Toasted, and freshly ground whole spices provide a vividness and depth of flavour you can’t compare with. Roasting spices, is critical in Indian, Thai, and South-Mexican food. In fact, pretty much anything you cook will taste better with freshly toasted spice. It’s also more economical than buying ground spices. Whole spice doesn’t go stale and bland so quickly. On toasting, the chemical composition of spices changes as well, so you get more complex, and quite different, flavours than you do with raw spices.
There are a number of reasons that it makes sense to toast, and grind, your own fresh spice mixes. First, it only takes a few seconds. Second, powdered spices rapidly lose their flavour — freshly ground spices taste far more intense, and delicious. Third, if your spice cabinet is anything like ours, you don’t want to add yet another bottle to search through. And last, if you make your own spice blend, you can tweak the flavours to suit yourself.
If you don’t have a spice grinder, or mortar and pestle, you can use pre-ground spices, and the food will taste fine. But if you use powdered spices, don’t try to toast them—they’ll immediately burn.
Toasting isn’t a complicated procedure, but it demands a little bit of attention. You need to watch the spices, stir (or toss) them regularly, and use your nose, ear and eyes.
For toasting, it’s better to use a thick bottomed pan. Put it on a pretty high heat, and get the pan hot. If you hold your hand just above it, you should feel the heat radiating. (Er, don’t touch it. You’ll burn yourself.)
You can often toast all your spices at once, in the same pan. Just be careful about the order you add them to the pan. Start with the biggest spices, throw them in first, then throw in the smaller spices, until you’ve done them all. The smallest spices, like caraway, mustard seed, or ajiwan, only take a few seconds in a hot pan. You can also, instead, do some of the spices at different times. For toasting dried chiles, for instance, you’ll generally do all the chiles first, and then afterwards do the other spices.
As an example of how you might toast the spices for a relatively complicated curry. You first throw the cardamom in a hot pan. Once it puffs up, throw the cloves and black pepper in together. Once you see the black pepper swell a little bit, you can then throw fenugreek and coriander seed in. After that, you throw in the fennel, then quickly the cumin. After a few seconds, the cumin will start to pop and you can throw in the ajiwan.
Then, before they burn, get them out of the hot pan immediately.
Depending on the recipe, or your personal preferences, you might want to toast them lightly, or intensely. Generally speaking, you’ve achieved a light toast pretty much as soon as soon as you can smell the fragrance of the spices waft up from the pan. A darker toast will make for an earthier and richer flavour. It will be dark when you notice the spices swell up, puff, or even pop a little bit, and the smell can be quite intense.
Even a dry pan will likely smoke a little bit when you toast spices. This isn’t a problem at all. But keep an eye on the spices themselves, so that they don’t burn. Especially the smallest spices can burn very quickly.
We have a fricking huge mortar and pestle. They’re pretty readily available (even in obscure places like Nova Scotia) from good Asian grocers*. Functional mortars and pestles are increasingly common in other places, like Indian markets, Mexican markets, and even some white people stores. Generally speaking, it’s a lot easier to grind spices in a bigger mortar and pestle, since the weight of the pestle does most of the hard work.
At that point, grind everything together. It’s easy enough in a big mortar and pestle. Make sure you pull out the husks of the cardamom, if you’re using it. How fine you want it is a matter of preference. In the picture at the head of this article, for instance, the spice is ground quite coarsly. If you feel like some of the components aren’t fine enough, you might want to use a sieve and get rid of the finest spices, and continue with the recalcitrant bits. Fenugreek can, in particular, be a pain in the ass.
I have intense memories of making one of my first big Indian meals with my PhD supervisor in Brisbane. We toasted the spices, as per the recipe, but only had a small porcelain mortar and pestle. The coriander and cumin were relatively easy, but it still took 3 hours to finish making the masala. The cinnamon, particularly, was a pain in the ass. Ever since, if I’m using a mortar and pestle, I use ground cinnamon, and ground turmeric. Or, you can just toast everything together as per the recipe, husk the cardamom, and bung it all into an electric grinder.
For the most part, spice blends stay fresh in a sealed container for a month or two.
*You can tell an Asian grocer is good by the crappy lighting; the overloaded shelves; the presence of offal, feet and blood; live catfish, lobster, frogs, turtles or snails; and spectacular produce. Durian is also diagnostic.