Toast and Grind Whole Spices for More Complex Flavors

By | June 23, 2016

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik, unless otherwise noted]

I suppose it’s a little late to ask that you add anything to your list of New Year’s resolutions, many of which have already been broken by some, if not all, of you. (I’m not judging; I’m right there with some, if not all, of you.) But consider that a new year offers a sterling opportunity to take stock of your spice cabinets and clear out all those dusty powders that haven’t seen the light of day in a few months…or years. And it’s also an opportunity to swear off those big, budget-friendly plastic containers of the ground stuff—many of them resembling monuments to flavor instead of truly useful ingredients, and destined to spend their lives mostly untouched—and replenish your spice racks and shelves with smaller quantities of whole spices instead.

Why? Well, for one thing, whole spices look cool. For another, they’ll stay fresh for far longer than their powdered counterparts. For a third, they give you flexibility, since some recipes call for whole spices and others call for the ground version.

But the best reason to buy whole spices is that they can be toasted on the stovetop and freshly ground, adding more (and often better) flavor to a dish than any but the newest powders ever could. Toasting heats volatile flavor compounds in the spices, which makes them change shape and recombine to form new, more complex aromas. The process is crucial, for instance, in drawing out more flavor from whole star anise, cumin, coriander, and cloves in Kenji’s Best Chili Ever, which I can confirm from personal experience to be pretty, well, best. Toasting also has the benefit of drying spices out slightly, making it easier to grind them into a fine powder.

You might be asking yourself: Why not just toast my preground spices instead? There are a couple of reasons. First, you probably don’t know how recently your ground spices were ground. Second, because of their much greater surface area, ground spices are more prone to burning and likely to release their volatile compounds more easily, diminishing flavor in the final dish.

The process is simple. Dump the whole spices in a small skillet, set it over medium heat, and stir and toss the spices until they’re nicely fragrant. That’s it! They’re ready to be ground. (Keep in mind that it’s also never a bad idea to toast whole spices even if they’ll be used whole, such as in a pho broth or chai—you’ll still reap the benefits of their intensified flavor.)

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

The main drawback of using whole spices is that you’ll need either a cheap coffee grinder or a sturdy mortar and pestle to pulverize them, but either is well worth the investment. Once you have a small store of whole spices and a tool to crush them with, there’s nothing to stop you from enjoying a world of recipes that call for freshly ground spice mixtures, such as our Xi’an-Style Oven-Fried Chicken Wings, Adana Kebabs, Seekh Kebabs, or even a cumin-laced chickpea salad.

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