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September 2011

Food for Thought

Mixing It Up
By Lorinda

Food for Thought archive

Still life with onions and sliced garlic.


I was in a rut when it came to cooking with spices and herbs. Garlic, onion, cumin, and the occasional bay leaf . . . those were my staples. When a dear friend gifted me with dried herbs, and my garden produced huge quantities of basil, I began to expand my creative horizons and—voila!—I'm in spice mix heaven.

After my family agreed that Christmas gifts were to be homemade this year, I ordered some glass spice bottles with shaker lids and started experimenting with my own custom blends. The beauty of this idea is that you can create the perfect mixture of spices for yourself and your family. My children are wonderful cooks, much braver than I when it comes to trying new flavors, so their blends will reflect that. Cutting back on salt? No problem. Can't stand garlic? Leave it out. The combination of flavors is only limited by your imagination.

Making your own spice mixes can be as easy or complicated as you wish. If you choose to buy all of the spices and herbs, you will just need to buy glass bottles for storage. If you plan to dry or grind your own (hopefully organic) herbs, you will need just a few items:

  • A spice grinder or coffee grinder. If you're willing to go to the extra time and trouble, a mortar and pestle would work fine, but coffee grinders are inexpensive and work very well. Buy one to use exclusively for grinding spices. You don't want your coffee to taste like cayenne peppers, or your garlic to taste like Sumatra French Roast!
  • A garlic slicer. This is invaluable for obtaining uniform slices of garlic to dry and grind. I'm very happy with my Chef'n Garlic Slice, but there are many other models to choose from on the market.
  • Silica "canisters" to add to your jars. They aren't a necessity, but using them is a very good way to keep moisture out and reduce clumping. They are food grade, and FDA approved. A good source is SilicaGelPackets.com. Choose the 1 gram silica gel canister.
  • Glass bottles with shaker tops and screw-on lids. I ordered mine from Specialty Bottle. Buy more than you think you will use; once you start making your own mixtures you probably won't be able to stop!
  • A small funnel.

Keep the counter clean by using a funnel.

The spices and herbs you choose must be very dry. I grow and dehydrate my garlic, onion, and peppers, and dry a variety of herbs. There are many good books about drying and dehydrating, and a wealth of information online. Here is a link to a wonderful Herb Companion article about drying herbs: The Low-Tech Art of Drying Herbs.

If you prefer, many dried herbs can be purchased at farmers markets and health food stores. If you're in a hurry, or don't feel like going to a lot of fuss, you can also buy bulk spices and simply have the fun of custom combining them.

When you are making seasoning mixes for your own use you should make small batches, because spices can lose potency quickly. For best results keep your blends in glass jars with lids, away from light and moisture. If you're making custom mixes for gifts, do your grinding and mixing as close to the occasion as possible for freshness.

If you plan to dry your own garlic, check out your local farmers market and buy an armful! By the time you slice, dry, and grind the cloves, you will be surprised by how little dried garlic you actually get, though it will be far more flavorful and intense than anything you can buy off the shelf.

A garlic slicer helps the process go more quickly.

To dry the garlic, separate and peel the cloves and slice them into thin, uniform pieces. Spread them on the rack of a dehydrator and dry at 120–125 degrees until crispy, but not brown. Brown garlic will be bitter. Every dehydrator is different; mine took about 8 hours. To dry it in the oven, place the sliced garlic onto cheesecloth that is stretched across the racks and held with clamps or skewers. Bake at the lowest setting (use an oven thermometer, and don't let it get hotter than 140 degrees) with the door ajar, watching it closely to keep it from browning. Store dried slices in an airtight container until needed for grinding.

Onions are dried in the same manner. Thin slices are easier to handle than chopped, with less work and tears. Make sure they are absolutely crispy and dry, and keep them in an airtight canister so they won't reabsorb moisture. It's a good idea to add a silica packet when you store them.

Onions and garlic ready for the dehydrator.

The first batch I made was an everyday "basic" blend, with garlic, onion, coarse-ground pepper, white pepper, and kosher salt. I use it in practically everything I cook. I prefer kosher salt because I like the texture (it's not as fine as table salt), and it doesn't seem to clump as much. (Note: Table salt can be used, but should be added to the blended mixture and not put through the grinder. You could also add the kosher salt to the mixture in the bowl without grinding to keep the larger crystals, as long as it'll go through the shaker top.)

Next I started with the same ingredients and added dried cayenne, cumin, paprika, chili powder, and just a little bit of white sugar. My cayenne peppers are very, very hot, so even though they were dry I was careful to use gloves when handling them, and added a little at a time to my mixture. Since my sons seem to have cast-iron tongues, and love to prove it, I hope to have some habanero peppers to harvest from the garden this month so I can make a truly flaming hot spice mix for them. My goal is to make them cry like babies. They're adults, so I don't think I could get in trouble for that!

The prudent way to mix your ingredients together would be to grind each one separately and then move it to its own container for easy measuring. While I admire people who are organized and methodical, I personally go with the dramatic approach of throwing a handful of this and a pinch of that into the grinder as the spirit moves me. The downside of this, of course, is that I can't exactly reproduce a batch that was a real winner, but I consider the element of surprise a fair trade for consistency.

For your first batch, combine flavors that you use often. Grind everything small enough to fit through the shaker top on your spice bottles, then mix it all together in a bowl and use the funnel to pour the mixture into each bottle. If you are using silica canisters, drop one in when the bottle is half full, then fill to the top. Have fun with the process of making your own spice blends, and don't be afraid to experiment. This is definitely not an exact science! Add the spices in the proportions you prefer, and if it isn't what you want, dump it all back into a bowl and adjust to taste.

This link has great ideas for rubs and blends; no measurements—just suggestions: Frontier Co-op: Homemade Spice Blends.

For those of you who really, really want recipes, here is a wonderful link; just keep scrolling down to find both classic recipes and new ideas: LifeTips: Homemade Seasoning Blends Tips.

This is a wonderful activity for any age or skill level, and the custom blends make a wonderful and practical gift. Jazz up your jar with a fancy label and be prepared to receive bottles back for refills!

Anyone can create these tasty spice mixes.



My Barbecue Rub for All Meats

1/4 cup dried garlic
1/4 cup paprika
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons black pepper
3 tablespoons chili powder
3 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons dried onion
1 tablespoon dried cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon dried mustard
1 teaspoon hickory smoke powder

Grind the garlic, onion, and salt together. Place in small bowl. Add remaining ingredients and stir well to mix. Keep in airtight container. Rub into meat before cooking. For best results allow the meat to rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour. The seasoning may also be mixed with a little oil for basting.


Contact Lorinda at lorindamckinnon@gmail.com

Lorinda resides in Eastern Washington, where she joyously combines her love of cooking and gardening. Baking is her passion, and licking the batter off the spoon after making a cake is her reward. When she's not in the kitchen, she's out in the garden pulling weeds and snacking on young peas. Enjoy Lorinda's blog, The Rowdy Baker.


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