Toasting and Grinding Your Own Spices

Why you should toast and grind your own spices:

Spices are valued because of their essential oils, which remain locked up in whole spices.  To unlock, you simply grind those spices.

The reason why you should grind your own spices is because those essential oils are very volatile, meaning that they dissapate very quickly.  Logically, the pre-ground spices you buy at the grocery store are probably pretty flavorless already, since grocery store spices are typically months, if not years old already (And yes, this is true even if the bottle still has the stay-fresh-seal intact.  Sorry).

The reason why you should toast your own spices is because the act of toasting sort of “wakes up” those flavors and essential oils.  Suddenly, decent-tasting spices become extraordinarily deep and flavorful, and you really do get more bang for your buck.  Trust me, there is no substitute.

How to toast your own spices:

Toasting your own spices is easy.  Heat a clean, dry pan (I like stainless steel.  I use my clad pan.  A dry cast iron pan or a nonstick skillet both work very well, too) over medium or medium-high heat.  Once it gets hot, add the spices you wish to toast.  Keep the spices moving — toss the spices in the pan, stir it with a heat proof spatula, or just jiggle the pan vigorously on the stovetop, kinda like you’re making stovetop popcorn.  Once the spices start to smell really fragrant, remove the spices to a cool bowl or plate (plates are better, since there’s more surface area to spread the spices.  That way, the spices cool faster and steam doesn’t build up).  The whole process should only take a couple of minutes.  Just be careful not to burn anything!

Grinding your own spices:

This is where things get a little more creative.  There are many ways to grind your own spices.

First, before you grind anything, make sure that your spices have cooled.  Grinding spices that you have just toasted isn’t the best way to do things for two reasons: 1) steam may be built up in the spices, so that when you grind them, the spices get gluey and stick together in a clump, rather than in powder form; and 2) I think grinding hot spices promotes the dissipation of those volatile essential oils, which would negatively impact flavor and be counterproductive, considering the trouble you went through to toast your whole spices in the first place.

I own a terrible mortar and pestle, so that doesn’t really work for me.  My mortar and pestle is made of smooth, light-weight wood, which is why it does such a bad job at grinding things.  If I owned a marble, ceramic, or other stone mortar and pestle, I’d use it all the time.  There’s something quaint, satisfying, meditative, and cool about grinding your own spices with a mortar and pestle.  Just be sure that the grit on the interior surface / bowl of the mortar and on the end of the pestle is fine enough, and to your satisfaction.  Otherwise, your grind may be too coarse.  I should add that to my holiday wishlist: mortar and pestle, NOT MADE FROM WOOD.

When I grind spices, I use an electric coffee grinder.  It’s sweet.  It’s got a rotating blade in it, kind of like a mini blender or food processor.  The blades are thick and sturdy, and rotate extremely fast.  The model I own (which is actually different and more expensive than the one in the link above, yet they perform equally well) is actually detachable, which makes cleanup a snap.  The best part is that it only cost me around 20 or 25 bucks, and it makes things so much easier.  If your coffee grinder can’t be disassembled for washing, you can just run some dry, uncooked rice or kosher salt through it to clean it.

You can also simply use a knife to chop or crack spices.  Sometimes, this is even more advantageous.  Black pepper, for example, tastes very different when used whole, ground (especially when it’s finely ground), or simply cracked.  Cracked black peppers are great for brines and for steak au poivre, for example.  You can rough chop spices with a knife or even lay the knife flat and pound on the side of it with your fist to crack spices open.  Be careful not to cut yourself!

Alternatively, you can put your spices into a cloth bag or fashion a satchet out of a couple layers of cheese cloth.  Then, you can use a rolling pin, a meat mallet, or the bottom of a heavy pan to smash the spices until it reaches the consistency you desire.

There are tons of possibilities, really.  It is up to you how you wish to grind your own spices, but please do not be discouraged.  For the sake of flavor, it’s worth it.

Where to get spices:

Internet sources are probably best for buying spices, as long as it is a reputable, professional source.  Alternatively, you can usually sniff out spice markets in your area by simply looking around (especially in foreign, unknown places).  You can also search for stores nearby on the internet.  I go to my spice guy, Mark, whom I wrote about in a previous blog entry.

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One Response to “Toasting and Grinding Your Own Spices”

  1. Hello i see you blog very nice and i think you feture better post

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