Indian Cooking 101: How to Work with Dry Spices

Cook, India, Learn, Primers, Regional Spotlight, Tips & Techniques


Did you know that cayenne and paprika will lose color as they age? Or that you can detect cumin’s freshness by smell? When we spoke with experts for our South Asian cuisine for our feature on the flavors of India, we learned a tremendous amount about working with spices at home. As Indian chef Vikas Khanna explained, “Indian cuisines vary widely from region to region, but they are all bound by the abundant use of spices and unique spice blends.”


Below are just a few things we learned about working with spices. In fact, much of it not only is applicable for South Asian cuisines, but also pretty many any other style of cooking. As culinary personality Padma Lakshmi told us:”If you really understand spices, you can revolutionize your cooking.” We couldn’t agree more.


Essential Techniques for Dry Spices


These two spice techniques have the potential to elegant any dish made in your kitchen. Apply the technique of tempering to soups, curries, braises and stews; dry roasting would be ideal before grinding spices to make a rub or seasoning.


This common Indian cooking technique involves heating whole spices in hot oil before adding to a dish.

Tadka, or tempering, is typically done at the beginning or end of the cooking process, either to build complexity or add a final punch of flavor. Unlike dry roasting, frying spices gives them a
bright, bold flavor. In Indian cooking, it’s popular with spices such as cumin, mustard seeds and curry leaves.

Dry Roasting

Dry roasting is a technique wherein whole spices are heated in a dry skillet until fragrant.

Toasting whole spices lends a deep, earthy quality to each. Try the technique at the beginning of a recipe, with spices such as fennel seeds, coriander and dry chiles, to add character to a dish.


Tips for Storing Spices

Be Careful Where You Store.

Spices are sensitive to light, heat and moisture, so make sure to keep them stowed away in a drawer or cupboard far away from the stove and sunlight. Be sure to measure spices with dry spoons, and always close containers tightly after use.

Mind a Spice’s Shelf Life.

Spice shelf life depends on the spice and whether it’s whole or ground, but all spices will lose flavor and color over time. Whole spices can last up to two years, while grounds spices lose their punch within a year. Your best way to know for sure is to smell it; it should have a pronounced aroma.

Pro Tip: Avoid Shaking Spices into Your Pan!

Don’t shake spices directly into a pot or pan when cooking when cooking; exposing your spice jar to heat and moisture can lead to flavor loss and caking. Instead, shake the amount you need into a measuring spoon or onto the palm of your hand.

For more smart tips, including when to use ground versus whole spices, and the biggest mistake people make when using spices, head over to our Guide to Using Spices



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