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Why You Should Toast Your Spices

April 21, 2016

Watch enough episodes of “Chopped” and “Top Chef,” and you’ll notice a familiar refrain in the judges’ critiques: “not enough seasoning.”

With enough practice, anyone can master a tender, medium-rare steak, a flaky pie crust, a perfectly balanced vinaigrette. Learning to marry flavors together with herbs and spices, however, takes a little bit more finesse.

Here’s a chef secret that will help you get more vibrant flavor out of just about anything you cook. It’s simple: Buy whole spices, toast them, then grind them.

Wondering why you’d you go through all that trouble when you can buy cinnamon, cumin, pepper, and just about every spice imaginable pre-ground?

When spices are ground, the aromatic oils that give them both flavor and aroma start to fade. If you’re cooking with cinnamon ground yesterday, it’s no big deal. And if you use a spice often, you’ll probably go through it before the taste becomes dull. But if that jar is more than a year old? You’re probably not getting much out of it.

Instead, buy spices wholes—valuable oils intact—and prepare them at home. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Add whole spices to a dry pan over medium-low heat and toast, moving the seeds, sticks, or pods constantly to keep them from burning.
  2. When you can smell the aroma, remove them from the heat and immediately transfer to a cool bowl or baking sheet.
  3. Grind in your trusty mortar and pestle.
  4. Use immediately for best results in everything from curries to rubs.

To get you started, we recommend buying the following spices whole:

  • Peppercorns
  • Nutmeg
  • Cloves
  • Cinnamon
  • Star anise
  • Cardamom pods
  • Dried chiles
  • Cumin seeds
  • Fennel seeds
  • Fenugreek seeds
  • Mustard seeds
  • Coriander seeds

Note: This tip doesn’t apply to roots like ginger or turmeric. It also won’t work for pre-ground spices, or spice blends like curry powder or chili powder.

Photo credit: Alicia Cho

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Annalise Mantz

Annalise is a foodie, Brussels sprouts lover, grammar nerd, and political pet aficionado.

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