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Bloomin’ Spices

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Kitchen Mysteries is a weekly exploration of oddities surrounding cooking and food. They could be recipes that fail when they shouldn’t, conflicting advice from different sources, or just plain weirdness. If it happens in a kitchen, and you’re not sure why, send a tweet to The Food Geek to find out what’s happening.

On Twitter, Stephanie asks:

Hi, Stephanie,

Blooming is a technique where you take some spices and heat them up in oil to release and amplify the flavor of the spice. For a background on blooming and other spicy techniques, I recommend this excellent article on spicing up your cooking by Floyd Cardoz, who takes you through a tour of techniques to tantalize your tastebuds.

The first thing to note about spices is most of the flavor is carried by essential oils. Because the flavor compounds are tied to the oils, it means that they will not easily dissolve in water or water-based solutions. Although there are ways around this, dumping a bunch of spices into a stew and hoping everything distributes evenly and well is not a guaranteed method of success. 

A difficulty with the flavors being tied to the essential oils is that things that break down oils will harm the spices. Air, heat, and, light are all enemies of the spice flavorings, so minimize exposure except in certain circumstances.

On the other hand, spices are still food, at least the way we use them, and being food it means that we can often change the flavor with cooking. Take cumin, for example: if you apply heat to cumin, then the cumin seeds brown, which changes the flavor on account of the maillard reactions. Golden brown and delicious applies to many spices just as much as it does to a piece of fried chicken.

For a great article about the Maillard rections, I recommend getting a copy of the February-March 2009 Issue of Fine Cooking and checking out The Food Geek column on page 22. However, for those who don’t have that handy, the Maillard reactions are the complex browning reactions that happen to food at temperatures below that of caramelization. Sugar caramelizes at a temperature above the smoke point of most cooking oils, and most food burns if kept at that temperature for too long. Still, the food does turn brown, and it is tasty, and the culprits in these instances are the Maillard reactions.

What blooming does is take advantage of the oil nature of the spice and the potential for flavor-changing maillard reactions without destroying too much of the flavor. The idea is to put the spices into an oil, heat to somewhere just below the smoke point of the oil, and cook for just a little while. Spices will brown, and more importantly, the essential oils will emerge from the spices and infuse the rest of the oil.

You can filter the oil and use in what you’re cooking that evening, or if you’ve made enough, you can store it for later. This is the general idea behind a chili oil: create a bunch of flavor that you can insert into your cooking later.

What can you do with this spicy oil? You can use it as a last-minute flavor addition, especially for long-cooking dishes such as a stew or anything in a slow-cooker. Any sauce that has an oil component could be modified with this oil. This goes from a reduction sauce or barbeque sauce to, say, mayonnaise. Naturally, this could make a lovely end-of-the-year gift for your friends and family. Let your imagination run wild, and have fun with your new technique.

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