Learning spice usage


John Mason

TVWBB All-Star
I follow recipes fairly well, but I couldn't for the life of me develop my own. Doesn't stop me from trying, but the results are hit and miss - mostly miss.

How could the average person learn spice and flavoring usage, other than going to culinary school?

Is there any chart, book or other source that lists what spices, and other flavorings, go together, and with what meats, and what combinations should not be put together?
That’s a really interesting question, John. The answer could fill at least a chapter of a book. Even that answer, though, would be based on a lot subjectivity. My advice for you is to begin with some of the classic spice rub blends available in stores, you know, like a basic barbecue rub, jerk seasoning, a Mediterranean mix of dried herbs, and a couple different curry blends. Use them on some fairly bland protein, like boneless chicken breasts. When you decide on your favorite, look on the label and see what’s inside. Try making the rub yourself, leaving out any ingredients that seem odd to you and adding more of the ingredients you tend to like. There is no “right” answer here. It is such an elusive topic that professional cooking schools barely touch on it. You just have to start somewhere – with a good bottled rub – and try to personalize it.

Good luck.

I'm not an expert on the subject - but would like to add that Jamie has a good section in the front of his Real Grilling book that talks about the general concept of "balance" and puts different spices in categories... He also has a video on the Weber Nation site about making your own sauces - and he has a podcast about making your own spice rub.

All of these things have helped me get better at it - but I'm by no means perfect.
While I agree that much is subjective, that testing various blends to see what you like is a good idea, that testing by use of a neutral agent like chicken breast is a good idea, and that there are no 'right' answers, I disagree that commercial blends available in stores can be helpful because the majority do not include a full ingredient list. Most list just the ingredients required by law and lump the minor ingredients together as 'spices' or 'flavorings'. The other problem is that so many commercial blends use items of unknown or dubious quality, and use excessive filler (like lots of paprika in many Q blends).

I think a better way is to make your own blends--using recipes if you wish--with high quality spices and herbs. Yes, quality can cost more but the flavors are better and it's still cheaper than buying a blend that might be, say, 25% salt, 20% sugar, 20% paprika where, in effect, 65% of the purchase price is going toward three cheap ingredients. Even for blends that include none of these items--a Mediterranean herb blend, or a lemon-pepper, say--making your own lets you control the quantities and proportions which lets you learn more directly (and more effectively) than trying to estimate what a commercial provider did. And--using quality ingredients levels the playing field, and at a higher level at that; it gives some assurance that you'll actually taste your ingredients alone and, more important in the case of blends, relative to each other.
It amazed me when I first started making my own seasoning mixes how MUCH BETTER they were using high-quality fresh ingrediends-in my case either our own herbs from the yard dried with my dehydrater or frm Penzey's. The stuff on the shelves i nthe stores is like from another planet. I found a mix recipe that I liked as astarting place and fooled with it for a couple of years iunti l we got waht we want. NO SALT!!!
I love salt but I want control of it. I have had bloody battles(verbal of course) over the relative merits of Tony Chachere's Original. The recipe for it at HIS webbie has the first ingredient as a 26 OZ box of salt. All the other ingrediends are measured in fractions of teaspoons. Nuff sed