Questions for cooks: What are the strange spices lingering in the spice cupboard?

Reader Kelly submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

My boyfriend is an awesome cook and I’m not. The other night while he was making dinner, I went exploring through his spice cabinet and found a bunch of things I had never heard of. I asked him to explain some stuff to me, but I think he was making up answers. They were totally over-the-top. So what is cream of tartar? Is allspice a blend of a bunch of spices and which ones? I tasted the ground mustard and it sort of tasted like the mustard you might put on a hot dog, but not enough that I’m convinced they’re the same things. Any help is appreciated!

What is cream of tartar? Unless you’re a winemaker, most folks have no idea what cream of tartar is or where it comes from. Winemakers know all about it, though, because it’s in grapes and helps to ferment them into wine (yummy, yummy wine). Technically, it’s potassium hydrogen tartrate, which is the salt in tartaric acid. Not-so-technically, it’s the stuff that makes you pucker when you bite into a really tart grape.

Through a purification process that I don’t fully understand but involves actually making wine, potassium hydrogen tartrate is released from the grape and is made into a white powder (when you touch it, it feels smooth like satin). This powder is then used primarily in baking to help things rise and keep their shape (like cakes and cookies). It’s also used in sugary things if you want them to be really smooth, like cake icing. If a recipe ever calls for baking powder and you don’t have any on hand, you can mix cream of tartar with baking soda and make your own baking powder. The ratio is pretty much 2 parts cream of tartar to 1 part baking soda. My favorite use of cream of tartar is in meringue cookies.

What is allspice? Although its name sort of implies it, allspice is not a blend of spices like a curry. It’s actually the unripe, dried, and ground berry of the pimenta dioica tree, which is usually just called an allspice tree. As a spice, it is sharp (it kind of stings when it first hits your tongue), but sweet. I think of it in a similar category as nutmeg and cloves, though not as bitter as either. People use it in all sorts of food preparations, both savory and sweet. If you’ve ever had Jamaican jerk chicken, you’ll be very familiar with the flavor. I like it and use it in apple allspice muffins.

What’s the difference between ground mustard and mustard you put on a hot dog? Ground mustard is simply ground-up dried mustard seeds from the mustard plant (there are numerous varieties of mustard plants, all producing seeds in a range of flavor intensity, which then go on to produce different types of mustard sauces). When combined with vinegar (or another liquid acid, like white wine or lemon juice) and some other ingredients, ground mustard becomes the condiment you put on hot dogs. The reason ground mustard doesn’t taste exactly like the sauce you put on your hot dog is because the acidic liquid amplifies the flavor and makes it hotter and/or more pungent. I recommend making your own mustard sauce some time and seeing how easy (and better) it is to do it at home.

Thank you, Kelly, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. I hope I was able to help you in your spice exploration.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

6 comments posted

  1. Posted by Josh - 06/10/2011

    Minor nitpick: it’s convention to capitalise the first letter of the genus.

  2. Posted by Merikay - 06/10/2011


  3. Posted by Rae - 06/10/2011

    I always have at minimum 8 kinds of mustard at home, including the ground version. I mostly use it to make mustard sauce for chicken, but a pinch of it really brings out the flavours in homemade mac ‘n cheese.

    The spice I keep at home that has people shaking their head is very bright orangey yellow and stains badly: turmeric. Mmm…

  4. Posted by Keter - 06/11/2011

    @Merikay – Fenugreek. It’s not just a spice, it is a natural herbal medicine.

    Wikipedia is a quick answer for most spice identification questions. However, to get a substantial education in practical applications of culinary spices, visit Penzeys Spices – If you buy something from them and get on their mailing list, you will receive a number of catalogs during the year (quarterly plus a few special editions) that are packed full of good recipes and information about the history and uses of various spices.

  5. Posted by Keter - 06/11/2011

    @Rae – Turmeric is a traditional Indian spice, used in curry and frequently added to recipes precisely for that yellow coloring. A tiny bit added to rice makes a very cheap substitute for saffron rice; a bit more added perks up a stir fry. Turmeric is also an herbal medicine that has been uses as an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory. Recently, Western medicine has begun to recognize its anti-cancer properties, particularly for lymphatic cancers. Many people take turmeric daily as a supplement (in foods or in gelatin capsules). Overuse of turmeric can cause the skin to become turmeric-colored.

  6. Posted by Anna - 06/13/2011

    Merikay and Keter, Yes Fenugreek is an herbal, but it is also used as Maple Syrup flavoring agent. It’s what flavors most imitation maple syrup.

Subscribe to this entry's comments

Comments are closed for this entry.