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Toasting & Roasting Your Spices: When, Why, How


Chris Amirault
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I was reading this topic on grinding whole spices and noticed that no one mentioned roasting the spices prior to grinding. I don't do this with most spices, but I always, always do it with cumin, which we use more than probably anything else in the house. Now, if you asked me why I only do it with cumin, I wouldn't be able to give you a good answer.

So I'm wondering: what spices do you roast? why those? how?

Chris Amirault

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Chiles -- if I'm making garam masala or a mole.

Cinnamon -- ditto, also excellent as a flavoring base for gelato or ice cream

Cardamom (either green or black), shajeera (black cumin), peppercorns, cloves -- for garam masala

Easiest for me is if I pan-roast them. Place in a skillet, heat over a medium flame and roast for 6 to 8 minutes. Stir occasionally. You will be tempted to accelerate the roasting process by turning up the heat. Resist this temptation ... it's better to slowly roast them than to have the spices darken on their exterior and remain "raw" inside.

Let cool, then grind in a spice grinder, coffee grinder or mortar/pestle.

Edited by SobaAddict70 (log)
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Chris, thanks for bringing this topic up. I have always wondered about roasting spices before grinding them. Based on experience, I wonder if it actually does anything.

I pan-roast spices in a stainless steel skillet with a copper heat disburser between the skillet and the flame. I have ruined a lot of spices by following instructions to roast them for several minutes until they "darken." In my experience they are ruined at that point. So then I started roasting them only until they became "fragrant", which basically occurs as soon as they warm up.

Then I started wondering if this actually made any difference. I don't think it does, really. But because I am a paranoid person I usually roast them until they are "fragrant" anyway, just in case.

I will be very curious to see what other people have to say about this.

SobaAddict, when you roast spices until they darken don't you find that their flavor and aroma are impaired?

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There's no question that roasted cumin, for example, is different from non-roasted. It's deeper, richer -- pretty basic characteristics of things that get browned.

When you talk about "darkening" them, you seem to be describing burned, not toasted. Soba's thoughts about hot pans seems apt in this regard: if they're darkening quickly -- that is, if some are and some aren't yet -- then the heat's probably too high.

Chris Amirault

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Chris, it's possible that I burned them but I don't think so. Soba mentions using a medium flame. I use a low flame and a heat disburser.

I have performed non-scientific "smell tests" -- i.e., I've sniffed the spices as they warm up in the pan. I can clearly smell that the spices are more aromatic after they've warmed up, but if I continue roasting them after that point I can smell a negative change in the aroma.

I think this is one area of spice use that I have yet to master. Until I do, I'll continue roasting-only-until-more-aromatic.

Interesting enough, I've found that recipes sometimes say to roast spices for several minutes until "darkened", as Soba describes, and other recipes that say to roast for a minute or less until "aromatic."

I've been confused about this issue for a while now. That's why I was very glad to see this topic.

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As, is often the case, I think the culprit here is the English language as used in recipes. When my cumin (or cloves of cardamom or cinnamon) gets aromatic, it's time to shake the pan; if it stays aromatic (as opposed to producing less aroma because untoasted stuff is facing the pan now), then it's done. That's what I think toasted means. What do others think?

Chris Amirault

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I also use an "unscientific" method of toasting cumin seeds. When I sense a whiff of aroma or smoke and just a hint that the seeds are brown/toasted, I take them off the heat so they don't burn. I have the assumption that if the scent wanes, then I've burned off the oil in the cumin seeds and ruined them by going to far.

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I roast most of my whole spices prior to grinding. However, I don't wait for smoke to appear, I am really not roasting them, but toasting them.

I guess anything that has a volatile oil is going be activated by heat.

Coriander and Cumin are two candidates that are very different when ground before toasting.

Cloves, Cassia, Curry Leaves, Mustard, Black Pepper

I don't roast chillies - no reason, just never have.

Cheers

Luke

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I roast most of my spices, particularly when making Indian curries.

When roasting, I treat them a bit like pine nuts: if you can see that they are cooked, they're going to wind up overcooked. Thus they are roasted over a moderate heat, agitating the pan to ensure all sides are cooked. I remove the pan from the heat when I can smell the aroma of the spice (they do have a bit of colour by this stage) and transfer the spices to my mortar to cool before grinding.

Many Asian dishes use roasted dried chillies. In this case, you actually want the spice to burn (colour) to give a smoky flavour.

Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

"The Internet is full of false information." Plato
My eG Foodblog

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All stoves are different, so you should adjust for your individual appliance. My stove is a little quirky. I suppose medium-low is probably more accurate.

As for roasted vs. unroasted, there is a distinct difference. It's hard to describe. A friend of mine, speaking about black peppercorns, once told me that the worst thing you could do would be to have the peppercorns "catch your throat". In other words, the spices should be pleasantly warm/hot to taste, but not have a "rawness" to them.

A tip: some recipes will instruct you to roast the spices collectively. I prefer to roast them separately. If you're going by the fragrance test, this is probably the better route to go.

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Toasted spice makes a huge difference, if used fairly quickly after toasting. It can really change the final product.

Use a heavy bottomed pan and keep the spices moving, and when you are there get them out of the pan as quickly as you can.

Larger spices like cinnamon sticks and star anise work a little better in the oven, as do chilis.

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+1 for stovetop.

Not sure if this is included in the topic but I do fresh chiles directly over the burner.

As, is often the case, I think the culprit here is the English language as used in recipes. When my cumin (or cloves of cardamom or cinnamon) gets aromatic, it's time to shake the pan; if it stays aromatic (as opposed to producing less aroma because untoasted stuff is facing the pan now), then it's done. That's what I think toasted means. What do others think?

I'm embarrassed to admit I burned a heck of a lot of dried chilies before I learned when spices leave off being "toasted" and start being "burned." It's not immediately obvious to a novice learning on his own!

This is an area where those OCD cookery geeks - I mean those nice molecular gastronomy people could advance the state of the art if they put their minds to it.

This is my skillet. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My skillet is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it, as I must master my life. Without me my skillet is useless. Without my skillet, I am useless. I must season my skillet well. I will. Before God I swear this creed. My skillet and myself are the makers of my meal. We are the masters of our kitchen. So be it, until there are no ingredients, but dinner. Amen.

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curry and the like I toast on the stove before anything else goes in, though I sometimes do it in oil, which seems to be just fine. I never toast anything before grinding though, I'd always grind first and then toast. I doubt it makes much of a difference, aside that the toasting goes faster and needs a bit lower heat and more watching. Or?

At least, that's the way I do it.

Never thought of toasting pepper though, I'd be afraid the good stuff evaporates too fast? It's pretty fugitive from what I understand.

"And don't forget music - music in the kitchen is an essential ingredient!"

- Thomas Keller

Diablo Kitchen, my food blog

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I also use an "unscientific" method of toasting cumin seeds. When I sense a whiff of aroma or smoke and just a hint that the seeds are brown/toasted, I take them off the heat so they don't burn. I have the assumption that if the scent wanes, then I've burned off the oil in the cumin seeds and ruined them by going to far.

David, your experience is the same as mine. As soon as I detect an aroma I take the spice off the stove and out of the pan. I find that any further heat degrades quality. In my kitchen most spices reach this point very very quickly, even on a low flame.

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As for roasted vs. unroasted, there is a distinct difference. It's hard to describe. A friend of mine, speaking about black peppercorns, once told me that the worst thing you could do would be to have the peppercorns "catch your throat". In other words, the spices should be pleasantly warm/hot to taste, but not have a "rawness" to them.

I toasted some cumin yesterday and snapped a before (left) and after shot:

DSC00011.JPG

The shift in odor several people mentioned above was evident as the seeds browned slightly, but I'd describe it differently. At first, the odor is pungent, even gasoline-y; when it consistently smells toasty, I take it off the heat -- dump it into a cold Pyrex bowl, in fact, to slow the cooking as rapidly as I can.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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When roasting, I treat them a bit like pine nuts: if you can see that they are cooked, they're going to wind up overcooked. Thus they are roasted over a moderate heat, agitating the pan to ensure all sides are cooked. I remove the pan from the heat when I can smell the aroma of the spice (they do have a bit of colour by this stage) and transfer the spices to my mortar to cool before grinding.

The part in bold, I think, is key, and I've learned to follow the procedure nickrey suggests after much initial trial and error.

 

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