how all spices should be used, because they’re all radically dissimilar. Cinnamon comes from the bark of a tree. Pepper is a teeny tiny fruit that’s left out in the sun to dry into a shriveled black ball. Saffron are stigma (the little fuzzy orange things you find in the center of flowers) harvested from a select breed of crocus. All are different parts of plant anatomy, from flora that have no relation to each other. Treating them identically would be like making a pie with cucumbers instead of apples, because from a biological standpoint they’re both fruits.
The spices that should be buying whole and grinding yourself are ones that get their flavor and aroma from the oils they contain, which are usually of the volatile nature. When locked inside their home, these oils are frozen in time, retaining their intense flavors and aromas. They second that home is destroyed, these oils go wild, casting their essence into the wind and caring not where it lands. If they’re pre-ground, they’ve already given away so much of their magic long before you managed to bring them home.
Consider the difference between freshly cracked pepper, and the flavorless, dried-up stuff you’ll find in a shaker at a diner. The former provides a sharp, intense bite with a bit of background heat, and the second is like sprinkling cigarette ashes all over your food. Other common spices that are far better when they’re freshly ground:
Things that end in “seed” or “berry”
The other colors of pepper
It’s fine to use pre-ground spices if you don’t have the option to purchase them whole. They’ll still add flavor, though it won’t be as intense. If you do have the opportunity, go hog wild and stock up because in a cool dark cabinet, those spices will last you damn well near forever. In you’re apprehensive about having to haul out a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle every time you need a ¼ teaspoon of cumin, don’t be. Recent developments in housewares technology have made refillable individual spice grinders readily available, meaning you’re closer to spice cabinet supremacy than ever before. What a time to be alive.