How to Increase the Flavor Factor When Using Spices

We all know incorporating spices into our cooking takes dishes to a whole new level. But there’s more to using spices than just tossing them into recipes. Too often we miss an important step.

I’m talking about dry roasting or toasting spices. It’s one of the simplest ways to increase the flavor factor and thus improve your cooking.

Heating a spice, whether roasting it dry, enhances its zest, giving the spice a fuller character and a deeper, nuttier flavor.

Let’s look at some science that I found on the site, to understand why heating a spice makes such a nice difference: Spices are comprised of two main oils. The first is a variety of volatile, or essential, oils, which give the spice its aroma. The other is a series of oleoresins, or non-volatile oils, which are responsible for the flavor. By dry roasting spices, both oils are released, thus enhancing the flavor and aroma of food.

A simple coffee grinder (one devoted to spices) makes grinding a snap, though you can also grind spices, especially small quantities, in a mortar and pestle. (HOT TIP: To keep your coffee grinder lid from discoloring, stretch a piece of plastic wrap over the grinder, then attach the lid to grind.)

Also, consider buying whole spices rather than ground; they have four times the shelf life of ground spices because their seed coatings and barks protect their flavors, which aren't released until they are ground or heated. And because ground spices can burn easily, whole spices work best for dry roasting.

Dry roasting spices should be done on your stove top—you can keep an eye on them while enjoying their fragrance. Here are the basic steps:

· Heat a wok or heavy frying-pan to medium hot. (Don't add any oil or butter; this is dry-roasting).

· Add your spice; shake the pan or stir the spices with a wooden spoon as they heat; keep them moving.

· They're ready when they become highly aromatic and turn slightly darker, which usually takes just a couple of minutes, but can take as long as five minutes, depending on the spice, the heat, and the pan.

· You don't want to see any smoke coming off the spices, but when they're getting close to done, you'll begin to hear a tiny popping sound.

· Once toasted, immediately pour the spices out of the pan on to a plate to prevent 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 to seek out whole spices.

Lastly, you can toast more than one kind of spice at a time. Begin with those that will take longest and add any ground spices at the very end, just before taking the pan off the heat. Ground spices are ready in fewer than 10 seconds, whole spices take about 30 seconds.

If this cooking technique interests you, then one good online source for fresh whole spices is They have over 100 spices in 2 ounce glass jars, starting at $6 (which is about what I’d pay for whole spice in our grocery store).

I’m betting you’ll never go back to those little cans of ground spices once you try this method. Dry roasting whole spices is truly the way to increase your recipes’ flavor factor and take your cooking to a whole new level!


    Alice Osborne
    Weekly Newsletter Contributor since 2006
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