The Warmth of Winter

Spiced ales, spiced nuts, spice cake, sugarplums, gingerbread…the holidays are practically synonomous with spices. Whether your kitchen inspiration is limited to these seasonal celebrations or you’re a full-time, dedicated foodie: spices are the key ingredients to many holiday dishes.

Dry roasting your spices is a simple but often overlooked way to bring extraordinary flavor to your cooking. The gentle heat used in roasting teases out aromas while coaxing compounds and oils that may otherwise stay subdued in a raw, dried powder. Dry roasting a spice will get you the coveted “wow” from friends and family over your holiday food.

The actual effort of dry roasting a spice is small. It takes about 10 minutes during which you get to immerse yourself in an aromatic cloud. That’s another benefit — you get to enjoy the aromatherapeutic qualities of spices’ essential oils.

While there are many who disagree, in my opinion dry roasting spices is not an exact science. I have my own methods but decided to do some research to make sure I wasn’t enforcing slacker habits as a dry spice roaster. Three different sources insisted on three different techniques  ranging from pre-heating the pan to starting with a cold pan to putting the spices in a ladle and holding it over gas burner.

So what are you supposed to do? I found some common ground between all these methods, including my own.

How to dry roast a spice:

Cracked cardamom pods. I weeded out the pale seeds…they were old.

1. Take the spice you want to roast. In my example I roasted some green cardamom seeds. You can either roast the pods whole then shell them or crack the pods, shell them and roast the whole seeds. A mortar and pestle make easy work out of cracking cardamom pods.

2. Put your spices in a pan with a heavy bottom. I prefer cast iron or All Clad. Here’s the deal with the heat: you want it slow and consistent. The goal is to coax out flavors and roast the spices evenly throughout the outside and center. A heavy-bottom pan spreads and keeps the heat even and consistent. I recommend keeping the heat on low or medium-low. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon or wooden spatula. Expect to stir anywhere from 6 to 10 minutes depending on the quantity you’re roasting.

3. Roast your spices until they their aroma begins to saturate the air. You will begin to smell them immediately but don’t stop until they are really fragrant. You’ll know because it feels like you can taste them in the air. You won’t notice a huge change in color.

4. When done pour them into a bowl and let them cool. When cool use a spice grinder to get them to your desired consistency. (The amount pictured yielded about 2 tablespoons.)

Note: you can also roast ground spices. If you’re roasting ground spices you stir consistently to prevent them from burning. Personally, I prefer to roast the whole spice then grind them. Pre-ground spices tend to lose their potency quickly especially when they’re exposed to the 3 enemies of flavorful spices. Then you’re not left with much flavor to roast.

Roasting changes a spice’s subtle flavor. Cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom tend to mellow and deliver more sweetness. Caraway seeds offer a toasty bite that softens their pungent tendency. Someone described fennel as fresh straw and toasted marshmallows. Ginger reveals a hint of burnt sugar. Coriander becomes almost citrus-y.

Experiment with different spices and see what you like best. Share and compare your results!

Header photo attribution: “The Warmth of Winter” by MJP.