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?

  • 1
    Could you provide souurce material recommending frying the spices in oil; I am unfamiliar with this technique, as opposed to dry toasting
    – mfg
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 16:46
  • 1
    @mfg It's common (or even standard) in Indian cooking. Look up recipes and you'll see it all the time.
    – Cascabel
    Commented Dec 28, 2013 at 2:52
  • 2
    Almost all Indian recipes, especially south Indian ones, call for this process of tadka of frying spices in oil either at the beginning or at the end. For example, see npr.org/2011/12/07/143251451/… and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaunk. To my understanding, the spices should NOT be dry roasted as other people suggest - As one of the point of tempering is to season the oil with the taste of the spices, in order to get ultra condensed flavor droplets in the final product. (Expert cooks - does this make sense?)
    – dan12345
    Commented Dec 28, 2013 at 9:02
  • @mfg It's been asked and answered before; this answer points out both that it helps extract flavor and that it makes it way easier to avoid scorching.
    – Cascabel
    Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 1:33

5 Answers 5


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
  • How do you know if the oil is hot enough, while avoiding getting to the smoking point where it starts breaking up to non-healthy fat?
    – dan12345
    Commented Dec 28, 2013 at 9:03
  • Its mostly just experience but I've updated my answer for more
    – Divi
    Commented Dec 28, 2013 at 10:00
  • @dan12345 In addition to the oil thinning (flowing easily) when hot, it'll start to shimmer a bit.
    – Cascabel
    Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 1:29
  • Cooking the spices in oil isn't just to get it to be sizzling. It's easier to cook fairly quickly but uniformly (without burning) if they're surrounded by hot oil than if they're only being heated by the small point of contact with the pan, and a bit by the hot air.
    – Cascabel
    Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 1:31
  • @dan12345 for mustard oil smell tells whether the oil is hot or not
    – iec2011007
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 14:17

You don't have to put the seeds after the oil heats up. I'm Indian and we put it with the oil and then turn the stove on, and when the seeds pop, its like a timer and tells us when the other stuff needs to be added


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.

  • Isn't bringing the oil to the smoking point unhealthy? Or is this common practice? I don't mean to sound petty, I'm just really trying understand the rights and wrongs of oil use. If it is unhealthy but everyone does it, then I'm okay with it :)
    – dan12345
    Commented Jan 5, 2014 at 14:01
  • yes it's common in Indian cuisine specially cooking with musturd oil it is required to bring it to smoking point because it gives very pungent smell so heating it is a way of removing any smell present in oil itself. Commented Jan 5, 2014 at 18:15

The seeds are not popping right way when you are adding indicates that the oil is not hot enough.Just lower the flame for some time.It wil slowly start to burst.Dont wait with the seeds in the oils at high flame as this can result in burning away of seeds

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