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Roasting Spices

"Hmmmm. What's cooking?" If family and friends are enticed by the aroma in the kitchen, there's probably a spice involved. And if the aroma is that of spices themselves being roasted, it means robust flavor when mealtime arrives. 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 (some say it imparts a nutty taste). 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 minutes.

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How to Roast Spices

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. (In India, where the technique is commonly used, cooks use a pan called a tava for roasting spices and making flat bread.) 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 (how big and/or hard it is), 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 326 degrees F until they're fully aromatic and slightly darker.

Roasted Cumin-Shallot SauceOnce 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. (And 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).

RECIPES

Here are some recipes that take advantage of the hidden flavor of roasted spices:

* Roasted cumin is added just before serving this savory Roasted Cumin-Shallot Sauce.

* Curries often include roasted spices, as in this Curried Lentils and Rice dish.

Roasted chickpeas

* In this recipe for Spicy Roasted Chick-Peas, a handful of spices are roasted in the oven along with chickpeas.

* You can roast herbs, too. This Dandelion Coffee recipe is coffee-substitute that relies on roasted dandelion root for its full-bodied flavor.

You can roast the spices called for in most any dish. Try roasting the paprika before dusting the deviled eggs and the cinnamon before adding to apple crisp. And roast the garlic and oregano for your pizza and the ginger for your chutney. Every dish will be more deliciously satisfying when you unlock the full flavor of the spices by roasting.

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