Understanding the basics of seasonings and spice blends. What salt percentage is in your favorite seasoned salt and which pepper varieties are used in ground black pepper?
By Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE
In September of 2020, I published an article on teaching Seasoning and Spicing. That introductory article generally discussed how to buy, store and use fresh and dried spices and herbs. This article will spice up that article (pardon the bad pun) and discuss how to teach the difference between specific seasonings/spices and blends.
A Specific Spice or Seasoning is that item, and that item alone. Ginger powder is nothing more than powdered ginger. Dried rosemary is dried rosemary leaves. It sounds simple but, like most things in life, it is not that cut and dry. (Again, pardon the bad pun.) Ground black pepper does not tell the cook which variety or varieties of pepper are being used. (And yes, your students will be very surprised to learn there is more than one type of black pepper. A possible virtual homework assignment would be to assign a brief research project on this subject.)
Seasoned Salt is a combination of salt and one or a few other flavoring ingredients. The most common are garlic salt, onion salt and celery seed salt. The problem with these products is that the cook or chef doesn’t know how much is salt and how much is the other ingredient. In other words, if you use a teaspoon of garlic salt, you don’t know how much of that is salt and how much is garlic.
Seasoned Pepper is less common than seasoned salt and is available in most markets. The most popular is lemon pepper. As with seasoned salt, the problem is that you don’t know how much is lemon zest and how much is pepper. To add to the confusion, many seasoned peppers contain salt as well.
Spice or Seasoning Blends have long been popular throughout the world. For classic European cooking, the most called for was Herbs de Provence. But this has been taken over by a myriad of other blends, including curry powder, chimichurri, Cajun seasoning, Five Spice, Blackening Seasoning, etc. Although these allow the cook to quickly and readily season and spice dishes from around the world, there is a similar problem to seasoning salt. When you buy a blend, you do not know how much of each ingredient is in the blend. For example, a chimichurri blend (to be added to olive oil and vinegar) includes chopped parsley, oregano, onion, garlic salt, cayenne and black pepper. (Note, salt tends to be the cheapest ingredient in blends, and usually—although not universally—the cheaper the blend, the higher the percentage of salt, and the lower percentage of other ingredients.)
To further confuse things, there are spice blends that are sold as “Chicken Seasoning” or “Fish Seasoning” or even “Vegetable Seasoning.” Many of these are vague in their ingredients. If you look at the label, they will identify a few (usually leading with salt) seasonings and spices and then say something like, “and other natural spices and flavors.” In other words, you don’t know what you are using!
This is a problem in several regards:
- It is hard to get the flavor balance you want when you do not know the ingredients. The only way to learn is to buy the product and start using it. For example, even from my favorite spice store in Napa, California, there are several curry powders that I like and several I don’t. (My apologies to the chefs and cooks from countries where it is customary for each person to make their own curry powders from a myriad of ingredients.)
- If salt is listed as an ingredient you do not usually know what the percentage is unless you want to start doing the complicated equation of looking at the recommended daily allotment percentage (RDA) of sodium. And, even if you do, as mentioned above, you will not know the percentages of each of the other ingredients.
- In a previous article I wrote that cooks need to be food allergen savvy. When using a blend that you did not create yourself, you do not know all the ingredients.
According to the New York Allergy and Sinus Center, “Spice allergies occur in up to 2 percent of the population. The most problematic spices for allergy sufferers are celery, garlic, cinnamon, sesame, turmeric, onion, and mustard. Mustard allergy is the most common among spice allergies. Black pepper and vanilla have also been reported to cause an allergic reaction.”
So, if you have a family member who has allergies to specific seasonings or spices, you must be careful using pre-packaged blends. If you are in a commercial establishment, you must make sure there is a readily accessible list of ingredients for each blend. Then, when a guest advises the server of an allergy the kitchen can quickly and easily check the ingredients of the blend.
In summary, your students now understand the basics of seasoning and spice blends. I will return to seasonings and spices in another 50 Minute Classroom article later in the semester. However, the next column will focus on preparing students to complete virtual interviews for externships or jobs. I will discuss what students need to know about giving a virtual interview beyond the obvious points such as turning off cell phones. For instance, I will share items such as having a virtual portfolio ready to screen share. Check back next month!
Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE, has been a culinary instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 16 years.