I grew up in a household in which spices in jars were carefully measured and added to the pot or mixing bowl. After a few cooking classes and years of practice, I put away the spoons and started using the palm of my hand for measuring amounts and my nose and tongue for confirming if I had added the correct amount.
As I started cooking Indian food, I learned that spicing food is more complicated than that. It is actually a sophisticated process of knowing everything about your spices before using them. Some red Madras chile powders are hotter than others causing me to adjust the amount I add without causing too much pain to my mouth. Some spices have been in my pantry for longer periods of time and have lost some flavor, which means I need to use more spice.
Using spices in Indian cuisine is even more complicated than that. Sometimes they have to be roasted before use and other times they are not. I have read in many books that one must dry fry or dry roast spices before using them. Some say that this step improves the taste of the spices. This is an oversimplification of the entire issue.
The reason spices are roasted is to draw out their unique flavors – a chemical reaction (yes, this is about high school chemistry) occurs and the flavors change and some of the scent of the raw spices evaporates (the aroma you can smell). When different spices are roasted together, the chemicals from the different spices react together and a whole new bouquet of aromas develop.
In many Indian recipes, spices are added right to the pot without pre-roasting them. The recipe most likely was developed with the flavors of the raw spices (ground or whole) as they are.
Roasted Spices in Indian Cooking
Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add the spice or spices to the skillet and roast them, for about 1 to 3 minutes. Move the spices around in the pan continuously so they don’t burn. When you can smell the aroma and their color darkens, remove the pan from the heat.
If the spices smell burnt, they are. Toss them, as burnt spices will ruin any recipe. Don’t worry, this was your practice round. You can always start over.
Once toasted, immediately pour the spices out of the pan on to a plate to stop them from cooking further. Let the toasted spices cool, and then grind them.
They can be stored, tightly covered for a few weeks without losing much of their flavor. With fresh spices, you will notice a big difference in flavor, and you may discover that you don’t need as much spice, making it worth the extra cost and trouble.
If you are roasting several spices together, add the larger spices first, followed by the smaller spices with any ground spices last.
To grind the spices, just use an old coffee grinder. Don’t use it for coffee in the future, as your coffee will have the aroma of the last masala (spice mixture) you ground.
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