DIY Spice Mixes

Reader Contribution by Ilene White-Freedman
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Making your own chili powder or other spice mix is a quick DIY project. It takes five minutes, using ingredients you probably already have in your spice drawer. The price benefit is significant, proportionally — one blogger calculated that his homemade taco mix cost 18 cents to make instead of the $2.39 it would cost him to buy a ready-made packet. Neither of those is big bucks, but the mix is twelve times the price of mixing your own. And the wellness benefits are significant: you get to skip the preservatives and fillers, ensure freshness and adjust the recipe to your tastebuds.

I started making my own spice mixes because I grow and preserve some of the ingredients and I wanted to utilize them. I want to blend my oregano, ancho pepper powder and garlic powder into homemade chili powder; add my rosemary, thyme and oregano into an Italian mix; dry my own parsley and include it in a green salad dressing mix.

Use With Chicken

These are all reason enough for me, but when I got started, I quickly realized the benefits are deeper for me. I am gaining valuable education in the kitchen.  I now know what makes chili taste good. It is garlic and cumin and paprika and cayenne and oregano. I am learning more about spices, their individual fragrances, how they combine with other spices, and the magic they offer to culinary dishes. Once I become more familiar with spices, I will learn how to use them better.  Making my own spice mixes will teach me more about how to cook with them.

Making my own is teaching me more than buying a spice mix ever could. A mix that says “use with chicken” offers some good information, but that can only get me so far. I’m going to end up with even more understanding when I know its component spices and how they work. I will de-mystify the “chili powder” or “taco seasoning”. I can start to identify the nuances of the ingredients and tinker with the proportions, to make an even better chili.

Here’s a story of how this simple DIY project went array. But as in many cases, that is when the learning begins.

First I grew and dried and dehydrated and powdered ancho chilis, straight from the garden. A very satisfied gardener gone spice maven, I labeled my jar “Ancho Chili Powder” and I added it to the spice cabinet.

Chiles in Your Chili

My brother Ron, an innocent bystander, set out to make a crock of chili in my kitchen. He used the jar of Ancho Chili Powder, and he used extra because he likes it spicy. You may recall that chili powder is a blend of spices. Ron used this pure ancho powder, rather than a chili powder mix, and WOW did it punch back! He learned the hard way that chili powder is made of paprika, cumin, and garlic as well as chiles, usually ancho or cayenne. And he learned that he better be wary of the homemade home-labeled spices he will find in my spice cabinet.

My friend Leah taught us something we needed to know about the Spanish language—chile is the Spanish word for pepper and chili is the stew made with peppers. I have only ever seen the spelling for “chili” in a recipe, so I did some investigating. I walked around our natural food co-op for some spellings. Bags of dried whole peppers were labeled as “dried chiles”. And there was the “chili powder” in the spice section. OK, I see the distinction. But look at the first ingredient of the Frontier brand chili powder: it is chili powder. Now do not try to convince me that they are referring to the blend they are making. That’s chile powder, dried peppers, right? See, so I’m not going crazy here. Americans are using the word “chili” for both chiles and for chili stew, confusing the issue further. How am I supposed to know when the recipe needs my dried ancho chile powder and when it needs chili powder blend?

So I am experimenting. I combined my chile powder with cumin, oregano, paprika and garlic to make chili powder. I combined my newly mixed chili powder with more paprika, oregano and cumin to make fajita seasoning. It doesn’t smell strong enough. But now I think the “chili powder” listed in my fajita recipe really meant pure chile powder and not chili powder? I would have no idea. At 18 cents a batch, I will try both. I look forward to testing them out and tinkering the recipes to perfection.

If you are concerned about Ron’s crock of chili, rest assured, we fixed it. We poured out the liquid, added a jar of ketchup and tomato puree and garlic and cumin, and simmered it another day. It was still spicy but better. Mixed with some pumpkin soup, it was great.

When people started using ready-made spice mixes, we lost education in the kitchen. We lost education about what spices do, so now everyone buys mixes, even though they are so inexpensive and easy and better to make. Reignite your appreciation for cooking and spices by understanding what goes into those mysterious mixes. But I’m warning you, you may uncover some mysteries along the way.

Recipes are readily available online, especially by way of Pinterest. You can start with my Pinterest board, which will lead you to many others.  And please, share with me a good chili powder recipe that does not include chili powder as one of the ingredients.

Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 MOTHER EARTH NEWS Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life at MOTHER EARTH NEWS and House In the Woods Blog, easy to follow from our Facebook Page. For more about the farm, go to  House In The Woods Blog

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