Garam Masala, Za’atar and More Homemade Spice Blends

Garam Masala, Za’atar and More Homemade Spice Blends

Savvy cooks across the globe know that one of the easiest ways to add verve to their cooking is to keep a selection of aromatic spice blends at the ready. From Chinese five spice to Cajun seasoning, from Indian masalas to Chilean merken, spice blends are the cornerstones of so many cuisines, with very good reason.

Used by the pinch or by the cupful, a harmonious spice blend can deepen and round out the flavors of almost any dish, instantly adding color, perfume and, sometimes, a stinging kick. And unlike individual spices, the beauty of a blend is in its efficiency. With all the spices carefully measured and mixed ahead of time, cooks don’t need to stop and wing it when the chicken’s in the pan.

Lior Lev Sercarz, the founder of La Boîte, a New York-based spice shop, built his business on the idea that having fresh, well-made spice blends on hand will drastically improve anyone’s cooking.

“If you have 15 single spices in your cabinet, how do you decide which to grab when you’re in the middle of cooking dinner? Then the last thing you’re going to want to do is start toasting and pounding,” he said. “In a blend, that’s all done in advance.”

“There’s a sense of orthodoxy in blending that really shouldn’t exist,” Mr. Frisch said. “Spice blends have always reflected the person blending them.”

Once ground, spices blends (and single spices) will last for six months to a year when properly stored away from light and heat — ideally not in a drawer or cabinet right next to your stove. Just make sure to date everything, then steel yourself to throw out spices once their time is up. It may feel wantonly wasteful, but you’re not doing your cooking any favors by stirring in spices that have lost their oomph.

After gathering the best whole spices you can find, you’ll need a small skillet or baking pan for toasting them, and a mortar and pestle or an electric spice grinder for pulverizing. A coffee grinder will also work, preferably one you’ve reserved for spices, so your baharat doesn’t take on espresso undertones. And while you don’t need a gram scale, if you have one, it will be more precise than using volume measurements, especially for irregularly shaped, bulky spices like star anise.

Once you have a few blends tucked away, use them liberally and often — and not just in traditional dishes.

“It can be very liberating to experiment,” said Mr. Sercarz, who routinely sprinkles the likes of garam masala into cookies, and berbere, an Ethiopian spice blend, onto pizza.

“The act of blending spices is an art,” he said, “and so is cooking with them.”

Za’atar can be used in marinades for grilled or roasted poultry or meats, mixed into dips, salads and egg dishes, or set on the table to be added on as a bright, herbaceous condiment.


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