Why bother making your own spice mix? Here’s just a few reasons why they’re perfect:
- They’re cheaper.
- They’re always available. But if one element isn’t in stock at your local grocery store, you can always improvise and still have that basic spice mix. Maybe even a better one than the original.
- They’re infinitely adaptable. (See #2.) This Taco Salad spice mix recipe has no salt in it. Since everyone likes a different level of salt, and it’s easy to add at the table, why not let everyone please themselves? (See #4.)
- They can be exactly whatyouwant. Diabetics, folks watching their salt intake, people with allergies. Artificial food coloring is one of the most common allergens, and is a common ingredient in prepared foods of all types. Just look for the FD&C Yellow 5, or its cousins on labels.
- You know, for sure, what’s in them. Or rather, what isn’t in them, like anti-caking agents, desiccants, as well as that you-don’t-need-to-know ingredient ‘other spices.’ What the heck are those ‘other’ spices? How broad is that definition of ‘other’. Not to mention ‘spices’.
If those five reasons aren’t enough, how about dried spice mixes are easy to create.
- I like onions and garlic, so that’s what I usually start with, in a 4:1 ratio, meaning 1 teaspoon (or tablespoon, or cup, whatever) onion powder with ¼ teaspoon (tablespoon, etc.) garlic powder.
- And if I’m just whistling Dixie where I’m going, I start small. Like only 1 teaspoon of onion powder, which is often the largest—by volume—ingredient in my mixes.
- Then I decide what direction I’m going, literally. Am I taking a trip to France? A little tarragon and thyme to start? Or Italy? Fennel and basil? Or German? Marjoram/black pepper/onion/garlic?
- Sniff the spices you’re thinking of using. One by one, or two or three together—in the palm of your hand. Is one really strong like fennel or rosemary, or delicate like tarragon? If it’s delicate, or something you really like, then 1 full teaspoon. Strong? Start with ¼ teaspoon or less.
- Stir it up, wet a finger and poke it into the mix. What does it taste like? As you go, write down what, and how much of each, you add. Three or four spices in and you’re searching for a way to make it palatable? Toss it. You’ll waste less that way.
- Imitate things you like. Look at their label: it’s all listed in the volume used. The largest dose is on top, lowest on bottom. Salt is often on top of the list, but leave that for last.
- Do you like spicy things? Add 1/8 teaspoon of spicy: red pepper flakes go well in Italian, coriander and dried chili peppers in Mexican. Oddly, if you add enough cinnamon, it’s pretty spicey.Stalking the Wild Jerky has a really dynamic recipe with 3 flavorings: Canadian whiskey and ground cloves. The third was brown sugar–to mellow it out a bit. (Page 82, True Blue Fall Jerky.)
- While you do this, keep in mind that ground spices are the most concentrated in flavor. Dried leaf spices are about 1/3 less concentrated than ground. When combining dried leaf spices with ground, keep that 3:1 ratio in mind. You’ll need 3 times as much of dry leaf as ground, in general. Simpler to use all ground, or all dried leaf. Then if you want to make a ‘ground’ mix with dry leaf spices, just run it through a grinder. (It’s a good reason to have second ‘coffee’ grinder on the shelf dedicated to just spice mixing.)
FYI: Fresh spices tend to be the least concentrated in flavor.
FYI#2: That business of starting out with a little and tasting, goes double for hot peppers—black, white, pink, jalapeno, whatever. In the mix that follows, I started with a pinch of dried jalapeno pepper chips, then went to 1/8 tsp, then ¼ teaspoon. And I whenever I buy sample baggies to try out, I’ll google the Scoville Heat Scale to be sure of the relative spiciness of one hot pepper to another beforehand. Jalapenos are fairly moderate on the Scoville scale (2500-8000 units) as are my other favorite, serrano peppers (10,000-25,000). A lot of people prefer hotter peppers like orange habaneros (150,000 to 350,000) and even Ghost peppers (up to 1,040,000.) Why such vague numbers? Growing conditions effect heat. If you’ve ever grown jalapenos in your garden, you’ll see that. Then again people change: As John and I have gotten older, I’ve grown to tolerate more heat; John less.
That’s a lot of talk, so let’s get cooking.
The last couple of days I’ve been hungry for Tex-Mex. So oregano, cumin, and a soupcon of dried jalapeno chips. I was thinking tacos or taco salads—with fresh greens. (Anyone tired of winter yet?) We were at Costco, and as usual, our ambitions were bigger than our energy. We bought the big tub of mixed gourmet baby lettuce. Three days later, slurping on hot soup to stay warm, the Big Green Guilt Trip was still unopened in the fridge.
So, we got out a 1-pound package of ground venison, browned it in a bit of oil, with a good dose of a spur-of-the moment-Tex-Mex spice mix I’d been playing with that morning, and made ourselves taco salads. It may have been 10 below outside, but that was a breath of fresh air.
Being me, I was making notes at lunch at what spices I’d eye-balled into the little glass cup to flavor this meal. I suggested John thaw some steak in readiness for the next day’s lunch.
First thing was to take my notes and reproduce the spice mix as accurately as possible. Didn’t do it. I made it better. (That happens sometimes, but I still remember the balsamic vinegar potato salad I threw together years ago that I’ve never, ever been able to reproduce.)
My first mix started with the 1 tsp of onion powder and ¼ tsp of garlic powder, then came:
- ½ teaspoon ground oregano
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin (but I’d made a note that it was probably a bit more than 1 tsp)
- 1/4 teaspoon jalapeno pepper chips
I followed that exactly today, and discovered it was a lot spicier. Obviously I had not put ¼ tsp of jalapeno pepper chips into the first mix. And, while I’d liked the first version, I liked the second even better. And my note on the cumin had been right. I eventually put 1½ tsp of ground cumin in the mix. So here’s the final spice mix I used:
For one pound ground venison, or double this to use on a backstrap as suggested:
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon ground oregano
- 1½ teaspoons ground cumin
- ¼ teaspoon dried jalapeno pepper chips
FYI, I probably keep more different spices in my kitchen than most people, but I buy them in bulk, at my local health food store. (Not in bulk like Costco. At my health food/spice store they buy in bulk and arrange the spices in large jars from which I can scoop a cup (if it’s something I use all the time) or tablespoon of something I want to try, very cheaply. I have the dried jalapeno chips, but I also have ground New Mexico, smoked serrano, de Arbol, Guajillo, Habanero, chipotle and Szechuan chili peppers. In a shoe box in my spice cupboard and used all of them in one recipe or another in The Wild Bowl, replenishing my stash when the book was done because I liked all of them, and wanted to have a variety of shelf-stable peppers on hand. Our local store is good, but small. For this kind of variety, it means an 80 mile—2-3 hour–round trip. Sometimes we don’t have the time, sometimes the roads are icy.
If you don’t have jalapeno chips, or any of the above dried chilies, I’d chop up some fresh jalapeno, and add enough at the table to please your taste buds. Just don’t use the big jug of ‘chili powder.’
For the second spice mix test, instead of steak, John had taken out a backstrap from a mule deer doe who has proven to be quite tender, so I cut it in half lengthwise—making a pair of 2½ to 3 inch thick pieces 10-12 inches long, dried them with paper toweling, and lightly oiled a cast iron skillet. I spread one half of the spice mix onto one length of backstrap, set the other on top of that and spread the rest of the mix on the top of that piece, using my fingers to press the spices into the meat, lightly.
It looked a bit unstable, so I took cotton twine and wrapped it like a rolled roast. Then preheated the oven at 350F. It took about 40 minutes for the backstrap to get to 140F, about medium rare, then I took it out to cool for a few minutes before slicing it up.
We let the slices cool just enough to use on another taco salad dish, and the result was great. We used a bunch of the Large Green Bucket of Guilt from Costco, with some slices of sweet pepper, halved mini-Roma tomatoes, salsa, and Mexican cheese blend from our local store.
Dried spices, including chilies are available at local stores sometimes, but if you can’t get them locally, there are several online places:
The Great American Spice Company has a good selection: Best Pepper for Cooking | Buy Best Peppercorn Blend | American Spice
But I’ve found various dried whole chilies at Walmart, WinCo, Safeway—a lot of local groceries. I keep a little electric coffee grinder just for spices in the pantry, just for grinding those whole dried chilies. (And adding them gradually, rather than throwing the whole pepper into the pot and not being able to eat it.)