Spices and Processed Flavorings

We use flavorings in
baking cookies almost exclusively for their flavor. Yet, their presence lends distinctive characteristics to homemade cookies.

Without cinnamon, a snickerdoodle is no more than a sugar cookie. Without ginger, we might as well call gingersnaps molasses cookies.

Two types of flavorings are popular in baking cookies.

  1. Spices such as allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and even vanilla. They have a high amount of volatile or essential oils where flavor concentrates. Spices are natural ingredients, but varied in quality, strength, and prices. Some of the quality-determined factors are:

    • The amount of volatile oil
    • Place of origin
    • Climate condition
    • Manufacturing process

    Allspice is not a combination of many spices, even though its flavor is similar to that of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg combined. It is also known as Jamaican pepper, and grown mainly in Jamaica.

    Cardamom is very aromatic with strong lemony flavor. There are three ways to process this spice:

    • Drying naturally yields brown cardamom.
    • Green cardamom results from oven drying. This method preserves most of the aroma.
    • Bleaching cardamom is white.

    This spice is expensive, only second to saffron in cost. Its flavoring dissipates quickly when ground.

    Cinnamon is the inner skin of tree bark. Ceylon cinnamon originates in India and Sri Lanka. Cassia cinnamon is grown in Southeast Asia, mostly North Vietnam. It has a higher volatile oil content, and therefore is richer in flavor. Most cinnamon sold in The United States is Cassia cinnamon.

    Cloves have sweet and intense aroma. They are immature buds of tropical, evergreen trees. Dried, whole cloves have hard and sharp prongs that can be used as attaching anchors to onions and fruits.

    ginger flavoring

    Ginger originates in Southeast Asia. It is the root of a tropical plant. Oriental ginger is fibrous and pungent, whereas Australia ginger is more tender and delicate. When the mature root is dried and ground, it turns into a spicy, yellow powder. The flavoring of ginger powder is different from that of fresh ginger. The two should not be used interchangeably.

    Nutmeg is the seed of a yellow plum like fruit, originally grown in East India. A lacy membrane surrounding this seed is also a spice. When dried and ground, it is known as mace.

    Ground nutmeg has an intense flavoring of sweetness. Like ground cardamom, its flavor dissipates rapidly.

    The finest vanilla beans come from Tahiti and Madagascar. During his term as minister to France, Thomas Jefferson took a liking to this wonderfully aromatic spice. When he returned to the United States in 1789, he introduced vanilla to Americans.

    storing bottle for vanilla flavoring

    Pure vanilla extract is more popular for baking cookies. It is made by infusing alcohol with mashed vanilla beans for many weeks. Dark brown in color, it comes in different strengths. The minimum alcohol content must be 35%, and there should be no added artificial flavor. Pure vanilla extract should be stored at room temperature in an airtight, opaque container.

  2. Extract is just one form of processed flavorings. Some of the others that are commonly used in baking cookies are compounds, flavor oils, brandies, and rum.

    Processed flavorings can be either natural or artificial depending on the nature of the added ingredients. Compared to spices, they are more consistent in flavor and strength. When brandies and rum are used in homemade cookies, most of their alcohol evaporates during baking.

    Compounds consist of flavoring, sugar, and a food ingredients such as chocolate, ground nuts, pureed fruits. Marzipan is an almond compound, consisting of glucose or corn syrup, sugar, and ground almond.

    Volatile or essential oils in spices can be distilled and marketed as highly concentrated flavor oils. We rarely use them in baking cookies because of their high concentration. It is much easier to use extracts, which are basically flavor oils diluted with alcohol.

    Brandies are made from either distilled wine or fermented fruits. Fruit brandies usually do not have added sugar or other sweeteners.

    Rum is an alcoholic beverage made by distilling fermented sugarcane and sugarcane by-products such as molasses. It comes in three varieties: white, golden, and dark.

    For baking cookies, I prefer high quality dark rum for its intense flavorings. Besides, dark rum is not as sweet as light rum.

When used moderately, salt brings out flavor and sweetness of other ingredients. Like sugar, it is hygroscopic and its use in homemade cookies is strictly for flavor.