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Spices Friend or Foe!

post #1 of 18
Thread Starter 
based on Harold Mcgee's work on taste, I don't know if there is a possibility if he or someone else can be able to shed some light on it:

I will refer to a situation from a show called 'check please' on public television here in Chicagoland area. this show has 3 guests who each recommend 2 restaurants - to which the other 2 guests go- and they come back and discuss the restaurants with a moderator.

anyway, one of the shows - there was a good discussion in which a lady complained that - 'the meat was excellent and of high quality but it was bland and there was no taste'. the piece of meat in discussion was a huge piece of steak...

the moderator and the other 2 guests both took exception to that stating that it was not making sense as to what she is saying.

her point was that the meat was only seasoned with salt and pepper and no other spices.

this brings out an interesting point. some of my friends have ocassionaly complained (when we took them to an Indian/Pakistani restaurant) tht the meat was over seasoned and they could not taste the meat.

thus - what is it that we are looking for in taste of a dish?? often you see on Iron Chef competitions that the judges say that they love the dish but couldn't taste the theme ingredient.

thus the question - what are we looking for to do with spices? why does one think that you would destroy an expensive piece of steak if you season with indian spices?

I apologize if the question is taking a rant-type proportion. but I guess that's been my inability to explain the situation.
Hope this helps.
post #2 of 18
It really all depends on the dish and food being served. Sometimes it is best to keep things simple, such as a great steak seasoned with only salt, pepper, and maybe a little garlic, or a medley of fresh spring vegetables tossed with butter and maybe an herb or 2 (on the light side). But then there are times were the spicing (seasoning) is as important or even more important than the other ingredients, many Indian dishes and Southeast Asian curries. That is not to say that the food should be so highly spiced that you can't taste other things, but the spices should really come through, almost fighting for dominance with the other ingredients. Again, it really all depends on what the final dish should be.
post #3 of 18
At the risk of going off on a rant myself, I believe that in U.S. food, excess salt and spices are used to make up for an inherent lack of flavor in the raw materials. I love Cheetos dearly, and they have more "flavor" than a slice of plastic-wrapped American cheese, but neither can compare to a piece of well-aged Cheddar. People who eat so much skinless, boneless chicken breast can have no concept of what chicken can and should taste like.

Okay, deep breath.

The purpose of seasoning or spicing a dish is to bring out, point up, and enhance the flavors of that dish as a whole, imo. If the dish is, as Pete mentioned, fresh spring vegetables at the peak of their flavor, nothing other than a tiny bit of salt is necessary. (Salt is meant to bring out other flavors, not to be tasted on its own; think about pasta cooked without salt in the water.) If it is a steak with good meat flavor, again, just a little salt and maybe pepper. In dishes that include spices, the spices should be an integral part of the flavor of the dish -- not a flavor unto themselves, obscuring the other ingredients.

My point in the paragraph above is that all ingredients must have their own flavor, and seasoning/spicing should not be relied upon to make up for any deficiencies. Maybe the steak the woman complained about didn't have sufficient meat flavor and so was NOT "excellent and of high quality" -- all too common these days, since only a tiny percent of meat we can get is properly aged and properly marbled. If so, no amount of spices would have helped it.

By the same token, your friends who complain about overspicing might be right: the meat may not have the flavor it needs to work with the spices as should happen. It could be that the cooks are trying to make up for that lack by adding more spice than would be necessary if the meat had more flavor. Or, finally, if the cooks are doing their job right with good ingredients, your friends just might be unfamiliar with what the dish should taste like and so think something is wrong.
"Notorious stickler" -- The New York Times, January 4, 2004
"Notorious stickler" -- The New York Times, January 4, 2004
post #4 of 18
Bravo, Suzanne!

I agree that the meat and poultry most of us are offered lacks the pronounced, rich flavors I remember as a child. I suppose our taste memories are more vivid than the reality may have been, but doggone it: beef has less flavor and chicken has MUCH less flavor than they did forty years ago. Pork is another good example, although I didn't eat much of it forty years ago :D. We've bargained away flavor for leanness.
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***It is better to ask forgiveness than beg permission.***
post #5 of 18
Mezz said-

"Pork is another good example, although I didn't eat much of it forty years ago . We've bargained away flavor for leanness."

Boy, is that right. My mother used to cook a southern dish she learned in Missouri: a pork roast roasted on a rack over a batch of spaghetti in the pan below. This was (ouch) 40-50 years ago. That spaghetti came through slippery as eels and, with a lot of pepper on it, was really great! It was a family favorite, affectionatly known as "greasy old spaghetti."

It's a wonder I'm still alive. :eek:

Do that now, and you get a batch of dry-roasted, vulcanized pasta. :cry:

I remember in the Navy, in the mid-50's, there were garbage dumpsters on the destroyer piers in Norfolk marked "EDIBLE GARBAGE" and "NON-EDIBLE GARBAGE". The mess crews put the food leftovers in the "edible" bins and these went straight to the pig farms, probably in Smithfield County.

Ahhh... there were giants in those days, as well as the threat of trichinosis.:(

Mike ;)
travelling gourmand
travelling gourmand
post #6 of 18
Thread Starter 
the insight is very helpful. in case of meats, I am a converted non-veggie. so I am still learning to enjoy *meat*.

but definitely in terms of veggies, I have sometimes been disappointed when those veggies at certain big name places were bland. (may be that was inspired the switch?? :crazy: hehe) may be what you are seeing with meats is also happening with veggies.

is that why people are getting big on heirloom veggies? I mean seeds being 50 years old and all - it just might bring back the flavor.
post #7 of 18
Another factor is "salt habituation" and/or "pepper habituation." We've all seen people who will not even taste food until they've dumped a sizable portion of salt &/or pepper all over it. If I were to eat some of their meal, I wouldn't be able to discern what the heck was under that pile of seasoning.

They, however, complain that food is "bland" without it.

Clearly, their taste buds have become used to all that seasoning and need huge quantities just to register any taste.

If one of them were to bite into my very, very lightly seasoned steak, they would taste nothing. I, on the other hand, wouldn't even be able to swallow their steak.
post #8 of 18
I think maybe you guys have missed a part of this.
In many cultures, especially in third world countries, the
heavy seasoning was to inhibit the growth of bacteria.
For example, spicy peppers and fresh lime in Mexico. If
you taste a slice of cacciatorini(italian dried sausage)it
tastes heavily of cloves. In places that are not afforded
proper storage or have problems with parasites it becomes
essential to find creative ways to deal with these problems. Basically
some of these older dishes or styles come from a time long
gone by, but, we are still familiar with the flavors and expect
them in certain dishes. Don't leave out salt as a preservative
either. Salt is king in other countries. The USA is notorious
for underseasoning. If one is limited by dietary restrictions and
becomes accustomed to not using salt, then, of course everything
would taste over salted. Remember, moderation. As for flavorless
meat and poultry. You get what you pay for. There are many
options available. For example, you could order a quarter Ossabaw
pig from Caw Caw creek in S.C. They will mail it in the South.
You could drive out to the country and get chickens. How important
is it to you? That is the question. As for good quality meats and
fowl, I use kosher or sea salt only. It does not increase the flavor
for me, it enhances the flavor for me. We all need salt in our
diet, or, we wouldn't crave it. As far as produce goes, you get what
you pay for as well. Get to know you vegetables and fruits. Taste
them raw. Again, go to the country and shop once every two weeks.
When I cook, I don't try to change the flavor of my product. Enhance?
Perhaps. Long gone are the days of seasoning things so much, only
to cover up the fowl smell and spoiled taste. It is a wonderful world
out there with more great foods available than ever. Immerse yourself
in it and let cooking become a daily ritual.
post #9 of 18
While I agree with a lot of what you said, I don't neccessarily agree with this statement. Yes, the body does need a limited amount of salt to function properly, but us Americans eat way too much salt. There is lots of hidden salt in our modern diets. More than we need for our bodies to function properly. Just because we crave something, that doesn't mean we actually need it. Some people crave chocolate, some crave alcohol, some crave sugar, I crave pizza. That doesn't mean my body needs it. The reverse is also true. Just because we don't crave it, that doesn't mean our bodies don't need it. I don't crave lots of vegetables and fruits, but they are loaded with vitamins that I need in my diet. I have to, oftentimes, make myself eat them to ensure a proper balance to my diet.
post #10 of 18
On a different note, The history of spices & the spice trade and how it influenced so many countries is a great point to study.Spices mean much more historically than just there inherent ability to season foods.As foodies and culinarians,we must, yet again, try to educate. :)
Baruch ben Rueven / Chanaבראד, ילד של ריימונד והאלאן
Baruch ben Rueven / Chanaבראד, ילד של ריימונד והאלאן
post #11 of 18
Alas, yes. Just as with factory meat production, factory farms go for speed and yield over flavor. :mad: Growing vegetables in the wrong kind of soil and them pumping them full of unnatural fertilizers creates "things" that may look like vegetables but that lack any other resemblance, least of all in flavor. (BTW: processing is not necessarily the culprit. A properly frozen properly grown veg can outshine a "fresh" factory specimen that traveled 2000 miles and spent weeks in storage by a huge amount.)

Yup. Although actually some of the more recently developed hybrids can be delicious; it's just that they may not be widely grown because they have other drawbacks to conventional factory farms.

Freshness is another important factor, which is why locally grown food so often tastes better. Whether it's organically or conventionally grown does make a difference, too -- but even more important: the fresher, the better.

Finally: those big name places with bland vegetables may just have neglected to salt the water in which they cooked them. :(
"Notorious stickler" -- The New York Times, January 4, 2004
"Notorious stickler" -- The New York Times, January 4, 2004
post #12 of 18
Spices, meat and vegetables... Oh the joys of life :)

I really hate to buy nearly any fresh vegetables at the grocery store. These things are usually mishandled with water being sprayed on them until they have the feel and action of holding a rubber band on end. They're bred to be fast growing, high yield plants with shelf life another major concern...the main goal just isn't taste. Meanwhile people are being fooled that that rock hard tomato that they hold in their hand is ripe because of the ethylene gas pumped rock has a red color. Home grown or locally grown are the only two choices. Well, unless you would like to use frozen vegetables...which many times does outperform the grocery fresh for taste.

The current state of pork, beef and chicken has been been discussed a bunch of times too. Again...the livestock is bred to meet standards set forth by things other than taste. Myself...when I become concerned about my weight...or health, I'll do without. I would rather eat a good piece of beef or pork once a month than a piece of junk with no flavor AND no fat. the goals...nice color, low fat and big size are the flavors of today. Although I have been noticing that grocery store beef has been looking a tad better lately. But I'll still stick with my butcher and the small deli/butchers with anything up to prime in stock...and Kobe available on order. (But I still can't find a good way to order good seafood...any ideas?)

Ok...I'm terribly sorry about the little rant...I'll try to get back on topic now.

post #13 of 18
I like the taste of good beef. I like the taste of a nicely layered dish with good depth too. To give an answer regarding Indian spices alone...I just don't have enough experience cooking Indian flavored foods to give an educated comment. True, I have enjoyed the dishes that I've had...but to comment on the authenticity of their flavors or execution of the dish prepared...just not enough experience with these flavors.

But I've nothing against a nicely spiced dish. But I also think that the "American way to spice/flavor" is to move toward the excess of flavors. If it's Italian, we go for an obscene amount of garlic. If it's Mexican we use all the heat we can find.

Instead of concentrating on the balance of natural flavors, we tend to go overboard on some aspects of the dish that we like. But an Italian dish for two shouldn't be prepared with two cloves of garlic. Nor should a simple taco be smothered with mexican seasoning. The best darn tacos that I've had a seasoned only with salt, pepper, onion...good beef and fresh cilantro on a homemade tortilla.

But like the topic above (the demise of or meats and vegetables), I think our spices have taken a similar course. Many of the spices in the grocery store live a tasteless life before they ever reach your food. The spices can range from tasteless...poor downright horrible.

All in all...I think poor techniques are as much to blame as the inferior products being used (meats, vegetables and spices).

g'day :)
post #14 of 18
Thread Starter 

interesting observation

gonefishing, like your observation about spices sitting on store shelves and loosing flavor.

that is why even today (though its going down fast) older people in Indian households, bring in their own whole spice (in bulk) - roast them to the level that they like, and then grind them and store them for use throughout the year...

and ideally, with Indian spices that was the essence. each household had their own blend. but its going down fast

wondering if there would be a section in a museum some day where the visitors would see a gas stove with a pot on top and the tour-guide would explain that there used to be a time when people cooked at home...
actually afraid that it would be in a nearer future...
post #15 of 18
"Many of the spices in the grocery store live a tasteless life before they ever reach your food. The spices can range from tasteless...poor downright horrible."

We haven't bought grocery-store spices for years.

Go with

Their catalogs are good reading in themselves.

WholeFoods stores have bulk fresh spice sections as well, where you can
buy just as much as you need.

Mike :chef:
travelling gourmand
travelling gourmand
post #16 of 18
Thanks...I'll be placing an order :)
post #17 of 18
Mike, I just last night learned of Penzey's! I will check them out right away, thanks for the reminder.

I like intense flavor! Yes, I am guilty of in the past from depending heavy on the salt (for me, fleur du sel, the absolutely best from France--when I come back home my suitcase is packed with great salt, great soap, chocolate and sugar chunks). I have spent the last six years in transition, everything I thought to be true for 40 years has been altered and is evolving. I now believe spices are like the the supporting cast in a great play, the lead role is in the spotlight but it is those in the background that make the production so darn memorable! That said, I am not talking about the spices that are sitting on your grocers shelf in little jars. Fresh herbs and grinding your own spices is the ONLY way to go! I am learning more and more to appreciate the unique taste of each food. I do not think this is an easy task for most!

I think most Americans are far removed from "real" food in the purest sense. My most memorable meals have been in France (not in the five star restaurants) but in the home of my cousin, who shops the markets for the best and the freshest. The chicken I have had there has never been out-shined even by the most expensive organic free-range chicken I have bought here in the US and the only seasoning he uses is the grey sea salt! I am still perplexed on that one!

There is a very noticable difference in taste between organic than non. Ten times out of ten when I prepare meals totally organic, my guests will comment that "that was the best..."

Last night, I made a butternut squash soup that was so simple and pure. Only the squash, salt, white pepper, two onions and organic chicken broth. It was just lovely! For interest, I added my homemade creme fraiche and lump crabmeat. ...just incredible!!!!! How simple.

Now, cultural food is a different story! Indian food with it's, "bold, intense" flavor, I love it!!!

Mexican.... (I am a Rick Bayliss groupie, so glad he will be here next week!!) The flavors are unique and fun! I am not sure of the dynamics of why what is used with what (I lived in Costa Rica for a while last year, Oh my goodness!!!!! I will have to describe my favorite butcher shop there for you all sometimes:suprise: !!!!!!!!!!) but they work!!!

I think Suzanne hit the nail on the head saying that "excess salt and spices are used to make up for the inherent lack of flavor in the raw materials."

I will stop my rambling and go pour me another glass of Marquis Phillips Shiraz!!

Omi (Does anyone want to take a culinary adventure to France with me???)
post #18 of 18
"Omi (Does anyone want to take a culinary adventure to France with me???)


Are you a guy or a girl?

Don't tell my wife I asked this question!

Mike :roll:
travelling gourmand
travelling gourmand
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