My mother’s kitchen was not immune to the heat and humidity of suburban Houston.
Like in many Indian families, we kept the room temperature at 80 degrees, every day of the year. It wasn’t only to save a little on the electric bill. It was what my parents, who were born and raised in India, were used to.
She stored whole and freshly ground spices in a dabba box in a drawer in the kitchen. The larger bulk containers were meticulously labeled in the tiny pantry, where no canned products faced the visitor upon opening the door. She wanted the gallon-sized large glass jars of neutral-colored grains and legumes to be what greeted guests who were curious about our cooking. The pale green peas, mustard-colored chana dal, creamy white dots of urad dal — all colorless, awaiting the companionship of spices.
My mother cooked daily, and we cooked with her. Our kitchen was always a factory: the Osterizer blender booming, a splatter of seeds in oil for curries, the hushed sifting of lentils. Our high-speed whole-spice grinder sounded like the sink disposal voraciously nabbed a metal object and was about to ruin it for life.
At night, they would lower the temperature on the AC to 79 degrees, and the only time the temperature went below that was when we entertained the bridge club with my mom’s “American” friends. My sister and I would get excited because we would get to wear sweaters in the house and not have to eat Indian food those nights. My mom would even bring out her glass punch bowl and maybe a few awkwardly placed bottles of wine, which we hardly ever saw in the house.
We would go back to our regular “room temperature” the next day, and life in the sauna resumed.
Today as a woman and mother of two girls living in Austin, my life and cooking look different from my mother’s in Houston. We have become spoiled by a lower “room temp.” We don’t cook Indian food daily, but we do use all kinds of spices and herbs almost daily, and even in a cooler kitchen, I have to keep tabs on my spice cabinet to make sure I’m storing them properly so they don’t lose their flavor any faster than they already will in a Texas summer.
In my mother’s kitchen, spices never had a chance to lose their flavor because she used them up so quickly. All these years later, I try to use up spices quickly, too, but I also store them the way she did: in tightly sealed jars away from light and direct heat.
A cabinet, a drawer or a pantry are perfect places for jars of both ground and whole spices as long as they aren’t too close to the stovetop in your kitchen. Keep dried spices away from moisture too, especially ground dried spice blends and powders, which will clump up if exposed to moisture. We don’t think about storing spice blends in the refrigerator, but if you have a jar of a nice spice mix you really like and don’t want to lose, you can store it in a tightly sealed container in the condiment drawer.
How do you tell if your spices survived summer’s end? Open the jar or bag and take a whiff. Most ground spices should have an aroma, and a lot of the time, an experienced sniffer can identify the name of the spice just by the smell. If they don’t smell like much, they won’t taste like much, either.
Whole spices tend to do very well even in the heat and humidity, but they won’t always have a distinct smell since the oils haven’t been released. The difference between whole cloves and ground cloves, or whole nutmeg and ground nutmeg, is noticeable even to a novice nose. You might not smell the whole spice, but when you use a Microplane to freshly grate it, the smell is even more vivid than the pre-ground spice.
My favorite spice containers are clear glass with a removable shaker lid so I can identify the content and either sprinkle the spices or scoop them out with a measuring spoon. I like the jars that hold about a 1/4 cup. Any bigger and the spice will lose its flavor before I’ve used it all up. Any smaller and I run out too quickly. My personal favorite are clear jars from World Market, which are reasonably priced.
Spending a few minutes cleaning up your spices will go a long way in making your entire kitchen feel more inviting, and while you’re doing so this month, keep in mind the heat that’s around the corner. Buy a few extra jars the next time you’re at the store, or clean out old ones to refill after your next trip to the spice store. If your spices are too close to the heat of the stove, consider installing a rack or shelf inside a cabinet farther away from the oven to preserve your spices through the hot, humid months ahead.
HOW TO STORE PRODUCE IN THE SUMMER HEAT
Fresh herbs and some produce need some tender loving care in the summer heat too. I usually tell my students to keep their tomatoes, avocados and any tree-ripened fruit outside of the refrigerator and at room temperature.
On the flip side, the fruit needs to be eaten fairly quickly because it will ripen in just a day or two in the extra warmth of the summer. Conveniently, you can refrigerate it after the fruit has ripened to your liking. (Whether you refrigerate your tomatoes is up to you. I find them inedible, but some blind taste tests have found that refrigerating them once they are ripe actually improves their flavor.)
Herbs, such as a leafy green cilantro or parsley, can be washed and air-dried most of the year and still be robust enough to be refrigerated, but in the summer, they might wilt in the open air quicker than the rest of the year.
I recommend washing leafy herbs and drying them on a towel for an hour, then patting dry. You can skip the air-dry if you need to for time’s sake. Then wrap the herbs, unchopped, in a paper towel and stick the little bundle in a zip-top baggie. Poke holes in the bag to release the moisture that will build up over a few days. Keep it cool in the refrigerator.
For hardier herbs such as rosemary and tarragon, store them unwashed in a damp paper towel. When ready to use, rinse, pat dry and chop. These kinds of herbs rid themselves easily of water droplets and are easy to chop right away. You can store the chopped herbs in small containers in the refrigerator and they will last a few days, although they may darken and look bruised. This is again better with the hardier, sturdier herbs.
About the author
Shefaly Ravula is an experienced cooking instructor, recipe developer and meal-planning consultant whose emphasis is on healthy and seasonal global-inspired home cooking. With teachings on nutrition and health, Shef ties in her medical background with her passion for nutrient-dense foods and healing spices to bring awareness to patients that food is medicine. You can find her online at shefskitchen.com.