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Spice Up Your Cooking

Create extraordinary new flavors with seasonings you already know (and a few you should get to know better)

Fine Cooking Issue 70
Photos: Scott Phillips
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My cooking at Tabla restaurant in New York City is all about infusing familiar American ingredients with the aromatic flavors of India, where I grew up. There’s nothing exotic about the main ingredients I use—most of them come from the farmers’ market near the restaurant. What makes my food unique is the way I use spices.

It’s easy to add new seasonings to your repertoire, but with so many interesting spices from which to choose, it can be hard to know where to begin. Well, I’ll tell you a secret: You don’t have to overhaul your pantry to get started. You only need a handful of spices and a few simple techniques for extracting their flavors to surprise and delight your palate.

No country uses a wider range of spices than India, so it makes sense to look to India when you want to learn to use spices subtly and skillfully. I’ll introduce you to the spices you need to try out Indian flavors, show you how to work with them, and teach you how to incorporate new spices into your cooking (see the sidebar). The spices and techniques you’ll learn about here don’t just apply to Indian food. Cooks the world over rely on spices like ginger, cinnamon, fennel, pepper, bay leaf, and chiles; they just use the spices in different amounts and combinations.

A flat metal or silicone spatula is best for cooking with spices; wooden spoons absorb spices’ flavors.

Helping spices release their flavor

Spices are naturally fragrant, but to reach their full flavor potential, they need our help. Cracking and grinding spices is part of the equation. But it’s heat that really wakes up those aromatic oils. Toasting (dry heat) and blooming in oil (moist heat) are classic techniques.  

Blooming whole spices Blooming a spice in oil is a bit like sautéing a vegeetable: It’s quick, and the resulting flavor is bright. The combination of heat and oil quickly extracts aromatic compounds from a spice.

How to bloom whole spices: Heat the oil over medium heat until it’s hot but not smoking. Add the whole spices and cook until very fragrant and little bubbles form around the spices. Don’t let them brown. You can then add other ingredients to the hot pan and proceed with your recipe. (If you bloom large spices like cardamom pods, cloves, or cinnamon  sticks, be sure to remove them from the finished dish before serving because you don’t want people to bite into them.) Try this technique in the recipe for Creamy Mashed Potatoes with Warm Spices.

Frying a paste of ground raw spices
I don’t toast ground spices in a dry pan because they’re very quick to burn. Instead, I bloom them in oil—but even then, I modify the technique because hot oil can also scorch ground spices.

How to bloom ground spices: First, you need to mix them with a little of the liquid from your recipe—vinegar, water, stock, wine, whatever—to make a thick paste. The moisture in the spice paste helps keep the ground spices from burning when you put the paste in the hot oil. Then you cook the paste until all the liquid evaporates. You can tell it’s time to stop cooking when the oil starts to separate from the spices (as in the photo above). This is a classic Indian technique, and you can try it in my recipe for Six-Spice Braised Short Ribs.

Blooming whole spices
Frying a paste of ground raw spices

How to experiment with spices

I use spices differently from recipe to recipe, even within recipes. For example, I wanted the lentil soup to taste earthy and warm, so I used toasted spices, and I finished
it with a tarka to add texture. Here’s how to experiment with spices on your own:

1. Choose a versatile spice. Cumin is a good spice to begin with as you experiment with spice combinations. It’s great with both coriander and mustard seed. The trio of cumin, coriander, and mustard seed works with any kind of meat, fish, or vegetable. Fennel seed is another friendly spice; you can add a little to almost anything.

2. Use a new spice (or spices) to season a familiar dish. It’s easier to like a new flavor if you already like most of the ingredients that go into a dish. If you toast spices, add them to the dish toward the end of cooking or sprinkle them on the food right before serving, because the toasting process has already released the spices’ aromatic oils. Soups, stews, and braises are great for experimenting with bloomed spices. Just add spices to your cooking oil at the start of a recipe, before you add your aromatics. Or pour in a tarka as a finishing touch.

3. Finally, be judicious. Some spices will ruin a dish if you use too much. It’s better for a dish to be underspiced than overspiced. If you find you like the flavor of a new spice, you can always use more next time.

Spice up plain rice

Add 6 whole cardamom pods per 2 cups raw rice at the start of cooking. Remove the pods before serving the rice. Try it with other spices.

How to build a spice pantry

With these nineteen spices, the flavor possibilities are endless. You don’t have to run out and buy them all at once. Instead, start with the spices on the left (which you probably already know) and some from the middle section (which I hope you’ll get to know). And as your taste for adventure grows, work your way toward the group on the right; they’re a little harder to use—but ultimately worth the effort.

Spices shown in the photo are listed below. An asterisk after a spice name in the lists below indicates a potent spice that can overwhelm a dish, so use just a little.

Start with spices you know. These familiar, versatile spices know no boundaries. They season everything from Italian sausage to gingerbread, and they’re also integral to Indian cuisine. Left column in photo at right, top to bottom: black peppercorns, allspice, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, whole nutmeg, whole cloves*.

The spices in this photo (click to enlarge) are arrayed in groups. At left are spices you are probably familiar with; in the middle are spices that lie at the heart of Indian cooking. The spices at right (on the wooden cutting board) are not as well known, and a little goes a long way.

Add these versatile spices: These tasty, easy-to-use spices lie at the heart of Indian cooking. Alone or in combination, they taste good with almost any main ingredient. Try them with confidence—you can’t go wrong. Middle two columns in photo: cumin seeds (nutty flavor), coriander seeds (sweet, lemony), yellow or brown mustard seeds (warm, pungent), fennel seeds (sweet, minty, licoricey), ground tumeric (mildly bitter); whole dried chiles* (fruity and spicy), dried ginger* (lemony, peppery bite), greet or white cardamom pods* (camphor aroma; minty sweet).

Venture off the beaten path: Once you’re at ease with more accessible spices, try some of these unique spices. Their assertive flavors don’t go well with quite as many foods and can easily overpower a dish—so use them judiciously.  Right column in photo, top to bottom: black cardamom pods* (intensely smoky, peppery), nigella seeds (mildly bitter, dry, oniony), black cumin seeds (grassy, sweet), fenugreek leaves (grassy, peanutty), fenugreek seeds (nutty, butterscotchy, bitter).


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