Thursday, December 30, 2010

Grinding Spices

In a couple of seconds, with the touch of a button, a teaspoon of cumin seeds, a teaspoon of fennel seeds, and a teaspoon of crushed red pepper becomes a custom spice mix. All it takes is a small and inexpensive electric coffee grinder or spice mill, available at any household goods store. At first, grinding your own garam masala, or spice mix seems exotic. Soon it's just like using a food processor.

A small coffee grinder, used just for spices, turns whole spices into fresh powders right in your kitchen. Grinding the whole spices releases an explosion of flavor, especially if the spices are toasted first. Often toasting is done to dry out damp spices, but sometimes toasting really brings out the flavor, such as with toasted cumin seeds.

Once you start grinding whole spices, you find yourself grinding fresh spices for practially every recipe.

Whole Spice
The aromatic oils and compounds in spices are why we use them, and the flavor keeps best in nature's packages. Whole spices keep a year or more. The famous East India Company traders shipped whole spices. For many spices, I used to have both jars of powders and whole, and now keeping just whole spices simplifies my spice rack. You should throw away any spices more than 1 year old, and most powders (except turmeric.)

Why whole spice?
- Whole spice tastes better.
- Whole spice keeps better.
- Whole spice is more flexible; whole can be used either whole or ground as needed.
- Reduces clutter of duplicate spice jars, if you had both whole and ground versions.

Spice Powder
Ground spices release their flavor quickly, and are generally added late to a dish. In contrast, slow cooked dishes generally use whole spices, which have plenty of time to break down, and form a base or bottom layer of flavor complexity. Quick dishes and finishes, however, use powdered spices, to release their flavor right away, and form a finish or top layer of flavor complexity.

Why spice powders?
- Increased surface increases flavor and speeds absorption.
- Blends into sauces and gravies.

Roasting Spices
- Sometimes spices are dry roasted to reduce moisture, to make grinding easier, particularly in moist climates.
- Sometimes spices are dry roasted is to cook and transform flavors. Mustard seeds pop and change flavor when roasted.

- To toast spices, use a dry pan on medium heat, add spices, and watch closely until spices start to release aroma, 1-3 min. Remove immediately from heat, and from pan into into measuring cup. This stops further roasting or burning.
- Grind small amounts, as needed.
- Grind until big piece clatter stops, generally only 5-10 sec.
- Some spices benefit from roasting. This heats and changes their aromatic oils and compounds. Mustard seed and cumin seed are examples.
- Damp spices should be toasted lightly to dry before grinding.

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