Spices in Cooking

Spices, which are almost sold dried, is a vital element in cooking. Store spices in a cool, dry place and try to use them within six to ten months. Whole spices, such as peppercorns, nutmeg, cinnamon sticks, cumin seeds, and coriander seeds, are more aromatic and flavorful than their pre-ground counterparts, so grind them yourself as needed.

Why Spices are Used?

1. Spices for health

Spices are used for several reasons - the first and foremost for their health-giving properties. All spices are good for one’s health if eaten in moderation. Turmeric is used both fresh as a root and in powder form. It contains the antioxidant curcumin, thought to help conditions such as a sore throat and possibly prevent cancer.

Chilli, in moderation, can activate the saliva and gastric juices and help to digest food better. Black pepper, which is native to southern India, contains an essential oil called piperine which can aid the absorption of nutrients such as selenium and beta carotene from our food. Pepper is added to many curries either on its own or as part of garam masala, a fragrant, warm spice blend.

2. Spices for flavour

The aromatic oils in spices are used to impart flavour to cooking. These oils are released in two ways - by heating and by crushing or splitting. This is why spice seeds and spice powders behave differently in the cooking process. The seeds require a higher cooking temperature to split them whereas the powders need moderate heat to release their oils.

3. Spices for colour

Turmeric adds a bright golden colour to many savoury dishes. Frying spice powders in oil at the start can add to the final dark colour of the dish.

4. Spices to increase shelf life

Some spices are known to have antimicrobial properties and can help to preserve foods for longer. Mustard, cinnamon and cloves are particularly effective and many pickles in India contain split mustard seeds for this reason.

Spice Seeds

If the recipe has oil and seeds, the seeds will always go into the oil first, with the rest of the ingredients added on top in a sequence that depends on the time taken for each of them to cook. Seeds are also fried in oil and poured on top of a dish as tempering or ‘tadka’.

Toasting Spice Seeds

Spice seeds are sometimes dry-toasted and crushed for freshness of flavour. For example, coriander seeds, cumin seeds and garam masala. Simply toast the spice seeds in a dry frying pan to release their aromatic oils and dry out any residual moisture, making them brittle and easier to crush. As soon as the pan is hot, in a matter of seconds, they will darken and develop an aroma.

Tip them into a mortar and pestle or a spice mill and crush them to a powder. For the freshest flavour of all, you can put toasted garam masala spices in a peppermill and, with a few turns each time, sprinkle them onto curries just before serving.

Powdered or Ground Spices

Powdered or ground spices can go in at three different stages of the cooking. If you want depth of flavour, they go into the warm oil at the beginning. As the oil heats up, you will see three distinct stages. This is true of seeds and powders.

  1. The spices will pop, crackle or sizzle.
  2. They will change colour (except for black or brown mustard seeds).
  3. They will develop a cooked aroma.

When cooking spice powders in oil, it is sometimes difficult to estimate exactly when they are ‘done’. You can add a couple of tablespoons of water to the pan and let it cook for a few minutes until the water has evaporated, leaving the spices sizzling in the oil. The aroma will have changed from being quite strong to becoming mellow.

These stages progress within seconds when the oil has reached the correct temperature, so be sure to have your next ingredient close at hand. If you have seeds in the pan, you can add any ingredient, such as onions, tomatoes, chillies, or vegetables next. However, if you are cooking spice powders, you will have to add a liquid ingredient as soon as the spices are cooked. This could be tomatoes, tamarind pulp, cooked lentils or curry pastes.

List of Spices

1. Turmeric (हल्दी)

One of the most traditional and versatile spices used, turmeric is the heart and soul of any curry. This key ingredient is used daily in every part of India as its unique colour, due to the presence of the pigment curcumin, and flavour enriches all regional cuisine.

As for the root, only cured turmeric has the aroma and colour (chiefly due to the presence of curcumin) necessary for cooking. Turmeric has an earthy, sensual fragrance and a musky, dry taste, but it is used for its wonderful quality of enhancing and balancing the flavours of all the other ingredients. However, be careful not to use turmeric when cooking green vegetables as they will turn dull and taste bitter. Be wary when storing and using turmeric as it will stain hands and clothes quite quickly.

2. Chilli Powder (मिर्च)

Chilli powder is used not only for its heat but also for its colour. Many varieties of chillies, such as Kashmiri red chillies, are bright red but only moderately hot. They are sometimes soaked in water or vinegar and ground to a paste to add a certain colour and smokiness to curries. Byadagi chillies, grown in Karnataka, are deceptively deep red in colour but have minimal heat. Commercially available chilli powder is usually a blend of several varieties and is sold in extra hot, hot, medium and mild versions.

3. Cumin (जीरा)

Cumin seeds are elongated, oval and long. They range from sage-green to tobacco-brown in colour and have longitudinal ridges. Another variety of cumin is black cumin (‘kala jeera’, ‘shahi jeera’ or ‘siya jeera’): the seeds are dark brown to black and are smaller and finer than cumin. The smell of cumin is distinctive; it can be described as strong and bitter.

Cumin has a warm, somewhat bitter taste. It is available whole as seeds, or crushed to a powder, which is often blended with ground coriander to form a widely used mixture called ‘dhana-jeera’. This combination is one of the essential spice blends. Toasted cumin powder gives a lift to many curries and yogurt-based raitas.

4. Coriander (धनिया)

This pretty herb is the most commonly used garnish in northern and western India, and adds a dewy-green touch to red or brown curries. Seeds of the coriander plant are the spice. Coriander is perhaps one of the first spices known to man and has been around for over 3,000 years.

Coriander leaves and seeds are completely different with regards to aroma and flavour. The leaves taste and smell fresh and fruity with a hint of ginger. The seeds, on the other hand, have a sweet aroma with a subtle whiff of pine and pepper.

5. Mustard Seeds (सरसों के बीज)

There are three main varieties of mustard seeds: yellow, brown and black. Raw mustard seeds have almost no smell, but on cooking they acquire a distinctive, acrid, baked-earth aroma that dominates any dish. The seeds are sharp, nutty, slightly bitter and aromatic in taste. Their heat is often misjudged, so be careful when adding them to recipes.

6. Cinnamon (दालचीनी)

Cinnamon is an evergreen tree of the laurel family. Its is a sweet and aromatic spice from the bark of a tropical tree. The dried inner bark of the cinnamon tree is the spice used in cooking. Cinnamon sticks can be used for biryanis and curry pastes as they have a more powerful flavour than ground cinnamon.

Not all recipes call for cinnamon and it’s not one of the everyday spices in cooking. When used, it is often added whole into curries or rice, so it’s best to crush the sticks in a mortar and pestle as and when needed. It is also an essential part of the standard blend of garam masala.

7. Cardamom (इलायची)

Cardamom is one of the most expensive spices in the world. The fat, green pods grown in Kerala, south India, are considered the best. Cardamom pods are oval capsules containing hard, dark brown seeds that are sticky and cling together. The two main varieties are green and black. The green ones have a ‘sweet’ aroma and are used in desserts or savoury dishes, whereas the black ones are smoky and are only used in rich savoury dishes.

8. Asafoetida (हींग)

Asafoetida is the dried latex from the rhizomes of several species of ferula or giant fennel. It is grown chiefly in Iran and Afghanistan from where it is exported to the rest of the world. Asafoetida has a pungent, unpleasant smell, due to the presence of sulphur compounds. This pungency reduces when the spice is cooked and it acquires an aroma like that of cooked onions and garlic.

Its powerful smell complements lentils, vegetables and pickles. It is often used as a digestive spice and in place of garlic in some religions such as Jainism that forbid the use of garlic or any ingredient grown underground as it could lead to the destruction of life when these are uprooted.

It is always used in small quantities - a pinch added to hot oil before the other ingredients is enough to flavour a dish for four.

9. Mango Powder (अमचूर)

Mango powder is made from raw, sour, green mangoes, especially windfalls or wild mangoes. The unripe fruits are peeled, cut into thin slices, dried and powdered to make a fruity, sour spice that is used as a souring agent, especially in dry recipes that would change by the addition of a wet ingredient.

10. Pepper (मिर्च)

Pepper is used in every type of cooking, often as part of a garam masala blend. It can be cooked with the main ingredients or sprinkled on top as a finishing spice.

11. Ajowan (अजवायन)

Ajowan is a close relative of dill, caraway and cumin. The fragrance of the spice is very similar to that of oregano. Ajowan goes particularly well with green beans, root vegetables and in dishes that are flour-based. 

Snacks like Bombay mix and onion bhajias depend on spices like ajowan for their unique flavour.

12. Saffron (केसर)

At one time, saffron grew wild in Persia and Asia Minor but today India and Spain are the only major producers. In India it only grows in the valley of Kashmir. Saffron is the dried stigmas of the Crocus sativus, a perennial bulb, which flowers for just two weeks in late October. 

Saffron is made up of fine, orange-gold threads that are so light that 750,000 handpicked flowers yield only about 450 g. When fresh, saffron is bright and glossy, but exposure to light and air makes it dull and brittle. Pure saffron is believed to be able to colour and flavour 70,000 times its weight in liquid. Its intense, musky aroma suffuses the dish to which it has been added and the taste is delicate and only very slightly bitter.

It is the most expensive spice in the world due to its scarcity, fragility and flavour. Saffron enhances savoury food as well as sweet. A few strands soaked in a little warm water or milk and added to the dish along with the liquid add a fragrant richness. It especially complements milk desserts, rice pulaos and biryanis.

Other Spices

  • Caraway: Common in German cuisine
  • Nutmeg
  • Paprika
  • Peppercorns
  • Clove