Techniques

Ground Spices and Spice Blends

whole spices
The best spice are always ground at home. Spices will keep for years if left whole. But the minute they are ground, they start deteriorating. That means the spice blends in your market are far less flavorful than they once were.

The process isn’t hard, but it does take a little time.

For many spices, the first step is toasting. (This is important for anise, caraway, cumin, coriander, fennel, and similar seed-type spices.) Heat releases the spice oils, which changes their flavor, usually for the better. Use a dry pan, preferably made of cast iron, which conducts heat evenly. Add the spices to the pan and keep them moving by shaking the pan or stirring. This constant movement ensures the spices will toast evenly. As soon as they become fragrant, the toasting is done. Be careful, as these tiny seeds and berries can burn very quickly. Remove them from the heat and the pan. Remember, the pan is still hot and it will keep cooking the spices until you remove them.

Next comes the grinding. Cool the spices before you grind them. They are easier to handle, and they emit fewer fumes.

I prefer to use a coffee grinder for this job. It is small, which forces the spices through the blade more often than a larger food processor or blender does, producing a finer, more even grind. I recommend you get a separate grinder just for spices. I have had some mighty weird coffee after a particularly spicy kitchen escapade.

When I am feeling historic, I enjoy grinding in a mortar. The result is rougher, but more spiritually satisfying. (Culinary geeks, unite!) There is also a method the French call mignonette, in which whole spices are crushed by the flat bottom of a frying pan. This works well for peppercorns. Don’t whack the pan onto the spices like a fly swatter, but rather, use the pan to knead or rub the spices into submission. This is typically done with pepper, but it works for everything in a pinch. I like to do this when I am trying to impress people. It’s fancy!

Some recipes call for spices to be toasted in oil. The oil changes the flavor of the spice, and it takes on the flavors, carrying them throughout a dish.

Sometimes the toasting of spice blends is done in stages, giving each ingredient the perfect cooking time to release its maximum flavor. But when we’re talking about blends of 10-20 spices and herbs, I just don’t have that kind of time. Just keep in mind that small particles of spice cook faster than large ones. If your mixture includes tiny seeds, add them to the pan last, or watch super carefully while it cooks and use it as an indication of doneness for the rest of the mix.

Many spice blends include important ingredients that shouldn’t be toasted, because they will burn. Dried herbs like thyme or oregano, powdered ginger, or granulated garlic are some examples. Use a little common sense here, and try not to smoke out your room mate.

The holiday basics, cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove don’t need toasting, but do benefit from a fresh grind. I put them all into the coffee grinder by crunching up the whole sticks, bashing the whole nutmeg nut into smaller bits with my meat mallet. Add a copule cloves, and any additional ingredients. (Hint: I like to add a star of anise, and a handful of cardamon seeds.) Then I whiz it all into submission and proceed with m holiday baking.

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