Indian Spices 101: The Benefits of Frying Spices

A collage of nine spices commonly used in Indian cooking, including cumin seed, star anise, brown mustard seeds, green cardamom pods, amchoor or mango powder, and whole nutmeg.
Max Falkowitz

To me, there's nothing more intoxicating than the aromas of freshly ground spices—they're heady and complex, and evolve throughout the cooking process. Depending on how you handle them, though, their exact flavor and impact on the dish will be different.

We've already examined the benefits of dry-roasting spices, and how to use them when cooking. Today, I'll be taking a look at the way some masalas—the spice mixtures that flavor Indian dishes—can be made by frying the spices in ghee or oil.

Why Fry Spices?

Frying spices in oil gives them a completely different flavor than dry-roasting. When dry-roasted, a spice's flavor changes in fundamental ways: volatile aromatics begin to cook off, while compounds in the spice recombine to form new flavors that are often deeper, roasted, and earthier. Frying them in oil, on the other hand, tends to enhance the original flavors of a spice, making them bolder and more intense, almost as if they've become more sure of themselves. In short, oil-fried spices have a brighter and fresher aroma compared to dry-roasted spices.

Frying whole spices in oil releases their essential oils and enhances their natural flavor. Daniel Gritzer

Some recipes call for frying whole spices and some don't. While you can get away with only using powdered spices, fresh whole ones that are fried first and then ground lend the dish a robustness and an unmistakable silkiness and depth that's often unachievable with ground versions alone. Some recipes, meanwhile, have you use a combination of whole and ground spices, usually calling for the whole ones first, since they take longer to cook, followed in quick succession with the other ingredients; the ground spices often come last, as they are more likely to burn.

The masala dabba, a container for the most-used spices, is a standard item in most Indian kitchens. Shutterstock

Can I store fried spices?

As we mentioned in the first part of this series, one reason for dry-roasting spices is to drive off moisture and improve their shelf life. Fried spice are quite the opposite. Because of how they're made, fried spices can be thought of as a 'wet masala,' not only due to the liquid oil, but also other moist ingredients like onion and coconut that are often added to the mix. Fried spices, therefore don't generally last long, and are usually intended to be used immediately.

Onion and/or coconut are sometimes added to the frying spice mix, but the result is meant to be used right away, not stored. Daniel Gritzer

How can I fry spices?

There are three main ways to fry spices:

  • First, they can be fried in a small quantity of oil, then ground.
  • Second, they can be slowly fried with onion, a process called bhunooing.
  • Third, they can be made in what's known as a tadka, in which spices are quickly and aggressively fried in hot oil, then used as a finishing touch on a dish.

All three of these methods require patience and some practice. They aren't difficult to do, but spices are fragile and can burn quickly if you aren't paying close attention to their transformation in the oil.

Let's take a closer look at each of the three methods.

1. Frying in small quantities of oil

In this process, a small amount of vegetable oil is heated, preferably in a cast iron pan. Once it is hot, the larger, tougher spices go in first, like cinnamon, black pepper, and dried red chilies. Seeds go in next in quick succession. It's not uncommon to also add some roughly chopped onion or grated fresh coconut here as well, which help to add flavor and body to the final dish. The onions and coconut also act as a buffer by introducing a small amount of water to the oil and lessening the risk of the smaller seeds and spices burning. Once fried, these spices are then ground to a paste in a spice grinder (whether a traditional stone one or a modern electric one), and used as the base of the dish.

Throughout the frying, great care must be taken not to burn the spices because once even a single spice begins to burn, it will taint the entire batch. The key is to pay close attention, control the heat as needed (or even pull the pan off the heat for a few seconds if it's getting too hot), and keep stirring the spices around as they fry.

2. Bhunooing, or slow-frying with onion

While this process also uses onion and spices, it is a different procedure with a different outcome: Its purpose is to build the flavors of a dish gradually. Made with a larger quantity of oil, bhunooing is a slow process in which the oil is first heated until smoking, then the heat is lowered and whole spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, cumin, anise, and dried bay leaves are fried gently, allowing them to gradually change color. If onions are used, they are added just after the spices have had a few seconds in the hot oil and then, over low heat, cooked until they turn a beautiful golden brown color.

Slow-cooked onion and spices, along with curry leaves and hot peppers. Daniel Gritzer

Bhunooing results in creamy, rich gravies, thanks to the gentle extraction of essential oils from the spices and the slow cooking of the onions until they are melting and sweet. This method does not require grinding, so to get the beautiful hues of a curry, powdered spices, such as red chili powder, turmeric, and coriander, are often added right at the end of the slow-frying process. Special care must be taken, since the powdered spices are fragile and can scorch easily.

3. Tadka

The aroma of a tadka (tempered spices) is irresistible: It fills a room instantly, a sort of crazy dinner theater for the nose. A tadka is typically made after the dish has been cooked, and is added almost as a garnish of aromatic spice. To make a tadka, a tablespoon or two of oil or ghee is heated until smoking. Then small quantities of whole spices like cumin, black mustard, dry red chillies, cinnamon, and cardamom are added to it. Unlike the slow-frying method, here the heat is kept high and the spices are allowed to splatter and splutter, sizzle and pop as they release their aromas into the fat. This piping hot oil is then poured directly onto the waiting dish, which launches a whole new round of sizzling and crackling. It is usually done to liven up a dish and add more aroma. Tadkas bring a subtle spiciness to a dish, that, with each tadka-spiked spoonful, offers an understated reminder of the spices that went into it.