Friday, 18 January 2013

Back-Engineering Spice Blends

If you like tacos, but end up buying those outrageously expensive little sachets of taco seasoning, you, will be grateful for this recipe:

Taco Seasoning

4 tbs chili powder
3 tbs cumin
1  tsp garlic powder
1  tsp onion powder
1  tsp cayenne
1 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp paprika
3 tsp salt
3 tsp black pepper

This will give you enough for several meals, so store what you don't need for later. I use 3 tablespoons of this to 1 kg of meat. If it's a wee bit too spicy for you, you can reduce the cayenne.

So, how do we do this? How do we figure out what is in those blends, so we can make our own. Well, the label isn't always very helpful. Look at this Jamaican curry powder:

It offers some information, presumably what it needs to with regard to common allergens, to cover their arses from a legal standpoint, but "other spices"? WHAT?

Companies are not required to give away their secret ingredients. This blend is exquisite, and because I buy it in a half-kilo drum, I am not overpaying for it, so it doesn't matter. Still, being who I am it bugs me. I want to know what's in there so I can copy it.

Sure, I can go to any of the recipe websites online and find recipes for Jamaican curry blends. Some of them are good, some are not. None are quite like this.

Here's what I do. First I cook up a little suitable meat. Ground beef is cheap and the surface area is ideal for this purpose. Vegetarians could use potatoes. Then I add just a little of anything I know for sure. In the case of the example above there are 4 spices I can start with, knowing that they are listed in order of quantity. I stir this into the meat, and taste the result. If it's too heavy on the cumin, I add more of the others. You can add, but not take away! I keep notes on what I've added - THIS IS IMPORTANT!

Once the balance of the known ingredients seems about right, I then I have to draw on my experience, or I could cheat and look up recipes to see what they include, for ideas.

Here's one such recipe, with the ingredients listed in order of quantity:

 5 tablespoons ground turmeric
 2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
 2 tablespoons whole mustard seeds
 2 tablespoons whole anise seeds
1 tablespoon whole fenugreek seeds
 1 tablespoon whole allspice berries
1/4 cup whole coriander seeds

Straight away I see 3 things I can try, mustard seed, anise, and allspice.

I am familiar with the taste of these spices - maybe you aren't and will need to do more trial and error. I am certain my blend does not contain any anise, so I don't bother with that. But, one at a time, I try just a tad of each of the other two. Just a hint. If it seems to improve it, I add a tad more. Gradually I come closer to copying the original blend.

Other recipes may offer other things to try, so you can experiment more, or start over. THIS IS FUN.

When you find EITHER:

1) A recipe that mimics the blend really well, OR
2) Is actually better, WRITE IT DOWN!

And save it. And share it!


  1. I have done a homemade taco seasoning and it was better than anything that I could find in the store. I used it on everything, including chicken.

    1. Yes, we use this on chicken too, it's awesome. I also like the fact that if they suddenly change the recipe blend, which they are known to do, I still get it the way I'm used to it/like it.

  2. Thank you. The Taco seasoning is exactly what I required.