Why You Should Start Toasting Your Spices

Cooking without spices is like living a life with no excitement. Spices not only add flavor, aroma, and color to dishes; some, like turmeric, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper, are said to have a host of health-boosting properties, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Unfortunately, many of us may be using spices in a way that doesn't do them justice; one of the ways we do this is by buying pre-ground spices, which are, more often than not, way past the point of potency. The workaround for this is to buy whole spices — peppercorns instead of ground pepper or whole seeds like cumin and coriander — then put them in a skillet and toast them. 

While this might be more time-consuming, it's the better option because while pre-ground spices are shelf-stable, they begin to lose their flavor and aroma almost as soon as they've been ground. A spice's volatile oils are released when pulverized and heated, and this is really where they get their oomph. 

Chef Floyd Cardoz, formerly of North End Grill in NYC, explains why toasting spices is an essential first step: "To extract natural flavors and enhance the effect on your dish, heat up spices before cooking. While spices are naturally aromatic, "it's heat that really wakes up those aromatic oils."

How to toast your own spices

Most whole spices reach their full flavor potential when they have spent time warming up in a skillet. To toast spices and seeds like cumin, coriander, black peppercorns, mustard seeds, fennel, and cloves, first pick a large pan to spread out the spices so they don't sit on top of each other. Warm the pan over medium heat, then lay each spice in a single layer. Either stir the spices or shake the pan so that the spices are evenly toasted, which should take between two to four minutes. You need to be extra careful when toasting cloves and sesame seeds because they tend to toast more quickly than others.

Another thing to remember is that the amount of time you spend toasting spices will determine their flavor. Lightly toasted spices will have a more subtle flavor, which will get bolder as the spices become darker. Also, transfer the spices out of the pan as soon as they are finished because they will continue to cook if left in. Be careful not to burn your spices because they can quickly turn bitter. Once cool, you can grind them with a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder before using or storing them in tightly sealed containers.