Cooking with spices can be tricky and to those new to using spices complicated!
This article will help you understand the different kinds of spices used in Indian cooking and how to use them to add flavour to your dishes.
Spices For Cooking
A popular reason for most attendees who attend my cooking classes is their need to know more about using spices in Indian cooking.
This indeed is very important.
One of the most vital part of Indian food is the use of spices which makes it different and perhaps a bit complex than any other cuisine. Saying that cooking with spices is not just limited to Indian cuisine but can be used with any dish you fancy spicing UPP!
Using spices for cooking food has become increasingly popular due its flavour and health enhancing properties.
But randomly using spices to a dish without understanding them may lead to a flavour mishap and dishearten those new to using them and those eating them.
Its always a good idea to learn and understand how to work with spices in its best form to lift the taste and flavour of your dishes.
This step wise guide will take you through a journey of a spice life cycle through cooking with them and its impact on your food!
Step 1 – Know Your spices
There are seemingly hundreds of spices all over the world. Few are integral to Indian cuisine such as cumin powder, coriander powder, garam masala powder, chilli powder, turmeric powder and few others. Not all spices render taste.
Its primarily the powdered spices which enhance the taste of the dish, while whole spices are used to impart flavour to the dish.
Cooking spices in the right way has an overall outcome on the flavour and taste of a dish.
For example a spicy vindaloo or rogan josh will require more spices to give that spicy kick and hence use more quantity of powdered spice. While a mild korma or butter gravy will require whole spices as opposed to using just powdered spices.
So, the take away from this is that you need to understand that each spice plays a certain role in the dish.
You need to use it by understanding whether the dish requires a particular taste, flavour or both. And the best way to do this is to smell or perhaps taste just a tiny speck of the spice you will be using. This will give you an idea of how much or how little or the kind of spice you need to make the dish.
Step 2 – Anticipate the change in form
A unique quality of spices is the way the essence of a particular spice changes when it is processed further.
What I mean by this, is that same spice can taste different and give a completely different kind of taste or flavour to the dish depending on how it has been processed during cooking.
Let’s take cumin seeds as an example ingredient for a Lamb Bhuna recipe.
Cumin seeds when used whole imparts a very woody aromatic flavour but does little to its taste. The same spice in a powder form provides a very pungent spicy taste to the dish. If the seeds are roasted and ground then the flavour and the taste both gets further enhanced and gives a woody, fresh and a sharp spicy taste to the dish.
In this Lamb Bhuna dish we have used whole spices and then roasted them and grounded them to make fresh ground spice.
This changes the form of spices during the cooking spices process. The form changes from being a raw whole spice to roasted ground spice emitting stronger flavour compounds.
So, once you have selected your spices, think about the following two points:
- The form you will be using it in that is whether as whole, ground or roasted form and;
- How it’s going to be processed further while cooking i.e. tempered, sautéed, simmered.
Anticipating and planning the change in the form of spice in a dish will have a direct effect on the overall taste.
Step 3 – Consider combinations during the cooking process
Apart from being of a particular form that is ground or whole, spices also have distinctive taste classification such as sweet, sharp, pungent or simply a colour enhancer.
When working with spices it will help to know the underlying taste that you wish to bring in the dish.
For example sweet spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom will give a subtle sweetness to the dish and impart flavour. Sharp or hot spices such as chilli powder, pepper, garam masala will render heat. Pungent spices such as coriander powder, cumin powder, asafoetida are primarily the taste enhancers giving the dish a distinctive taste.
When using spices, it’s always a good idea to bear in mind the combination of taste with other ingredients in the dish. This will help you to get a balance of taste and flavour.
Step 4 – Less is More – when cooking spices
A common belief is that Indian food is spicy, that however does not mean that you simply cover your dish with spices just because the recipe calls for it.
Spices especially chilli powder is an individual preference. If one person enjoys the hot kick that does not mean that others like their ears and mouth to be put on fire!
Also, spicing a dish with every other spice from your cupboard DOES NOT mean you are making a spicy curry. There has to be a method and need for it. As I mentioned in previous steps, first get yourself familiar with the spice, its form and work on the combinations of mixing spices with other ingredients.
The best way to do this is to follow recipes which calls for simple and minimum spices. Start with small amounts like ½ to 1 tsp of spice and slowly work your way. Over spicing simply kills the taste of other ingredients used and does more harm than good.
Step 5 – Experiment with spices
I am hoping that by this step you have a better understanding of how spices evolve during the cooking process. The best way to get comfortable working with them is to turn your kitchen into a spice lab!
If you start small but often, you will get more confident using and cooking with spices. This is not limited to making Indian dishes alone. You can spice up your steaks, stews and soups too! The advantages of doing this is that spices give an instant lift to any dish and also have health benefits.
As you get more adept with using spices in combination with others, you can eventually start making your own spice blends and storing them for easy access.
There is no limit to the various kinds of combinations you can make with spices varying the ingredients and quantities.
Get Cooking With Spices
SImply folow the steps expalined above and start with taking an easy recipe that requires miminum spices.
You can make this Easy Pumpkin and Beans Curry with Coconut Milk .
This dish is made with the basic Indian spices both in whole and ground form so will give you a good starting point.
So put on your scientist coat aka apron and get experimenting and enjoy Spicing it UPP !!
Dont forget to let me know how it goes!
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