Most spices taste better when they’re toasted. Heat smoothes out the flavor and removes unwanted harshness; earthy and warm taste develops. Check for yourself next time you’re in the kitchen. Taste some raw coriander seeds then try them toasted. You’ll notice that the original citrus and sweetness gets replaced by a delicious nutty flavor; robust floral aromatics also develop.
In this article, you’ll learn how to toast spices to release their true potential before cooking. It is a quick and easy process but always pay attention to each step to ensure they’re perfectly cooked.
3 steps to toasting spices
1. Source whole spices
This may seem obvious, but it’s an essential step. Choosing quality whole spices is the key to a delicious curry paste or spice rub. Do some quick research to find a spice specialist that is the go-to option in your area. You want a seller who has a high turnover of stock so that you know the spices haven’t been sitting there for many months, slowly losing their flavor.
Search for unblemished spices which have a pleasant aroma and no visible damage to them. Once you get home from the store, transfer them to an airtight container. They can keep for years in a cool, dry place.
Tip: If you don’t have a good supplier of spices nearby, consider buying from a reputable online seller.
2. Heat the spices
Cook the spices once you’re ready to use them in the recipe. If you’re in a pinch, they can be made in advance but they lose their intensity quickly so try to avoid doing this if you can.
Take a heavy skillet and place over moderate heat without any oil. Once hot, add the whole spices in a single layer to ensure even cooking. Heat the spices while frequently shaking the pan or stirring. Small spices like cumin will only need 1-2 minutes before they’re ready; bigger spices with thick skins like star anise or cardamom pods may take 3-5 minutes.
You will know when the spices are ready when a fragrant, toasty aroma fills the air. They will usually look a little darker also, although this isn’t the best indicator. Rely on smell for reliable results. How far you like to take your spices will come down to personal preference and it is a skill you will develop over time. Whatever you prefer, they mustn’t begin to smoke or appear black as that is a sign you’ve heated them too long. They’ll add an unpleasant bitter taste to your dishes, so your best option is to discard and try again.
3. Remove from heat
Be prepared with a medium bowl ready to use as soon as the spices are done. This is especially important with small spices. An extra 30 seconds in the pan is all it takes to turn them from perfectly cooked to burnt. Once the spices are cooked, switch off the heat and tip them into the bowl to stop the cooking process. Now you’re ready to put your fresh spices to good use.
An interesting read:
What is a spice? Check out this article to find out if you know what they are.
How to use toasted spices
Leave them whole
With some types of spices, it isn’t necessary to process them further. They can be included in recipes whole, adding visual appeal and a lovely crunchy texture to food. Some good options for using spices whole are fennel, cumin, and caraway, which are delicate once heated.
Grind into powder
There are plenty of tools that you can use to grind spices, including knives, pots, spice grinders, or a mortar and pestle. We created an entire article on how to grind spices so go check it out to learn more.
Once you’ve ground up your spice, you’ll have more options for using them. They can be added to savory dishes like a casserole, soup, or mixed into a curry paste. Use them in a spice rub to flavor meat, or incorporate them into dressings or baked goods.
Crush into bits
If you don’t want powdered or whole spices, then a good in-between is crushing them into pieces. After toasting, their texture is crisper and easier to eat. The side of a chef’s knife or a mortar and pestle are both great for cracking spices. For your next tuna bake, you could crack whole peppercorns into small pieces and sprinkle them over the top for a burst of flavor that’s a step above the usual salt and pepper.
5 tips for toasting spices
- If you toast more spice than you need then store them in an airtight container whole for 10-14 days.
- Allow toasted spices to cook fully before grinding to lock the aromas in.
- It is best to toast first and grind later to reduce the chance of burning the powder.
- Toast one spice variety at a time as they cook at different speeds
- It is better to have the pan’s heat too low than too high as it is easy to overcook them. If the temperature is a little too low, you just need to cook them for longer.
What spices should I toast?
Most spice seeds are suitable for toasting – some popular options include peppercorns, star anise, fennel, cloves, cumin, cinnamon, fenugreek, cardamom pods, and coriander.
How much spice should I toast at one time?
Spices are a powerful seasoning so we recommend toasting around a quarter cup in one go. If you decide to make more, cook in batches ensuring there is only a single layer of spices in the skillet.
Can I toast spices in the microwave?
It is possible to toast spices in the microwave by adding them to a plate, in a single layer, and heating uncovered in 20-second bursts until fragrant. For better results, we recommend dry-frying in a skillet or roasting in the oven.
Are you unsure how much spice to use in cooking? Find out the answers in this handy guide.
Toasting spices is a simple way to improve the flavor of your food. Although there are plenty of spice brands on the market, nothing compares to doing it yourself. The three steps are: find good quality whole spices; toast them in a pan, ensuring they don’t overcook; and finally, quickly transfer them off the heat once ready, to avoid burning.
Once you understand the basics of toasting spices, you can experiment with flavor combinations. Start with the classics, like Indian garam masala, then get creative and try making your own secret blend. The aromas coming from your house will make you the envy of the street.