Spices often scare people. There are so many to choose from and it’s confusing knowing when to add them and what they will do to the flavour. Once you know how to use them..you are going to become addicted…just like me!
Now there are a few rules you should follow which will extract the core flavours, but these rules, like with most things, are not definitive.
I like to think of spices as flavour bombs. They hit your taste buds and they explode, making your mouth come alive.
Firstly, make sure your spices are as fresh as can be. I harp on about buying them whole and grinding them yourself, but please please please trust me. Spices aren’t cheap and the fresher they are, the more flavour they will have. Once you have them, please keep them airtight and away from sunlight. Don’t buy huge packets if you aren’t going to use them up quickly, even if the larger packs are cheaper. They will sit around clogging up your pantry and you won’t get the flavour you paid for.
Secondly, add your whole spices first. Hold back on the smaller whole ones, and temper them when the larger ones have been frying for a minute or so. You will know when to add them as the large spices start to change. Green cardamom starts to lose it’s colour, the heads of cloves begin to swell, and the scent of aromatics will fill the air.
Whenever spices are heated, dry or in fat, they begin to release their essential oils which are their essence.
Next, time to add the smaller whole spices, such as cumin seeds, coriander seeds, mustard seeds and any others you like. At this stage I also stir in my turmeric powder. I like to make sure I really cook out that bitter turmeric flavour. The last thing you want is to taste raw turmeric in your dish.
Now this next stage is different per cook/chef. I add my onions. Some add their garlic, ginger and chillies first, but I like to add mine after. My onions can be sliced, diced, finely chopped or minced. Sometimes I let them colour, other times I don’t. The difference between these two stages is very very different and will transform the final flavour of your dish just as much as any spice would.
What next?..garlic, ginger, chillies. Not always all of them, some more than others. I never let them colour and so I always have some water to hand to sprinkle in when it’s on the brink.
Finally it’s time for your ground spices. This can be ground in a pestle & mortar, or a spice grinder, or even a coffee grinder, a clean one! Do this when your onions are saute-ing. I like to pop them all in a small bowl and add enough water to make a paste. This will ensure that they don’t burn the second they hit your hot pan. The water will evaporate off quickly and then the spices will be able to do their job, which is to add enormous flavour to your dish. After a few minutes you will begin to see oil separating away and reaching the surface. This is some of the original oil you started your dish with, and some will be the oils from within the spices. Now, you have to patient and don’t rush this stage. Don’t turn up the heat either or they will burn. It doesn’t take ages and you will thank yourself at the end.
And that’s pretty much it! Your base masala is ready. You can add anything you want now, meat, seafood, veggies, whatever…Once you have this technique down, you can experiment with spices as much as you like. Have a peek in My Spice Box to see what spices I love.
Next time….garam masala!