Spice Up Your Fall

Adding spices is the simplest way to take a dish beyond basic, and this week we’ve gathered all the gear you need to get the most out of your spices.

Spices were mostly an afterthought in my cooking until I began working at America’s Test Kitchen. I thought of them as dried powders in glass jars stuffed into one of our kitchen drawers, mostly to be used when I needed cinnamon for dessert or oregano for pizza. Over the past five years I’ve learned so much about how to purchase, store, organize, and utilize spices, and thus my cooking has improved greatly. My spice collection has expanded from 10 jars to dozens of aromatic, vibrant spices and blends. With the right combination of spices, even a salad can be transformed into a multidimensional masterpiece, and a well-stocked spice cabinet allows me to cook foods from some of my favorite cuisines at a moment's notice. —Carolyn Grillo, Associate Editor, ATK Reviews

This sturdy flip-top salt box held plenty of salt and provided easy access to it, accommodating most testers’ hands. While somewhat vulnerable to humidity, this box was great at shielding salt from messes. It was a breeze to fill and clean and could be opened with one hand; a small handle made it convenient to lift for on-the-fly seasoning.

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Our winning mill was easy to load, and thanks to its clearly marked grind settings, “you know exactly what you’re getting,” said one tester. The easy-to-read settings allowed us to quickly and seamlessly change grind sizes, and the pepper output was great, too: We saw clear differences between the pepper ground using the fine, medium, and coarse settings. The mill was easy to operate, and the clear body was a nice bonus when filling because it helped us to avoid overflow.

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True to its name, this Goliath of a mortar and pestle was by far the biggest, heaviest, and best we tested. Weighing nearly 12 pounds, the granite mortar sat rooted to the counter; its coarse-textured interior allowed us to grind dry spices to fine powders and wet ingredients to smooth pastes more quickly than any other model. Its pestle—also the heaviest we tested—did a fantastic job of smashing garlic and reducing whole spices to smithereens. One tiny gripe: The pestle could be a smidge longer; our hands sometimes hit the rim of the mortar while pounding ingredients.

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With a large area of sharp etched holes, our favorite rasp-style grater got the job of grating ginger done—just somewhat more slowly and a touch more wastefully than our top models. Its long, narrow shape was less ideal for handling bigger pieces of ginger and forced us to aim more carefully when grating. It was also harder to clean, since its curved edges trapped pockets of puree underneath.

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This grinder, our previous favorite, once again received top marks for its clean, relatively even grinding and simple, easy-to-use design. We particularly appreciated its wide, clear lid, which afforded us the best view of the grinding process, and we liked that its grind button was situated off to the side so we didn't obscure the lid with our hands during grinding. Its grinding chamber was a roomy oval that provided a wide base for us to cleanly load and empty the coffee. It held enough coffee beans to grind 70 grams of coffee, enough for a full 10-cup pot from our top-ranked coffee maker, and its low-lying blade ensured that no whole beans were left after grinding. It's also our favorite electric spice grinder. However, if you regularly grind both coffee beans and whole spices, we recommend you invest in a second grinder to prevent flavor crossover.

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Our longtime favorite skillet still beats the cheaper competition. We appreciate the broad cooking surface and low, flaring sides that encourage excellent browning and evaporation; a steel handle that stays cool on the stovetop and won’t rotate in your hand; an overall weight and balance that hits the sweet spot between sturdiness and maneuverable lightness; and durable construction that resists warping while withstanding thermal shock and outright abuse with nary a scratch or dent. Its three layers of bonded metal, with aluminum sandwiched by steel, make for deep, uniform browning

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Our winning spoons had a simple design that allowed for a continuous, bump-free sweep, with a ball-chain connector (similar to what military dog tags hang on) that was easy to open and close. This set's metal construction felt remarkably sturdy, and ingredients didn't cling to the stainless steel. And while the 1-tablespoon measure did not fit into all spice jars, it was a minor inconvenience for an otherwise easy-to-use set.

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This funnel had the longest spout in the lineup, nearly 2 inches, which made it feel securely anchored during use. Its spout was a tad narrower than ideal, but it still allowed foods and liquids to flow reasonably well—though the viscous barbecue sauce proved challenging. As with some other models, we learned that we could address flow issues by either slowing down our pour or tapping or shaking the funnel.

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If you grate ginger frequently, this is by far the best tool we've found for the job: It's speedy, easy to handle, and superefficient. With ample surface area and razor-sharp etched holes, this tool—made by the same company as our favorite box and rasp-style graters—was the least wasteful in our lineup. It also tied for fastest, making 1 tablespoon of puree in just 15 seconds. Its handle was comfortable to grip, and its wide paddle shape made it especially easy to collect ginger puree and to clean.

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