In her bi-weekly column, Kitchen Basics, Susan Pachikara of Cardamom Kitchen demystifies essential cooking skills with step-by-step instructions and her own handsome photos. Whether she's showing us how much brown sugar we're meant to "pack"(or is it cram?) into measuring cups or how to detect when our onions are properly caramelized, Susan is the nonna we never had -- until now. Now, go on and get cozy under her wing.
This week, Susan returns to the topic of spices to explore techniques for releasing flavor through heat.
In our last conversation, I shared tips for storing and preparing spices. In this post, I’ll highlight techniques I like to use to harness their dynamic flavors.
I grew up in a rural town that had one other Indian family. Next to oven-fried chicken and Swanson dinners, my family’s culinary traditions seemed odd. So I never talked about my mom’s spice mixtures or the crispy dosas and pillow soft appams we ate together. These days when I mention my ethnic roots, strangers gush about how they love Indian food and then confess how they’re intimidated by all the spices. Like the home cooks who taught me, I use simple techniques to coax flavors out of spices. Just follow the tips I’ve outlined below.
Sauté ground spices in oil:
While grinding spices helps to release their essential oils, heating them helps to round out their flavors. Try mixing ground spices with a bit of water to form a paste and then sautéing it in oil over medium heat. You can also add ground spices to onions, ginger, and garlic that have been cooked briefly.
Sauté whole spices in oil:
Whole spices must be heated to release their flavors. Sautéing them in oil helps their flavors to mature while simultaneously seasoning the oil. Cook the spices until you can smell their aromas. Remove them from the heat or move on to the next step of the recipe before they brown. In Southern India, vegetable stir-fries (or "thorens") are often made with oil that’s been infused with the toasty flavor of black mustard seeds and dried chili peppers. (Check out my recipe for Carrot Thoren, which is pictured at the top of this post.)
Cook spices in a liquid:
Boiling or simmering whole or crushed spices also helps to release their essential oils. This method is used to season rice pilafs that call for simmering spices with water or broth. It is also used to make drinks like masala chai by boiling and steeping spices in milk.
Combine complementary spices:
Another simple way to bring spices to the table is through the use of spice rubs. The full flavor of blackened catfish comes from a coating of paprika, cayenne, black pepper, and dry herbs that’s quickly pan-fried in oil. Similarly, rubbing beef with crushed peppercorns, fennel seeds, cumin, and coriander before grilling it adds an extra layer of flavor and a contrasting crunch.
Although spices are often associated with savory dishes, they can also be used to warm and sweeten desserts. If you’re drawn to cardamom, try pairing it with cloves and cinnamon in cookie dough or cake batter. If you have ginger, allspice, and nutmeg on hand, mix up some pumpkin pie spice. Thanksgiving is just around the corner.
I’d love to hear about your adventures with spices! Do you have tips for drawing out aroma and flavor? Share them with your fellow cooks in the comments section below.
Are you new to cooking? Tell me what skills you'd like to learn and your idea could be featured in an upcoming post!
Want more basic tips from Susan? Check out her previous post: Kitchen Basics: Spices, Part 1 of 2.
All photos by Susan Pachikara.
Susan writes the blog Cardamom Kitchen to share her culinary experiences as an Indian-American rooted in the Midwest.