Spices bring a lot of flavor and depth to our favorite recipes, but there’s a good chance you’re missing out on even tastier bites by simply tossing them into your dish willy nilly. Instead, learning how to bloom spices will take your meals to a whole new level.
If you’ve never heard about blooming or tempering spices, don’t worry — it’s totally easy! All you need is a little oil, butter, or ghee and whatever spices are called for in your recipe.
Nik Sharma, recipe developer and author of The Flavor Equation (Buy on Amazon, $31.50), recommends letting the fat heat over a medium-low flame before adding whatever spices you’re using. You can check that the temperature is ready by sprinkling a bit of the spice into the fat — if it sizzles, it’s ready to start blooming.
The cooking time will vary depending on the specific spices you’re using, but it should only take a few moments. It’s a matter of keeping a close eye (and nose) on everything as it heats up. When the aroma becomes strong and the spice looks toasted, it’s probably fully bloomed.
Sharma says whole spices will stop sizzling at that point because all of the moisture has gone out. He also warns not to over do it, or the flavor will turn bitter. Depending on the spice you use, this method can bring out bold flavors or reduce the harshness of others. Either way, he calls it “an amplified sensorial experience that would not otherwise be achieved in the absence of heat.”
Once the spice is bloomed, you can then finish by sautéing the rest of your recipe in the infused oil or reserve it to pour over the top of your finished dish. Priya Krishna, chef and author of Indian-ish (Buy on Amazon, $23.49), describes the process as “the greatest Indian cooking technique ever.” She also explains how the infused oil, known as tadka or chhonk, can be used to top off countless dishes.
“Pour chhonk over nachos! Noodles! Steak! Literally anything that needs a flavor blast of any kind.” You can use whatever blend of spices you want, but her go-to combos call for things like cumin, chili powder, dried red chili, and asafetida warmed up together for a kick of heat, or a milder mix of mustard seeds and curry leaves.
Sharma also dug into the science of how this seemingly magical process works. “Drying spices ‘freezes’ these flavor molecules in place (to a certain extent and for a limited amount of time), and increases their shelf life,” he explains. “But drying also reduces the strength of their aroma and taste. Applying heat to most dried spices helps move those fragrances out of the spice, so that when they hit your tongue, they produce a stronger flavor experience.”
It’s not just dried spices that can benefit from the hot oil treatment, though. Whole, ground, or cracked spices work great, too. Try it with something as simple as cracked black pepper and you’ll probably notice a delicious difference!
The technique also works great for sweet recipes. As we mention in a recent issue of our print magazine (Buy on Amazon, $15.97 for one year subscription), you can use butter to bloom seasonal spices like cinnamon and cloves to give your holiday bakes an even more festive flavor! Just subtract the amount of infused oil you create from the amount of plain oil called for in your recipe.
Trust us, once you teach yourself how to bloom spices, you’ll wonder how you ever whipped up a meal without it!
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