DC Refined: Spice up your cooking by delving into the world of spice blends

From DC Refined by Lani Furbank:

“There’s really not a job that’s called spice blender,” says Lior Lev Sercarz. But in 2006, Sercarz opened La Boîte, a spice shop in New York City, and became just that. After two decades working as a chef in Israel, France, and New York, he decided he wanted to focus his career on spices, so he created a job for himself as a spice blender. He uses high quality single spices to make unique blends that complement savory dishes, desserts, and cocktails.

Spices, he says, are something that people tend to take for granted or treat as an afterthought. “I’ve noticed over the years how little people knew about spices, both professionals and home cooks, and the fact that a lot of them were intimidated by using it and this idea that it’s reserved to some ethnic groups or to certain cuisines,” he says. Through his spice shop and his new book, The Spice Companion, Lior hopes to educate people about the intricacies of spices and spice blending, beyond the basics.

Sercarz delights in helping customers—even professional chefs—explore new spices. Chef Brandon Shapiro of Wildwood Kitchen in Bethesda is one of the chefs in the D.C. area using Sercarz’s spices. “Once I found [La Boîte], it was kind of the end of the search for the best spices,” Shapiro says. “When you open up a jar of his spices, the whole room smells like his spice.” Shapiro uses a variety of spice blends to highlight the Mediterranean flavors Wildwood is known for.

Sercarz and Shapiro shared their advice for food connoisseurs who are interested in spicing up their cooking.

The benefits of spice blends over individual spices:

Sercarz loves spice blends because of the practicality and versatility. For those who are new to spice blends, he recommends making a custom blend for your favorite recipe that calls for multiple spices, like a chili or a meat marinade. Measure each spice in your recipe in the correct ratios and then blend them together. This simplifies your cooking process. “It saves you a lot of time,” he says. “Instead of having five jars, you have one.”

Beyond that, he sees spice blends as a “culinary accessory” to make a mundane dish more interesting. “It’s that same piece of clothing you’re wearing over and over again, but how do you accessorize it?” he says. They can be used in multiple preparations and have a different effect each time.

Versatile spices every home cook should have:

Sercarz says you should start building your spice collection with the basics:

  • One or two high-quality salts. Pick ones that suit your cooking style.
  • One high-quality pepper. Taste black, green, and white peppers to find your favorite.
  • Chili for heat. Choose powdered or flaked, depending on your preference.
  • Cardamom, cloves, and nutmeg for sweetness.
  • Smoked paprika to add complexity and to give vegetarian dishes a meaty quality.
  • Cumin.
  • Fennel seeds.

The biggest mistakes home cooks can make with spices:

  • Holding onto old spices for too long. While spices don’t technically go bad, they should only be kept for about a year, according to Sercarz. After that they lose their flavor and aroma. To ensure that you use your spices in a timely manner, incorporate them into dishes whenever you can and avoid buying huge quantities.
  • Keeping spices you don’t use. Sercarz recommends going through all of the spices you own to find a use for them. Taste them, smell them, research them, and then add them to a dish!
  • Only pulling out certain spices for a special occasion or dish. Cloves aren’t just for pumpkin pie, Sercarz says. Use them year-round in coffee, yogurt, or on toast.

How to shop for high quality spices:

Sercarz offers a wide variety of individual spices and blends through his online shop, but he says you can also find great products at high-end supermarkets. Here is his advice for picking spices:

  • When a store offers samples to smell and taste, it’s a vote of confidence for their product.
  • Look for glass containers rather than bags. This extends their shelf life.
  • Evaluate the spices visually. If the label says black peppercorns, you don’t want your product to have lots of dust particles or different colored peppercorns. Make sure the color of ground spices is vibrant.
  • Steer clear of discounted spices. A spice might be on sale because it is too old or of poor quality.
  • Look for a “best by” date on the container.
  • A single source or varietal of a spice is also a good sign.”

Read the rest of the advice and see one of Chef Brandon Shapiro’s spice-infused recipes here!

Featured photo courtesy of Lior Lev Sercarz.