Whether you're a fan of "slow cooking" or eager for quick and delicious results in the kitchen, you'll want to know about roasting spices. Roasting uses gentle heat to release a spice's hidden aromatic and flavorful oils. Bringing out the full flavor often makes the spice earthier, richer, and fuller. In some cases, as with cinnamon and ginger, the spice will become sweeter and mellower. Roasting spices is a way to enhance your dish and your cooking experience — and it takes only a few minutes.
Roasting spices isn't hard, but doing it well requires involvement of your senses and some timing. It's a bit of an art, in fact — a fun and easily accessible culinary art.
Use a small, heavy pan (cast iron works well) or a wok. Some cooks like starting with a cold pan, while others prefer preheating the pan. Place your spices in the dry pan (some recipes suggest using a little oil, but dry roasting works fine) and shake or stir them with a wooden spoon while they roast. You want to heat the spices slowly, so that they warm clear through to the center of the spice without burning the outside, so use low to medium-low heat.
How long it takes to roast a spice depends on the spice (size and density), how much heat you use, and the pan. Be careful not to burn the spices or they'll become bitter. They shouldn't smoke at any time during the process.
You'll know the spices are ready when they smell rich and full-bodied and become slightly darker in color. They'll be aromatic as soon as they hit the pan, but wait just a bit and that aroma will fill the air as the spices brown. The goal is to roast them through — not just on the surface — but without burning them. This usually takes just minutes. You may hear a little popping sound as the whole spices roast.
In general, whole spices are preferred over ground spices for roasting. That's because whole spices better retain their natural oils and so contain more flavor to release when they're heated or ground. You can certainly roast ground spices, too; just keep in mind that it will take only seconds before they're done.
Once your spices are roasted, move them from the pan to a bowl or plate to cool. (If you leave them in the pan, they'll keep cooking, even away from the heat.) To grind the cooled spices, you can use a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder or coffee grinder. You'll find that roasted spices are easier to grind than unroasted spices.
You can also roast spices in the oven, though this method is somewhat less efficient since you have to heat the oven instead of using only minutes of heat on the stovetop. Spread the spices on a dry tray and roast at 325° F until they're fully aromatic and slightly darker.
Once roasted, you get the best flavor when the spices are used immediately, but you can store most in a tightly covered jar for a few weeks without too much deterioration.
Some cooks prefer to roast different spices separately, because they take different amounts of time to roast. Since you rely on the aroma to let you know how the roasting is coming along, you'll do that best with separate batches. Others say you can roast various spices at once (say, a blend of spices that you're using for a particular recipe). A tip for roasting blends is to start with the spice that needs the longest cooking time first and add the others in order of how quickly they roast. Of course, you need to have a bit of experience under your belt to know how long each spice takes relative to the others. If you're including ground spices, add those just before you're done. They take very little time to roast fully and are most susceptible to burning.
Here’s a recipe from our friends at Frontier Natural Products Co-op that takes advantage of the hidden flavor of roasted spices:
This Indian dish is full of wonderful spices —and roasting them before adding them to the potatoes will add enticing depth of flavor and aroma. Roasting whole spices instead of powdered and grinding them before adding to your other ingredients gives the best results. To save a little time — or if you just want to use the powdered spice you have on hand — roasting your already ground spices will enhance their flavor as well.
4 medium raw potatoes
1 cup plain nonfat yogurt
2 teaspoons ground coriander powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger root
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon garam masala
2 tablespoons oil
1 to 2 mint leaves, chopped
Peel and cut each potato in half. Prick each potato several times with a fork. Mix the rest of the ingredients, add to the potatoes, and cook over low heat in a heavy saucepan with a tight-fitting cover for 20 to 25 minutes. Serves 2 to 4.
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