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I've been making a lot of Indian food, and I've repeatedly had problems with certain spices being "overpowering" when you get a bite of them. I'm talking specifically about cardamom and cloves, although cinnamon is also problematic since you can't really eat/chew it.

Usually, recipes have you add them in great enough numbers that you can't really just sift through and pull them out by hand. I saw a recommendation to stick them with toothpicks to make retrieval easier, but I'm not sure that would work with cloves (and I'd be worried about someone accidentally biting down on said toothpick).
I've considered using powdered spices, but I'm not sure if it's the same flavor - and most recipes I've seen call for whole spices, not powdered.
I've tried peeling away the cardamom pod and using the tiny seeds inside, but I end up with the same issue - even the tiny seeds give an overpowering lemon-ish flavor when you eat them.

How can I prevent large spices from overpowering all other flavors when they're consumed?

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    Welcome to SA! Thanks for posting a well-written question. – FuzzyChef Oct 27 at 5:10
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Simple: spit them out.

You're not supposed to eat whole cardamom pods or cloves, any more than you'd eat whole cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, or slices of dried galangal. Each diner is expected to spit them out, or pick them out of their food, and set them aside on their plate.

Whole coriander seed, cumin seed, and other small spices are meant to be eaten, but these aren't as intensely flavored.

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    Cardamom pods you can often detect before you bite down on them but cloves are much smaller, often you bite down on them before you know they are there. – GdD Oct 27 at 9:43
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    A worried cook could always dye the unpalatable bits blue. – Mark Morgan Lloyd Oct 27 at 12:56
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    @GdD again, often not in my experience. In a thick sauce, or with rice, or meat, or other things in there it's often not easy to pick out the cardamom before you've already bitten into it – Tristan Oct 27 at 13:22
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    What can I say? It's what folks do in India. The tradition of eating with your fingers makes it easier to pick stuff out, but folks seem to be able to do it even when using a fork. – FuzzyChef Oct 28 at 2:51
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    Huh. I always just eat cloves, bay leaves, and slices of dried galangal. Seems unnecessarily fussy to start picking out spices and leaving them lying on the plate/table, especially when they actually are edible. Besides, I enjoy the flavor. (Cinnamon sticks aren't exactly edible, but they're much larger and therefore easier to pick out. I don't think I've ever even been served a dish with whole cinnamon sticks in it anyway.) – Cody Gray Oct 28 at 3:55
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For whole spices which are hard to pick out, you could try make a bouquet garni. Wrap the whole spices into a bundle, using cheesecloth, a piece of muslin (undyed, loosely woven fabric), a coffee filter tied with string, a tea strainer, or a drawstring tea bag (example).

enter image description here (image source)

This is a technique commonly used for soup making. Depending on the dish, you may find that some types of spice bundle will fall apart, or that the spices will not get as evenly distributed through the dish as intended. I expect that this technique will work better for thinner sauces, and may not work well for thicker sauces.

For recipes which call for adding the spices directly to hot oil, a bouquet garni will not work for this step. After heating the spices in the oil, usually other ingredients are added, and eventually the dish is converted into a sauce. You could remove the whole spices after heating them in oil, package them up into a bundle, and put them back into the simmering sauce to steep further. Or, as J pointed out in comments, you could simply omit them after removing them from the oil, because most of the flavor will have already gone into the oil.

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    No, no, no, no! Not for indian cuisine. OP's spices are meant to go directly into hot oil as the first step of cooking in the tempering step. If you just put them into the liquidy watery curry afterwards it's not the same thing at all. They have to toast in the hot oil - this is where all the magic of indian food comes from. You can fish out the very large spices after the tempering step but you absolutely cannot skip this step and just throw the spices in later. – J... Oct 27 at 12:50
  • @J... Am I missing something? Where does this answer say to skip a step or to put the spices in later? It's just saying to wrap them in a bundle for easier removal before serving. – Tashus Oct 27 at 17:10
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    @Tashus You cannot put cheesecloth, twine, muslin, a coffee filter, or anything else of the sort in hot oil at tempering temperature. They will burn and destroy the dish. Conceivably you could temper everything and then pick out the large inedible spices and then subsequently wrap them in cheesecloth or put them into a spice infuser for the rest of the cooking, but that's a lot of mess, tools, and cleanup for not so much payoff. Most of the flavour comes out in the oil anyway, so easier just to pick out the larger inedible spices after tempering. – J... Oct 27 at 17:14
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    @J... I updated my answer to reflect your point that a bundle will not work in hot oil (I was assuming that was obvious, but in hindsight I see that it's not.) I was thinking of spices that would be added to the sauce after the tempering step (or for recipes that skip the tempering step). – csk Oct 27 at 19:22
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    @anotherdave Still seems cumbersome. The metal will suck the heat out of your oil, and tempering is usually done in a pretty shallow amount of oil, so you really need the spices to spread out on the bottom of the pan - the oil also needs to be able to slide around freely to pick up heat from the whole pan surface. – J... Oct 28 at 21:15
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You could get a spice grinder and grind them. If you do it at the time of cooking (rather than buying preground spices) you're unlikely to get a significant decrease in quality of flavour

Do be aware though that a fine powder will pack much more tightly, and impart a greater amount of their flavour into the sauce, than loose whole spices and so you'll likely need smaller quantities (and measure before grinding not after, 1 tsp of ground cloves is a lot more clove than 1 tsp of whole cloves)

If you don't have a spice grinder you could chop them or gently crush in a mortar and pestle. I do this when I cook with whole cardamom because whilst I love the flavour cardamom imparts to the food, I detest the sensation of accidentally biting into a whole pod. A quick bash in a mortar and pestle breaks the pods up into the individual seeds (which is where most of the flavour is, and are small enough not to cause bad sensations) and the case of the pod (which has less of a pleasant flavour and sensation even after cooking, so I'll often remove)

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  • Will pre-grinding the spices cause any issues when I fry them at the start? – Cowthulhu Oct 27 at 14:51
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    I'm not sure. I have seen people toast spices before grinding, but usually only if they're doing so in a dry pan, it's possible frying before grinding might gum it up – Tristan Oct 27 at 16:39
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    Most spices are actually fine after they've fried whole in oil. Cumin, star anise, etc - all of these hard spices become crispy and much more crumbly after proper tempering so that you can just chew them and they break up easily. If you're going to grind spices my suggestion would be to either dry toast and grind (adding later), or grind raw and then mix into the fresh ginger/garlic so that they become part of a slightly wet paste. The water will help hydrate the spice so that you can fry the paste in oil without burning the fine ground spices. Timing becomes more important here. – J... Oct 27 at 17:21
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    As a half way to this — you could try lightly bashing the spices in a mortar & pestle. Just enough to crack them without going to a powder. You're less likely to get a big chunk, but will still have mostly whole pieces. – anotherdave Oct 28 at 13:39
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Depending on exactly what you're making, there are a few options to remove the spices before being served.

  • For soups and thin sauces, you can use either a teaball or tie it up in cloth, so you can remove them all easily.

  • If there is citrus in the dish, you can push cloves into a section of citrus peel, but you'll want to be careful that you don't knock it around so much that you knock them free from the peel.

  • In other cases, you can sometimes infuse the oil that's being used, remove the spices, and then continue the dish using just the oil. (this technique is used with garlic in som areas of Italy). Unfortunately, not all flavors are oil soluble, so you may not get the same flavors, or as deep of flavors as you would get leaving the spices in there the whole time.

But as people have said -- leaving inedible things in the meal is cultural. It's possible that it might be related to the utensils used, as well -- eating with chopsticks would give you much more selectivity than shoveling your food down with a spoon. And there are some cultures where it's normal to spit things back out -- so you can add olives with pits, but people know not to just chomp into them.

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  • You're probably onto something with the utensil part: Indian food is, classically, eaten with your hands. Which makes it much easier to feel and pick out whole spices if you want to. – FuzzyChef Oct 28 at 2:52
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Count them out beforehand, and remember or even write down the counts, so you know when you are finished sifting them out. If it is a curry, make use of any opportunity where you add water and have the curry in a relatively thin state, sifting will be easiest then. Sometimes, you can use a combination of easy to remember spice counts, eg "1 tejpat, 1 cinnamon stick, 1 piece of javentri, 2 motti elaichi, 3 hari elaichi, 4 laung".

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  • Agreed on the counting ... and never use torn bay leaves in thick sauces – Joe Oct 28 at 13:10
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Primarily I agree with FuzzyChef - just don't eat them. (I'm not Indian, and I eat with a fork, but I still don't find that a problem.)

With cloves specifically though, I would add that if they're tough, strong, and unpleasant post-cooking, they probably haven't been in there long enough. Generally cloves break down to an extent that it's no different to eating something into which you cracked black pepper while cooking - which can also be crunchy and unpleasant if it's too large too late, but it softens with cooking and disintegrates/disperses flavour.

I'll even occasionally chew on cinnamon if it's stewed long enough, but I'd never eat cardamom, even without the stringy texture it'd just be like a mouthful of tea leaves.

Curry leaves soften a lot and should be eaten, if they seem unappetising they definitely haven't been cooked long enough. Bay leaves remain much tougher, but are also larger and extremely easy to leave aside on the plate or not even serve.

I really don't think you should notice seeds like cumin, coriander, caraway, fennel, mustard, etc. in one mouthful from the next without them (and probably each one should contain them anyway!) - but if it really bothers you, you could grind them to a powder, then mix in some water to form a paste before adding to the hot oil, to prevent burning (since each 'piece' now has a much smaller surface area). Then proceed as normal, but faster, as if already toasted and fragrant if they were whole.

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  • Hmm, that comment about me not cooking the cloves long enough is interesting, and makes it sound like I can solve half my problem by just stewing the dish for longer! :) I might just try that, and add less cardamom. Cinamon isn't the biggest deal either, just annoying. – Cowthulhu Oct 28 at 19:17
  • I find the most bothersome whole spice in that regard is mace/javentry - it disintegrates enough to be difficult to fish out, but does not disintegrate enough to distribute itself, and biting on a blade of mace is a rather unpleasant thing.... – rackandboneman Oct 29 at 16:34

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