The OU’s Spice Maven Tells Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme

The spice products certified by the Orthodox Union include tropical aromatics (pepper, cinnamon, cloves, etc); leafy herbs (basil, oregano, marjoram, etc.); spice seeds (sesame, poppy, mustard, etc.), and dehydrated vegetables, among others. Spice companies typically produce blends such as curry and chili powders, poultry seasoning and all sorts of other custom blends.

A spice is defined as a food seasoning made from plants. Spices which have a sharp taste are valued for their flavor and fragrant spices for their smell. The most common spice seasonings include pepper, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, mustard, and cinnamon.
Spices have little in common except their use. They come from different parts of the various spice plants. For example, cloves come from the bud, cinnamon from the bark and pepper and nutmeg from the fruit of each plant. Ginger comes from the root and mustard from the seed.

A particular spice can come from different regions. Consequently, the flavor, aroma, consistency and overall quality of the spice can vary dramatically, depending on the location where it is produced due to variations in climate, soil, seed harvesting and storage.

Spices play an important role in the different ways foods are prepared. For example, spice rubs have gained new popularity with chefs. Rubbing in dry mixtures of spices before cooking meats, fish and poultry can create deeper flavor than marinades, sauces or basting liquids. Also, rubs can be used with a variety of different cooking methods, such as grilling, roasting, sautéing and braising. Toasting dried seeds, such as sesame, cumin, and fennel, can release maximum aroma and flavor from the seeds. For textural and visual decorative appeal, it is not uncommon for chefs to sprinkle the spices used in the dish around the rim of the plate. These are only a few of the innovative ways that foods are being prepared with spice.

Many of the spices imported from countries in the Middle East and Far East are picked by hand, dehydrated, packed in burlap bags and shipped to their destinations in the whole natural dried state. Spice dehydration is done either in the field, a process known as sun drying, or through air drying in hot air drying tunnels. Drying reduces moisture content making the spices less costly to ship.

Spice companies receiving the dried product follow through with an extensive process of cleaning and decontamination of any undesirable adulterants. Whole spices in particular are well cleaned and selected for their appearance, since they are usually meant to garnish as well as to flavor.

The spices pass through metal detectors and destoners to remove foreign material. They are then sifted through many sifting screens so that small contaminants or insects will be removed. Many spices are micro-biologically cleaned as well. Due to the aggressive cleaning processes, the problem of non-kosher insect infestation in spices is virtually non-existent.

Grinding spice breaks down some of the protective cell structure of spices, making them ready to deliver flavor quickly and blend easily into a product. The finer the grind, the quicker and more complete the flavor release. The proper degree of milling is determined by the nature of the food product being spiced and the desired effect.
Many spice companies add anti-caking flow agents in production in order to reduce caking or moisture and allow the spices to flow freely. Flow agents may not be part of the final product, yet they do come in contact with the spices themselves, and so kosher anti-caking agents must be used. Typically, a silica gel (sodium silicate) is added or silicon dioxide. These agents are of no kosher concern. However, calcium stearate, magnesium stearate, and potassium stearate can and have been used as effective anti-caking agents. Stearates are typically derived from non kosher fats but may also be of vegetable source, as well. Therefore, even so-called, “pure spice” must be scrutinized to determine the existence of anti-caking agents, which are not necessarily declared in the product data sheet.

In industrial quantities, the spice customer can opt to have the supplier pre-blend seasonings required in a product formulation (plus other related ingredients) and deliver them in either bulk or batch packs. The seasoning mix may be all ground spice, all spice extracts, or a combination of both. Pre-blends eliminate the need for a spice mixing room in the food manufacturer’s plant and utilize the specialized skills and equipment and quality controls that a good spice processor brings to the blending craft. Spice seasonings merit special kosher attention and require kosher certification. Cheeses, (kosher) bacon bits, and flavor dehydrates, such as dehydrated chicken, meat and cheese powder — all kosher-sensitive ingredients — can be added to the blend. Interestingly, even liquid flavor such as wine, vinegar, and brandy can be added, and the blend will retain its powdery nature with the addition of anti-caking agents. These added flavoring agents, which are generally not kosher, may be listed generically in the product data sheet as natural flavors. The OU requires that each formula be submitted to the rabbinical coordinator for review and verification of the kosher status prior to certification. The OU is, of course, careful to protect the confidentiality of such formulas.

However, the kosher concerns for seasoning extend beyond the status of the ingredients in a particular blend. A well-known kosher principle is the separation of dairy and meat. A kosher crisis occurs if a non-dairy seasoning specifically made for chicken is blended on the same production line as a seasoning blend containing dairy ingredients. Without a proper cleaning of the line, a mixture of the two seasonings would result in a dairy presence in a chicken seasoning. Of course, an inadequate cleaning between non-kosher and kosher would have severe and serious consequences. Therefore, all company cleaning procedures for spice blending equipment, such as ribbon blenders and filters, must be approved by the rabbinic coordinator to confirm that the cleaning adheres to OU Kosher guidelines.

Plant personnel who routinely consult the Schedule A may notice an intriguing comment attached to spices. An accompanying caveat to a particular listing may state “product from Israel requires rabbinic certification.” You may wonder why Israeli produce, specifically, is subject to kosher restrictions. The answer is that due to the sacred nature of the land, special laws govern all agricultural products. The fulfillment of the requirements permitting consumption of Israeli produce must be verified by the exporter with a kosher certificate.

All OU spice companies — and for that matter any company receiving Israeli produce — should order an abundance of product this year in order to maintain their production and/or distribution come September. The reason is the Biblical injunction concerning the Sabbatical year. The Sabbatical is basically a year of resting and refraining from all agricultural work (planting, harvesting, etc.) of the Holy Land.

The Sabbatical year occurs once every seven years. The coming Jewish Year 5768 — corresponding to September 2007 through September 2008 in the secular calendar — farmers in Israel will be observing the Sabbatical year. Kosher laws restrict the consumption of Sabbatical produce to specific conditions and guidelines. Israel is a major supplier of parsley, paprika and bay leaves. Hence the country of origin is a major issue of paramount concern, and the conscientious receiver of spice products must be scrupulous to verify the kosher status of the Israeli spice. It is interesting to note that no one spice is used alone in food preparation. Rather, the magic of a spice is its reaction to other spices, and other ingredients, and the food it is used in. When a spice is combined with another spice, the resulting taste is very different from that of either spice individually.

As the world grows smaller and different cultures meet, the opportunities for spice combinations creating new tastes become limitless. In our days of unlimited access to global spice markets and advancements in food science and technology, spice company research and development departments are exploring and developing new taste and aromatic experiences.