If you’re a grilling machine this summer, learning how to blend your own spices can really change your game.
Ever since humans started grilling meats over fire, we’ve been looking for ways to spice it up a little. While cooking or grilling with single spices has been common for much of that time, spice blends didn’t gain commercial speed until the East India Company and the subsequent British Raj between 1757 and 1947.
The beauty of blending your own spices is that you can slowly tweak the recipe to develop your own signature flavor. If you think about it, about 90 percent of the spice blends available commercially are the same, and only minor differences separate them.
Why not just invent your own bold flavors to secure your place in grilling history?
What Are Spices?
First, let’s discuss what a spice is in the first place. According to the Food and Drug Administration, a spice is defined as:
Aromatic vegetable substances, in the whole, broken, or ground form, whose significant function in food is seasoning rather than nutrition. They are true to name and from them no portion of any volatile oil or other flavoring principle has been removed.
In stores, you’ll often find spices minced, diced, crushed, cut and sifted, ground, granulated, or whole. Different combinations of these types provide a spice blend with its own unique taste, aroma, and visual appeal.
While spices can include almost every part of certain plant species, the following list breaks them down into the most common varieties you could find.
Seeds – Typically, seeds used in spice blends are the seeds of aromatic herbs. The seeds contain similar flavors as the herbs, but also their own distinct ones as well. They are commonly used in sausage-making and brines, and may be used whole, ground, or broken in your blended recipes.
A great way to really enhance the flavor is to lightly toast your seeds in a non-oiled sauté pan. Once you start smelling the aroma, take them off the heat so you don’t burn them. Common seed spices include coriander, peppers, fennel, and mustard.
Herbs – Herbs typically consist of plant leaves with bold flavors. While they can be used fresh, you can also dry your herbs first and use them in spice blends. They can get bitter when used in grilling at high heats though, so one way to avoid that is to infuse the flavors into oil.
Toss the herbs or your blend into your favorite cooking oil, and then rub the meat you’re going to grill. If you use indirect heat, the flavors won’t get bitter. Common herbs include basil, cilantro, oregano, rosemary, and thyme.
Bulbs – Onions and garlic are two of the most common bulb spices. They add a little sweetness to spice blends, but can easily be overused. Make them a minor component of your blended recipe at first, and add as needed.
Berries – You might think it is a seed, but peppercorns are actually dried berries from the Piper nigrum plant. You can grind them finely into traditional black pepper, or crush them slightly to be used in marinades.
Either way, peppercorns add a bright and bold flavor to whatever you’re grilling. They combine well with citrus, garlic, spices, and even seeds (especially coriander).
Salt – Salt is essential in grilling and comes in either sea salt or earth salt varieties. It is a mineral found around the world, and each type imparts different flavors to your grilled meats.
Some companies are even smoking their salts first now, so you can get a little more smoky flavor into your blends.
Spices – Most people associate spices with baking. No wonder, as this group includes cinnamon, cloves, and mace. However, these items can also be added to marinades or rubs with great effect.
Spices are common in tropical regions and often critical for ethnic dishes (think curries and masalas). However, just like the bulbs, you need to make sure they are minor flavor enhancements, and not the dominant flavor.
Capsicums – This family of spices are what the “spice” is all about. Named after the oil capsaicin found in chili peppers, these can be mild and sweet all the way to downright hot. Either way, they are essential in most barbecue rubs. Paprika, particularly, adds intensity, depth, and a rich red color to barbecued ribs.
Citrus – The outermost peels of citrus fruits (not the bitter white peel underneath this layer) add a brightness and tang to spice blends. You’ve no doubt used lemon pepper on chicken or steak before, but have you ever thought about using lime or orange?
Replace the lemon peel for one of these and make a lime pepper for fish dishes, or orange pepper on a barbecue chicken.
Spice Blend Recipes
Now that you know the various components of a spice blend, how do you actually get started? First, realize that it’s very difficult to make mistakes. If you add too much of something, just add more of the other spices mentioned above to balance it out.
For combining the spice blend, you have two options. The most basic is to grind them first in a mortar and pestle, and combine them in a plastic bag or container. For larger quantities or if you are in a time crunch, you can blend them all together at once in a food processor or spice grinder.
For inspiration, here are four basic spice blends developed by Chef Tim Ziegler that you can create at home right now. Feel free to tweak them to your tastes, or use as a baseline to develop your own.
Herbs de Provence
- 1 Tablespoon (T) Rosemary
- 1 T Basil Leaves
- 1 T Mediterranean Oregano
- 1 T Marjoram Leaves
- 1 T Thyme Leaves
- 1 teaspoon (t) Lavender Ultra-Super-Blue
Gently mix the herbs together until well blended. You may add parsley, tarragon, sage, and/or other herbs to this recipe. You may rub the blended herbs directly onto fish, chicken, or lamb, but I usually add 1 T of garlic, 1 T of Maldon Sea Salt, and 1 T of capers to the above blend and sprinkle evenly over a salmon fillet.
I add 1/4 of a thinly sliced red onion and then 1 cup of white wine and 4 T of butter onto a 1/4 sheet pan and cook on a medium hot grill to create a wonderfully different outdoor meal. Cook until done — usually about 20 minutes.
Barbeque Rib Rub
- 1 T of Ground Ancho Chili
- 1 T of Smoked Paprika
- 1 T of Brown Sugar
- 1 T of Maldon Sea Salt (Kosher salt is optional)
- 1 t of Cumin Seed, Ground (toasting is optional)
- 1 t of Coriander Seed, Ground (toasting is optional)
- 1 t of Mustard Powder
- 1/2 t of Black Pepper, Freshly Ground
- 1/4 t of Cayenne Pepper (optional)
I prefer to cook my ribs in a smoker rather than on a grill, but you can do this on a grill if you use indirect heat and cook low and slow, turning often (225 degrees or lower). I also put my ribs in a raised rack pan to keep them from direct contact with the metal. I cook my ribs for 4-6 hours. Paint the rub on heavily.
You may add this entire rub to 1/2 cup of olive oil to create a paste and then apply liberally to all facets of the ribs. This recipe will work well with either beef or pork ribs but I recommend pork.
- 2 T of Four Pepper Blend (Black, White, Green, and Pink), Freshly Ground
- 1/2 T Smoked Sea Salt (I use Alder Wood Smoked Sea Salt)
- 1 T of Dried Minced Garlic
- 1 T of Dried Minced Onion
- 1 T of Coriander Seed, Ground (Toasted)
- 1 t of Cumin Seed, Ground (Toasted)
- 1 t of Freshly Zested Orange Peel
- 1/4 t of Dill Seed, Ground
Blend the spices thoroughly. Sprinkle liberally on steaks, burgers, or chops.
- 1 T of Granulated Garlic
- 1 T of Black Pepper, Freshly Ground
- 1 T of Dried Parsley
- 1 T of Maldon Sea Salt
- 1 t of Smoked Paprika
- 1/8 t of Cayenne Pepper
Blend the spices thoroughly. Mix into and sprinkle liberally on burgers.
To conclude, spice blends can be as unique as yourself. Make them bold and bright, smoky and sweet, salty and tangy, etc. Don’t just settle for commercial blandness.
Invent your own signature style so that this grilling season will be memorable for your family and guests. Never stop experimenting!
All images via Art of Manliness
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