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One day in college, I watched a friend's mom—an Indian home cook—toasting spices in a ladle over a gas flame. I was transfixed, both by the novelty of the technique and the scent that wafted towards me. So much of what I learned in those school years has been forgotten, but I still think of that moment at the stove every time I marvel at the nuanced layers of spice in Indian cooking.
Toasting spices is one of several ways of coaxing flavors out of spices (you can also steep them in hot liquids or fry them in oil, for example); each one contributes something different to a dish. The thing that's special about toasted spices is the way the dry heat transforms them, both drawing out their aromas and adding a mellow, toasty complexity.
They can be used to finish a curry or other spiced dish, adding a final layer of spice and rounding out the dish in much the same way some brown butter or toasted nuts would. They also add a mellow spiciness to baked goods, pickles, dressings, rubs, marinades, sauces, compound butter, or added to your favorite hot beverage.
Just for fun, I compared the flavor of several toasted and untoasted spices. I found that cinnamon developed a deeper, woodsy flavor, not quite as spicy as before toasting. The bitter notes of cumin were diminished with toasting, highlighting its earthy qualities. Fennel got my vote for "most improved" with toasting. The seeds took on a beautiful toasty yellow color, pleasant crunch, and the scent of fresh straw and toasted marshmallows—I've been nibbling on them all week. Finally, I'm a huge cardamom fan, but without toasting, I'll admit this spice can have a somewhat numbing menthol-y quality. Toasting mellows it out and brings out its warm sweetness.
Using the basic guidelines in the slideshow, it's really easy to experiment with toasted spices in your cooking. We'd love to hear your favorite uses for toasted spices. And if you have any favorite places to buy spices, please chime in with your recommendations!