You always see those notes in recipes that things like “use whole spices for best flavor.” Whole, fresh spices really *do* offer much more fragrant and delectable aromas and flavors, but reaching for the whole nutmeg and the Microplane grater after your 10 hour day is probably not going to happen – and it can make you skip right over a recipe that insists upon it. Even though I cook for a living, I too want things to be easy – mainly because I lug my equipment with me to client cookdates, so if I’m going to pack it, use it, clean it, repack it and carry it back home – it better be worth it. I do carry a Microplane which is great for nutmeg, but what about whole cumin, coriander, fennel, and other seeds? I can give them a whir in my mini-chopper, but hard seeds tend to dull the blades quickly. At times I find myself using the ground version as a substitute, the same as many home cooks do, I’m sure. And it’s often fine, but sometimes…it’s just not. Freshly ground cumin seeds, especially my favorite from Penzey’s, are a thing of beauty. They are unbelievably, deliciously fragrant. If you’re going to spend the time to make a really great Lamb Biriyani or Jerked Chicken, then you really want to use whole spices, freshly ground. So when I saw this tip in Cook’s Illustrated, I immediately thought, “Brilliant! Why didn’t I think of that?”
So here’s the tip: buy your peppercorns in those small jars with the grinding mechanisms right on the jar. (Yes, you should be buying peppercorns, and not ground black pepper in a can. How else are you going to achieve steakhouse-like perfection when you’re tossing your ribeyes on the grill this summer??) Move your peppercorns to your regular pepper grinder – like this one – and then use the empty grinder jar for cumin, coriander, fennel seed, red peppercorns, mustard seeds, dill, fenugreek, allspice, cloves – any type of seed spice. Start with your most-used (or most wish-you-used) whole spice, and then every time you buy another jar of peppercorns, that’s another whole spice you can keep in a grinding jar. Totally brill.
Tips like these make me happiest, because it takes something you’re already going to buy anyway, and turns it’s packaging into something you can use to address a different actual need. And by having easy-to-grind whole spices at the ready, it makes you juuuuust that much more likely to try that great curry or cake or what have you. It’s all about being prepared, so that when inspiration strikes or the mood just hits you, you can look to what you have on hand instead of having to make a shopping list. Enjoy!