Pantry Engineering Pt. 4 is the final installment (for now), and is all about spices! As I mentioned in my post in this series, I find the most useful way to sort spices is by organizing them by top, middle and base notes.
I think of top notes as the aromas and flavors that will hit your nostrils and tastebuds first — they are typically very bright, juicy, occasionally tart — and stay at the top of your senses while eating the entire dish. I find top notes are often underutilized in their ability to contrast rich & fatty flavors and textures; spices like sumac, coriander seed and pink peppercorn can be just as zingy as adding a finishing vinegar or citrus!
Middle notes are those that also contain a hint of brightness, but mellow out to something slightly more neutral and warm. Because they provide structure and balance to the dish, almost every dish contains at least one spice in this category (often black pepper), if not several. Middle notes shine especially well when accented with top / base notes, which can come either spice form or a different type of ingredient (e.g. ginger, chocolate).
Base notes are often the flavor that lingers as you finish a dish. They smell and taste warm, toasty, hefty, sometimes smoky, and sit heavier on the tongue. They build up the foundation of the dish, round out the flavor of the main ingredient and prop up the top / middle notes. While the American palate seems to enjoy just base notes together (see: pumpkin pie spice mix), I personally think it’s very important to pair base notes with lighter accents to avoid a dish tasting “damp” and thick on the tongue.
If you’re still getting familiar with combining spices, I recommend trying out 2 different ratios as a starting point. A 1:1:1 ratio of top/middle/base spices will be nicely balanced and versatile for most applications while a 3:2:1 or 1:2:3 ratio allows you to pronounce top or base notes for a specific dish. You can also use these ratios to even out your spice closet the next time you go shopping — take stock of what category your current spices are clustered, and try to bring in new spices of different notes to complement them.
When buying spices, I encourage everyone to buy whole when possible and grind in small quantities for spice mixes, because pre-ground spices will go stale much faster. All spices (ground and whole) lose potency over time and do expire, so make sure to refresh your spices roughly once a year if you don’t use them frequently. If you’re looking for a place to buy spices, I’ll shout out my friends at Burlap and Barrel - they source absolutely deliciously, extremely flavorful, single-origin spices from around the world.
Hope this was helpful! Please reach out if you have questions, and send me suggestions on what series I should cook up next!