If I have a group of spices, all dried and ground, say: nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, ginger, and black pepper...

I'm curious about how to maximize their flavor for a drink or dish, and in what liquids spices are ideally soluble.

Do they need or benefit from sauteeing in oil, or is simmering in water better? Does the liquid need to be hot? Should they be toasted? Or mixed in a food grinder? Or just added directly to the dish?


  • I'm curious as to whether it makes any differences to put spices in the oil before cooking the food, say, while the pan heats up. Does anyone know if this is more effective than just putting spices and food into the pan together?
    – Will
    Jul 21, 2013 at 1:42

5 Answers 5


The classic technique for most spices is to roast them. This can be done in a dry pan because the spices cotain their own oils, you just need to make sure that they don't burn. The spices are usually used in the dish from the start so that they have time to infuse, but it is not always the case, for instance there are many dishes which add Garam Masala spice mix towards the end of the cooking although the spices have again usually been roasted before they are used.

Regarding grinding them, again it does vary. Some spices are added whole but will then have to be removed before eating, some spice mixes are ground so they are eaten with the dish. All spices as far as I am aware should be roasted whole though so you would usually roast them and then grind them to produce the spice mix.

  • What is you were using already ground spices. Is there such a thing as roasting ground spices?
    – Ocaasi
    Aug 3, 2010 at 7:49
  • I have seen ground spices fried in oil before being used, similar to roasting. I personally don't tend to use this method so I can't vouch for it's effectiveness but you could give it a try.
    – Ian Turner
    Aug 3, 2010 at 7:52

Most of the flavors components found in these dried spices are oil-soluble, so you will indeed extract more flavor out of them if there is at least a bit of fat in the dish. Also, it is helpful to rub them between your fingers before adding, to release the oils.

  • Do you know if, when sautéing food, there is any point in putting the spices in the oil before putting the food in the pan? Does sautéing the spices alone in the oil for a little bit help distribute them more evenly or make the dish more flavorful? (My girlfriend and I disagree on this point - I think it makes no difference whether they're added with the food or before)
    – Will
    Jul 21, 2013 at 1:48
  • 1
    I think your girlfriend has it right, cooking them directly in the oil gives them a chance to extract more completely before the temperature comes down when you add the rest of the food. However if you use that method, you really have to watch both time and temperature as it is easy to scorch the spices and ruin them. Jul 22, 2013 at 2:53

It really depends on the specific spice. In my experience with Indian and Chinese cooking, ginger and cumin like oil and heat. On the other hand, turmeric and cloves can't take that heat and are added only after the liquids.

Sometimes (I learnt this form Italian cooking) there are spices that will work in both cases, but differently. As an example, when I'm making lasagna, I add nutmeg in three places:

  • When sauteeing the onions in olive oil at the start
  • When all the tomato sauce ingredients are in and it's got some water
  • Rubbed in to some chilli flakes and sprinkled among the cheese on top

Herbs, on the contrary, always need at least a little water to infuse into.


It depends on what your cooking and what form the spice is in. For example, with soups you want to add the spices to the base--often a mix of gently sauteed onion and olive oil. Add the spices and saute until fragrant.

With cookies you'll want to add them with the dry ingredients and whisk them into the flour.

Meats and seafoods you may coat the meat with the spice blend like a rub or mix the spices into the flour and then coat before braising or baking.

Whole spices may be added throughout the cooking period and then strained out before eating (pepper corns, bay leaves, whole cloves, star anise, etc.)

But yes...dry roasting spices really amps up the flavor. So does grinding them fresh before using. Or at least grind several tablespoons at time if you don't want to hassle with a spice grinder each time. Good luck and enjoy!


Yes on the comments about the positive effects oil may have: make sure that you're not using more oil than you're prepared to consume, as you will throw away flavor with any oil you're not using. So marinading in (plenty) of oil, and then discarding this oil before cooking, will paradoxically discard flavor instead of adding it.

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