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It seems to be common knowledge that "toasting is better" when it comes to spices. But the other day I noticed my toasted-and-freshly-ground coriander smelled pretty weak, and I ended up boosting the flavor with pre-ground stuff that packed a lot more "fresh" (citrusy, floral) flavor.

It got me thinking - is toasting really better? Cooking is full of pervasive myths, and perhaps this is one of them? If it turns out toasting can be beneficial, then which spices really need it, which only see some small improvement (and could be skipped), and which ones should not be toasted?

I found this long and interesting article that argues against toasting. My TL;DR summary:

  • Plenty of generations-old family recipes use raw (untoasted) spices. They know about toasting but have chosen not to for centuries.
  • One Indian cookbook says toasting helps dry out whole spices that have become damp during monsoon season, for easier grinding (not for flavor).
  • McGee says toasting "mellows" spices.
  • Essential oils are lost into the air, making a nice smelling kitchen (but less flavor for the food itself).
  • 2
    Well... if the spies are whole but still years-old, they're not going to be very good... So, if the stuff you bought pre-ground was picked more recently, then of course it's going to be better... – Catija Oct 6 '15 at 20:34
  • yes it's possible my coriander seeds were old. But I found it interesting that the article I linked to also mentioned coriander losing its flavor from toasting. Lets assume for this question that the whole spices are reasonably fresh. – mpoisot Oct 7 '15 at 0:11
  • I for one love roasting spices. Not for a very long time.Just for a minute. It gives amazing flavor to any food I make.I have cumin seeds which I normally roast and crush them into powder to put in buttermilk.You can see the difference between normal cumin powder and roasted cumin powder is significant. It is not a myth at all. But you don't put roast spices in everything only in recipes it is called for. I am sure your whole spices were old if it did not smell right. I am not a fan of coriander but I prefer pre-ground coriander than roasted one because it is already quite stronger in flavor – User56756 Oct 8 '15 at 0:06
  • Very, very few recipes are "exact", where every detail has been thought about, tested and stated (such as whether spice X should be toasted or not). Recipes from Cook's Illustrated, Alton Brown, Serious Eats (by Kenji) I consider exact. 99.9% of the recipes found online are "loose", just a rough guideline. So I don't like the advice of "do what the recipe says, the author knows best". I want to gain intuition about toasting spices. Sure toasted cumin smells different than non-toasted, but does the final dish actually taste "better"? That's the crux of my question. – mpoisot Oct 8 '15 at 20:40
  • I would not put roasted spices in each and every curry. Most of the curries are fine with regular spices. Dishes like Biryani, dum aloo, kadai paneer or kadai chicken, masala Baingan or bhini masala are the kinds that would taste better with roasted spices. When I say roasted spices that means different combinations of spices. So the final dish to taste better (which is your question) would depend on what you are cooking and what spices you roasted for it. – User56756 Oct 21 '15 at 22:54
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I don't think roasting spices "improves" them or rejuvenates stale spices but it certainly does change the flavor profile in ways that may be desirable in some cases, for some spices, less so for other spices in other cases. This is common sense to me and also what I got out of the article. I think the heading of the article is too absolute for the content.

Whether or not dry-roasting is "better" depends on which spices and what you are doing with them - how long they will be in the recipe, what else is going in, etc, and what flavor profile you are looking for. I think the article goes into a lot of detail about this and has some good references (it looks like an interesting blog, thanks for sharing.)

For example, fresh, dried coriander seeds don't taste the same as toasted coriander, and fresh, untoasted, whole cumin doesn't taste like toasted/dry-roasted cumin.

If you add it raw vs dry-roasted, in general you are going to impart a slightly different flavor profile to the dish. Some recipes are complex and/or delicate enough that this matters, and as the article notes, this will be specified in recipes from trusted sources.

If you are making an uncooked chutney that you want to season with coriander seeds or fenugreek seeds, you need to toast them before grinding them if you want them to taste cooked. Or if you are seasoning your raita or lassi with cumin, it will probably taste better (or more like what would be expected) if you toast it.

But "better" really just depends on what you are looking for. The author of the linked article talks about what flavors she wants to impart to her squash soup, and that is great. If it's her recipe and her tastes, she should make it how she will enjoy it. But if you are trying to replicate a traditional recipe, you may want to follow the traditional methods for that dish at least the first time you do it, which may or may not use the spice how you are used to using it, it's even possible that the traditional way won't taste as good to you as using them how you're used to.

So again, that's fine, adapt the recipe, with the understanding that it may be a bit less traditional. That's how we end up with fusion cuisines, like Indian-Chinese, or British-Indian or American-Italian, adapting traditional methods to new ingredients or to differing tastes and preferences.

For the most part, in my Indian cooking, I rarely toast spices before adding them in unless I'm making something where it isn't going to be cooked further. I hadn't heard or been told that you "always" should roast all spices before grinding them.

In fact, most of the Indian cooks I've learned from use pre-ground spices for convenience, and I sometimes get weird looks from people in my generation when I make things less convenient and start from fresh, whole spices instead of spice blends. My point here is that there is sometimes a difference between what is ideal for a dish vs what is ideal for daily cooking. Both the daily "easy" method and the for-special-occasions-only multi-step preparation can be equally traditional for what is ostensibly the same dish.

  • I like your rule of thumb about not bothering with toasting when the spice will get cooked, since the ultra-subtle difference will get lost. This is a similar mindset for when to use high-quality vs medium quality olive oil, vinegar, cheese, wine, etc. – mpoisot Oct 8 '15 at 20:30
  • As for "always toasting spices" being the common mantra... When googling for answers on this topic, and searching within cooking.stackexchange, I found dozens if not hundreds of advocates for toasting spices whenever possible (always better flavor). I only found ONE source that questioned this mantra, the one I linked to. – mpoisot Oct 8 '15 at 20:33
  • yeah, I see what you mean, looking at the search results. My mantra for most things is "it depends". :-) I tend not to trust instructions that say "always" or "never" without clarifying why that is. ;-) – NadjaCS Oct 8 '15 at 22:15
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Heating spices (and foods in general) alters their flavor. It destroys some flavor compounds and creates some flavor compounds. These new flavor compounds are what makes the toasted spices toasted: it's the earthy-nutty-deep-"brownish" flavors. Such flavors and their like appear when you roast meat, or toast... a toast.

The question is - what flavor do you want? Usually, the toasting/roasting/browning is considered as an improvement. But perhaps you prefer the spice fresher and more "with an edge".

Bottom line is: toasting spice is like "spicing" the spice. Do it to your taste.

Regarding the whole vs. powdered spice: Naturally spice keeps their flavors and freshness longer when whole. I would guess that what you described stems from either (a) over-toasting the spice (they should be toasted gently in very low heat), or (b) your whole spice were very old or of low quality, and the powdered spice came from fresher spice of higher quailty. Not impossible.

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In most Indian dishes (i.e., main dishes, not chutneys) you fry the spices in oil at the beginning of the process or you add the spices later and let them cook in the oil layer at the top of the liquid (there's a name for this, but I forget what it is...) so most dishes don't call for roasting the spices separately (at least, not in the books that I have). I have run across several dishes that specifically call for the darker flavor of roasted spices and that's the only time I bother roasting and grinding whole seeds.

  • Adding spices to oil is called "blooming". Many, many recipes do in fact call for dry-toasting whole spices separately and then grinding them, before blooming them, but plenty just grind without toasting - thus the reason for my question. Do a search for "indian cooking toast spices" to get an idea. – mpoisot Nov 11 '15 at 16:30
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Not necessarily regarding indian cuisine, but toasting spices generally: I'd echo the sentiment that toasting the spices will change their flavor, somewhat significantly I think. Toasted spices -- I'm thinking of fennel, cumin, coriander -- tend to have a much darker, nuttier aroma and flavor. When that's what you want to bring to the table, then by all means, toast your spices. If you're looking for a cleaner, brighter flavor, I'd say that you oughta avoid it.

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