The use of spices in preparing food – the demand for them – has played a role in history wholly inordinate to their nutritional value. A ransom paid Alaric the Goth that included three thousand pounds of pepper delayed the sacking of Rome for two years, and the discovery of the New World was due in great part to search for such spices that was the primary mission of the early trans-Atlantic explorers.
The king of spices, ironically, is salt, and its importance transcends its use as a flavor enhancer. Salt is a necessary component in human nutrition, although excess consumption can pose a problem for some individuals. Its importance is even reflected in terms we use. Roman soldiers received part of their pay in salt – sal in Latin – from which we derive the word salary.
Salt is a natural mineral (sodium chloride), which is “mined” from underground deposits or obtained by evaporating salty water. The salt mine – the fabled destination for the politically undesirable – is no longer used to recover this mineral. Although salt used to melt snow and ice may continue to be dug from the ground, such salt contains too many impurities for general use.
The salt we eat is called evaporative salt. It is removed from the ground by pumping hot water into an underground salt deposit, and collecting the liquid brine that is formed as the salt is dissolved into the water. This brine is then heated and concentrated, evaporating the water and allowing the salt to crystallize.
These crystals can be grown to many different sizes. For example, the term “corned” beef comes from the use of very large salt crystals that are used to coat and preserve the meat. The size of the crystal is determined by the manner in which it is allowed to crystallize. “Kosher” salt is merely salt that is crystallized into larger particles, which are particularly suited for salting of meat to remove blood.
Some culinary experts prefer to use Kosher salt because it generally contains no additives (see below), and the large salt crystal may disperse its flavor in a particular fashion. Chemically, however it is identical to all other forms of salt.
Today, most salt is produced through boiling (i.e. evaporating), and is considered to have been already cooked and therefore not subject to the same concern. Sea salt, however, is generally produced by solar evaporation. Salt, however, may not be entirely pure. For example, salt has been used as a means of delivering a necessary, but unrelated, nutrient. Goiter, a disease of the thyroid gland, develops due to a deficiency of iodine in the diet.
About fifty years ago, nutrition experts developed iodized salt, and today most table salt contains this nutrient added in the form of potassium iodide. Potassium iodide, however, tends to degrade in the presence of moisture, and in order to protect the iodine a small amount of dextrose is often added to the salt to prevent oxidation. While not generally a Kosher certification concern, dextrose is derived from corn (and sometimes, wheat) starch, and therefore poses an issue for Passover.
Ironically, it is the preservative – and not the iodine itself – that poses the problem. Others ingredients, such as calcium silicate or yellow prussate of soda, are added to table salt to ensure that they pour even in humid conditions and pose no Kashrus concerns. Certain salts used in industrial applications, such as glycerated salts (which contain glycerin) and some large-crystal salts (which may contain polysorbates), do indeed pose Kosher certification concerns.
Sea salt contains numerous trace minerals found in seawater, and tends to impart a slightly different flavor due to these elements. From a Kosher perspective, however, they are not significant.
Perhaps the second most popular spice is pepper. The term “pepper”, however, has suffered from the same historical error as that perpetrated upon the American ”Indian”. When Columbus mistook the West Indies for the East Indies – and misnamed its hapless inhabitants – he also confused the spices he found in the New World with those he sought in the Old.
Classic peppers are the fruit of the vine piper nigrum L, which grow in long pods of small berries called peppercorns. When Columbus landed in the West Indies, however, he found chile plants that looked similar to the clusters of peppercorns that he was seeking. These pungent vegetables were very popular with these explorers since their flavor could mask the rancid taste of the ship’s stores that were the lot of the seafarer.
Given this linguistic complication, the term pepper refers to a number of unrelated foodstuffs. When the immature fruit from the classic pepper vine is harvested and dried in the sun, it turns black and is called black pepper. When the fruit is allowed to mature on the vine and then dried, it remains white. Green peppercorns are prepared from unripe berries that are preserved in brine.
On the other hand, cayenne pepper (also known as red pepper) is actually a variety of chile noted for its pungent taste. Paprika is similarly a variety of chile adopted by the Hungarians, which they guarded so jealously that they prohibited whole seeds from being exported lest their spice jewel be grown elsewhere.
Pure spices are botanicals, parts of plants that are naturally Kosher. However, spices are often dried as a means of preservation. The method by which they are dried may pose significant Kosher certification considerations. Most spices that are dried in the country of origin are dried either in the sun or on equipment generally reserved for those products. As such, they pose little Kosher certification concern. Indeed, dried spices have a distinct Kosher advantage over fresh botanicals.
While insects are a major Kosher certification concern in many types of vegetables, Jewish law stipulates that insects that have been thoroughly dried are considered to be mere dirt and no longer the prohibited insect. In general, spices are dried either in the sun or with heated air in equipment used specifically for that product. Freeze dried spices, however, pose special Kosher certification concerns. In this process, the vegetable is first frozen and then subjected to a vacuum, causing the moisture to be drawn from the food through sublimation.
The advantage is that the vegetables are not subjected to significant heat, and tend to retain more fresh flavor and texture. The problem is that the equipment used for this process is often used to process meat, fish, and other non-Kosher products. A reliable Kosher certification is therefore required whenever freeze-dried spices are used.
When spices are ground, chemicals are sometimes added to prevent them from caking or otherwise deteriorating. Stearates are often used for this purpose, and pose significant Kosher certification concerns in that they are often derived from animal fats. While other innocuous additives can be used for this purpose, one must ensure that garlic and onion powders, for example, contain only Kosher certified anti-caking agents.
Additional concerns with powdered spices are based on the fact that they are often blended or packaged in equipment used for non-Kosher products. For example, soup blends containing powdered chicken or beef can be blended and packaged on the same equipment as pure spices. The cleaning procedures at such factories are not necessarily sufficient to ensure that no cross contamination takes place, and it is therefore imperative that a reliable Kosher certification be in place. This is all the more a concern for Passover, since wheat flour is a common ingredient in some spice blends.
Our zeal for enhancing the flavor of our foods is not limited to spice powders. Many liquid seasoning are commonly used. Some, such as oleoresins, are extracts of pure spices and are generally used as ingredients in manufactured foods. Others, such as soy sauce, have gained broad acceptance on the consumer level. Indeed, soy sauce is a good example of how seemingly harmless products pose interesting Kosher certification concerns. Soy sauce is intrinsically a hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), where the soy protein has been broken down (hydrolyzed) into its basic components thereby creating a certain flavor profile.
Many other proteins can be used for the same purpose, each creating a unique flavor. For example, imitation chicken soup is based on HVP. Unfortunately, casein (milk) proteins are also used for this purpose, and are often produced on the same equipment as vegetable protein hydrolysates.