Many Indian recipes call for a quick frying of mustard seeds until they start popping. If the oil is really hot the mustard seeds pop right away - But as I'm always afraid letting my oil get to the smoke point, I sometimes add the mustard seeds when the oil is not hot enough, but then they change color but don't pop, even after 1 minute. Should I be waiting for them to pop at the risk of them burning?
I generally heat the oil and when its hot, remove the pan from heat or lower the heat to quite a bit while I add the mustard seeds. The mustard seeds do not need to cook or pop for more than 5-10 seconds, otherwise they'll burn. Mustard seeds are different to cumin seeds, which take just a bit longer to pop and fry. Also remember to keep the next ingredients ready to go in when you return the pan back to heat.
I also, do not like them popping out of the pan, so I just put the lid on the pan, but that's my personal preference. And remember, if they burn, you can always time it and learn how to cook it for lesser time :)
The reason why the spices are fried and not dry toasted is because traditionally, the "tadka" is supposed to be sizzling in oil when its added to the cooked curry or daal.
EDIT: How to tell when the oil is hot
- I would generally put my hand just over the pan and feel the pan's heat. I shouldn't be able to hold my hand over the pan but please be careful with this method.
- If the oil easily moves around the pan (like water) and coats the pan quickly
- You can try adding a few mustard seeds (3-4) and they should sizzle immediately after adding to the pan
As for your first concern of smoking point of oil, here's a handy trick: when you feel the oil is hot enough but are not sure, throw in just one mustard seed and see if it pops. If yes, add all your mustard seeds.
As for your second concern of burning the mustard seeds, the moment your seeds are popping, you should be ready to add onions or whatever your next ingredient is. This way the onions / second ingredients catch the sizzle of the popping mustard and bring down the temperature preventing the seeds from burning.
Popping of the mustard seeds is a must. Without this, the taste build up will not happen. In Indian cooking, the heating oil and adding the cumin / mustard and its popping is called, "Chaaunk" or "Tadka". This "Chaaunk" is the essence of Indian cooking.
it depends on oil you are using cooking in musturd oil requires you to take the oil to smoking point then reduce the flame wait for 30 secs and then add musturd seeds process is almost same for every oil with little variations.
the key is to reduce the flame and wait for few seconds to add the whole spices.