Kitchen Basics: Spices, Part 2 of 2

November 7, 2011

In her bi-weekly column, Kitchen BasicsSusan Pachikara of Cardamom Kitchen demystifies essential cooking skills with step-by-step instructions and her own handsome photos. Whether she's showing us how much brown sugar we're meant to "pack"(or is it cram?) into measuring cups or how to detect when our onions are properly caramelized, Susan is the nonna we never had -- until now. Now, go on and get cozy under her wing.

This week, Susan returns to the topic of spices to explore techniques for releasing flavor through heat.

carrot thoren susan pachikara

- Susan

In our last conversation, I shared tips for storing and preparing spices. In this post, I’ll highlight techniques I like to use to harness their dynamic flavors.

I grew up in a rural town that had one other Indian family. Next to oven-fried chicken and Swanson dinners, my family’s culinary traditions seemed odd. So I never talked about my mom’s spice mixtures or the crispy dosas and pillow soft appams we ate together. These days when I mention my ethnic roots, strangers gush about how they love Indian food and then confess how they’re intimidated by all the spices. Like the home cooks who taught me, I use simple techniques to coax flavors out of spices. Just follow the tips I’ve outlined below.

Sauté ground spices in oil:

While grinding spices helps to release their essential oils, heating them helps to round out their flavors. Try mixing ground spices with a bit of water to form a paste and then sautéing it in oil over medium heat. You can also add ground spices to onions, ginger, and garlic that have been cooked briefly.

Sauté whole spices in oil:

Whole spices must be heated to release their flavors. Sautéing them in oil helps their flavors to mature while simultaneously seasoning the oil. Cook the spices until you can smell their aromas. Remove them from the heat or move on to the next step of the recipe before they brown. In Southern India, vegetable stir-fries (or "thorens") are often made with oil that’s been infused with the toasty flavor of black mustard seeds and dried chili peppers. (Check out my recipe for Carrot Thoren, which is pictured at the top of this post.)

saute ground spices in oil

Cook spices in a liquid:

Boiling or simmering whole or crushed spices also helps to release their essential oils. This method is used to season rice pilafs that call for simmering spices with water or broth. It is also used to make drinks like masala chai by boiling and steeping spices in milk.

Combine complementary spices:

Another simple way to bring spices to the table is through the use of spice rubs. The full flavor of blackened catfish comes from a coating of paprika, cayenne, black pepper, and dry herbs that’s quickly pan-fried in oil. Similarly, rubbing beef with crushed peppercorns, fennel seeds, cumin, and coriander before grilling it adds an extra layer of flavor and a contrasting crunch. 

spice rub susan pachikara

Although spices are often associated with savory dishes, they can also be used to warm and sweeten desserts. If you’re drawn to cardamom, try pairing it with cloves and cinnamon in cookie dough or cake batter. If you have ginger, allspice, and nutmeg on hand, mix up some pumpkin pie spice. Thanksgiving is just around the corner.

baking spices susan pachikara

I’d love to hear about your adventures with spices! Do you have tips for drawing out aroma and flavor? Share them with your fellow cooks in the comments section below.

Are you new to cooking? Tell me what skills you'd like to learn and your idea could be featured in an upcoming post!

Want more basic tips from Susan? Check out her previous post: Kitchen Basics: Spices, Part 1 of 2.

All photos by Susan Pachikara.

Susan writes the blog Cardamom Kitchen to share her culinary experiences as an Indian-American rooted in the Midwest. 

susan cardamom kitchen

10 Comments Add a Comment
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    Carrie Thomas says: Susan, I really enjoy your blog and this one was very helpful and it seemed as if it was written for me. I enjoy and seek out the flavors in Indian dishes, but I am intimidated at the thought of preparing them. thanks also for mentioning the ways to use spices in sweets. Cardamom is one of my favorites and your butter cookie recipe with cardamon is going to be featured at my Thanksgiving--without any icing because, for me, the cardamom doesn't need any adornment!

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    rpplsrpplsr says: Susan, The information on the spices is so useful. Thanks for giving such detailed information. I love to grind spices like cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and store it for future use. Can you please tell us if there are some rules on how long these can be kept and still flavorful Thank you.

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    Susan_P says: It's generally said that whole spices last for at least a year while ground spices only remain potent for a few months. The flavors in ground cumin and ground cardamom (which is the third most expensive spice) are particularly fleeting. That being said, always use your nose to make the final judgement. I've had whole cloves last me much longer than a year and it would have been wasteful to throw them out just because they hit the 12 month mark.

    over 2 years ago
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    chutney says: Yum! I love the way my house smells when spices are blooming in the kitchen. I have been popping mustard seeds and throwing in some toor dal with a dried red pepper into the oil, letting them turn golden brown and then adding onions and green beans. It's now a dinner staple. There is an option to add some shredded coconut in the end. Delicious!

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    Mary C says: I usually dry roast a half to 1 cup of coriander seeds and keep them in a tightly covered glass jar. I use them when I need to make masala. To dry roast the coriander, preheat the oven to 250 degrees. On a cookie sheet, lay the coriander in a single layer and roast it for 6 minutes. Cool and store.

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    Alba Perez says: Susan - I love your blog!!! Thanks to you, I now enjoy adding Cardamon to honey/vanilla/sugar cookies. I recently made a batch of them for my son's 2nd year Birthday party with a Halloween theme - I decorated the cookies as Elmo and Pumpkins. Their fragant and subtle spiced flavor mixed with the honey and vanilla was a hit at the party!!! I loved them so much I am planning on doing them for a cookie exchange Xmas party at work. Maybe I'll also try pairing the Cardamon with the clove and the cinamon to make other cookies. Do you have a cookie recipe you recommend for pairing these? BTW, as a Cuban, I also enjoy adding cuming to most of my meat dishes - they always turn out delicious. :)

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    Susan_P says: Alba, so glad my blog is helpful! I'll try to post a recipe in the next few days. I love Cuban food!

    over 2 years ago
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    Nathaniel02 says: I love peppercorn rubs on my steak. I can't wait to try adding the complementary spices. Thanks!

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    Maria42 says: In a Greek recipe I have, it states that I need to add a stick of cinnamon to my sauce at a certain point. Then it has me add cinnamon powder. Isn't this the same thing? Is there ever a reason a person would ever use a stick of cinnamon *and* cinnamon in the powder form in the same dish? Or should I just add more sticks of cinnamon and skip the powder or vice versa?

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
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    Susan_P says: Maria, thank you for your question. Ground cinnamon will add more intense flavor to the sauce (assuming the cinnamon powder and sticks are equally fresh and you are using the same cooking method). Combining the two will make your dish more nuanced. If you have both on hand, I recommend throwing each in. One other thought on cinnamon...Most cinnamon sold in the US is actually a less expensive spice called cassia. Cassia has a harsher flavor than true cinnamon (also labeled as Ceylon cinnamon). Since the flavor of true cinnamon is more complex (with notes of pine and citrus), but gentler than cassia, it's best to use it in recipes without a lot of other strong flavors.

    over 2 years ago

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