How to extract the most flavour from your spices

Photo by Hendrik Varju.

You might be used to just opening up a bottle of pre-ground spices and throwing it directly into a soup broth, or a stew, or whatever it is that you’re cooking.  However, that method misses out on the full flavour potential of those spices. As a Mexican and Hungarian cooking instructor, I can tell you that two methods, often combined, will tease the maximum flavour out of those spices, really amping up your cooking.

Method 1: Toast and grind whole spices. 

Firstly, when you purchase whole spices instead of pre-ground, you’ll already have a flavour advantage.  Whole spices stay fresh much longer as the flavours are held inside away from oxygen. Grinding spices exposes the flavour molecules to oxygen which makes them break down (“oxidize”) or become stale.  So you should buy whole spices whenever possible. Some of the most common spices I buy whole are peppercorns, fennel seed, caraway seed, coriander seed, cloves and cumin. The last three are particularly common in my Mexican cooking.

The first method of extracting flavour from your whole spices involves toasting and grinding.  To toast whole spices, pour them into a cold frying pan (a pre-heated frying pan will burn them quickly). Turn the heat to medium or medium low and just start warming them gently, giving them a toss every minute or so.  When they’ve taken on a golden colour and you can smell a wonderful aroma, they are done. Pour them out of the pan immediately so that they do not continue to heat up and burn.  

From there, the spices can be ground up either in a mortar & pestle or in a spice or coffee grinder. You won’t believe the amazing fragrance that will immediately fill your kitchen. For dishes that do not involve cooking, that is the end of the story.  For example, toasted ground coriander seed is an important ingredient in one of my signature dishes I call “The Best Guacamole You’ve Ever Had”. Since guacamole does not involve any cooking at all, you just sprinkle the ground toasted coriander seed in. But you’ve increased the flavour by toasting whole spices and then grinding, instead of buying pre-ground.

Method 2: Bloom the spices. 

For cooked dishes though, like a soup or stew, your spice work is not yet done.  Because most spices have fat soluble flavour compounds, you will amp up the flavour even more by warming them in hot oil. This technique is known as “blooming” the spices. Since so many recipes for soups and stews start with lightly frying aromatics in oil, that offers the perfect time to add your freshly toasted and ground spices.

Start by heating up your pan or pot on medium heat. Then drizzle in your oil of choice—my favourite is extra virgin olive oil, although lard is used often in both Mexican and Hungarian cooking. At the first puff of white smoke, add your diced onions and sauté for a few minutes. Sometimes we just want to sweat them down. At other times we want to start browning them to caramelize them and bring out sweet notes. Then you can add some finely diced or minced garlic, along with your freshly ground spices.

When you add the ground spices, such as coriander, fennel, cumin and even paprika, you are now blooming those spices and the flavours become gorgeous and intense. You might want to take the pan off the heat just before you add the spices so that they don’t burn. The heat should be moderate and be ready with a bit of water or stock to add a splash if the mixture looks too dry. Just 30 to 60 seconds of frying in oil, before adding any water or stock, will bring out intense flavour.

If you forget to add the spices to the hot oil and aromatics and you’ve already filled the pot with chicken stock, tomato juice or other water-based liquids, adding the spices into the broth at the end will not give anywhere near the same impact.  Instead, heat some oil in a small skillet, bloom the spices there, and then add to the broth. You’ve just saved yourself from a huge flavour disappointment.

So remember to purchase whole spices when you can. Toast them, grind them and, where appropriate to the recipe, bloom them in oil. This is the key to great cooking.

Hendrik Varju, owner of Passion for Food, is the author of “Mexican Dinner Parties, Complete Menus for Mexican Entertaining in Your Home”. 

He teaches Mexican and Hungarian cooking and cooks for elaborate multi-course dinner parties.

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