May 4, 2016

Tips & Tools: Why I Do Not Dry Roast My Spices


I'm probably going to draw brickbats but I'm going to say it anyway: 

 Dry roasting spices is unnecessary. *
Unnecessary. Tedious. Superfluous. Yet another dirty pan in Bibi's tiny kitchen.
 Yes I know, Bibi's ever the maverick.  I've found another kindred spirit via the internet who also questions dry roasting spices on her blog Azelia's Kitchen here.


When I first started cooking Desi dishes years ago I noticed some recipes would dry roast the spices before cooking and some would just add the raw spices to the pan and fry them with the dish. I wondered what the point of dry roasting spices was if you were just going to fry them in oil and then cook them even further until dish is finished. That's a lot of cooking for rather delicate spices whose flavors primarily come from heat sensitive volatile oils. I have several cookbooks featuring both recipes that dry roast the spices and use raw spices. They'll often say dry roasting enhances the flavor of spices in one recipe but give no reason why the masala is left raw in another recipe.


The only reasoning I could find behind dry roasting spices in Desi dishes was in Anjum Anand's brilliantly written Indian Every Day cookbook.  
In her book Ms. Anjum states, 
"Spices are roasted for two reasons; first to facilitate the grinding of potentially soggy seeds (India can be very damp) and secondly to change the basic flavour… during the monsoons in India, the damp gets into everything and the seeds would need a light roasting to crisp them up enough to grind them but not to change the flavour."
Aha!
So dry roasting spices makes grinding them to powder easier in the humid weather of the Indian Subcontinent. That makes sense especially if you are grinding spices the old fashioned way with a mortar and pestle or sil-batta. It would seem Ms Anjum is waffling a bit on whether it's to change the flavor or not though.


For a more scientific explanation of what goes on when spices are dry roasted or heated in any way  let's take a look at page in the famed food science writer Harold McGee's famed tome  On Food and Cooking. 
Mr. McGee writes,
"Once the aroma molecules in herbs and spices are released into a preparation and exposed to other ingredients, the air, and heat, they begin to undergo a host of chemical reactions. Some fraction of the original aroma chemicals becomes altered into a variety  of other chemicals, so the initially strong, characteristic notes become more subdued, and the general complexity of the mixture increases… When cumin or coriander are toasted on their own,  for example, their sugars and amino acids undergo browning reactions and generate savory aroma molecules typical of roasted and toasted foods (pyrazines), thus developing a new layer of flavor that complements the original raw aroma." 
"The toasting on a hot pan of whole dry spices, typically mustard, cumin or fenugreek, for a minute or two until the seeds begin to pop, the point at which their inner moisture has vaporized and they are just beginning to brown.  Spices cooked in this way are mellowed, but individually; they retain their own identities."
Hmmmm...
So heating spices mellows and subdues them but can also lend complexity to a mixture. Desi dishes are definitely known for their complexity of flavor, that's true. This still left me wondering if spices really need to be dry roasted if they're also going to be fried, and pressure cooked or simmered in order to bring out their layers of complexity. Seems like that's overdoing it a bit to to me.


Most of the modern Indian cookbooks I've tried have been rather disappointing due to the lack of flavor in the resulting dishes. Most of the modern recipes utilized dry roasting spices first then frying and further cooking them after. After watching my Kashmiri family cook and noticing how different what they did was from what the modern cookbooks advised I started perusing informal "homely" Desi recipe exchange forums online.

I noticed two trends in the older traditional recipes that had the bold flavors I love:

If the masala was dry roasted it was added towards the end of the cooking of the dish.

If the masala was used raw it was fried early on in the cooking of the dish.

I can only conclude that dry roasting all spices regardless of cooking technique was as Azelia puts it "a modern mantra" with not a lot of thought behind it.


So does dry roasting spices prior to cooking really enhance their flavor?
I'd say it makes them different, and not necessarily in a good way. When you're cooking you just have to make the choice as to whether you prefer a more mellow and subdued flavor in your dish. Also keep in mind all the cooking those spices will endure after the initial dry roasting, and whether there's yogurt or coconut in your dish whose fat will dilute the spices' flavor too.



My reasons for not dry roasting spices:

All those gorgeous aromas filling your kitchen as you dry roast the spices is actually flavor lost. You're filling the air with fragrant volatile molecules that could be flavoring your food.

When you degrade those volatile aroma chemicals by heating them you are shortening the spices' shelf life. Spices are far more prone to going rancid or losing flavor after being heated.

Why bother going through the hassle of dry roasting spices if you're going to fry, simmer, or pressure cook them anyway? All that heat in cooking is enough to mellow, subdue, and bring out all the spices' complexities.


*There are only 2 exceptions I'd make in dry roasting:

Coconut meat, there's only one way to get toasted coconut flavor and that's by dry roasting. If toasted coconut's the flavor you're after then dry roasting's the only way to go.

If you're going to add spices to a dish after cooking or to a dish that won't be cooked. There is a practice in some regions and households of stirring a small amount of garam masala into a dish to season it just before serving. Because the garam masala used in this technique doesn't undergo any cooking you must dry roast it previously. I've also seen a lot of South Indian recipes that dry roast the spices and add them to a dish at a late stage in cooking. I don't really think either of these techniques result in enhanced flavor so I don't use them.  I do dry roast cumin to add to raw chutneys also.

7 comments:

  1. Very interesting... I would sometimes roast, but most of the time I don't, especially when I am powdering them to store.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Rafeeda,
      Yes, I never roast spices if I'm going to store them. I see a lot of recipes for garam masala where they are roasted though. I don't see the point in dry roasting if you're just going to fry the spices anyway.

      Delete
  2. I tend just to fry raw spices - though I'm not desi and my knowledge of desi cooking is limited. It all tastes okay to me!

    Thinking of volatile notes, because certain spices/herbs aren't used a lot in British cooking, it's possible to buy them dried or as pastes, and I absolutely refuse to use most of those. There's one particular brand of pureed ginger that I make an exception for. But dried lemongrass or tarragon? Pointless! All those delicate aromas are lost.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. (The dried/paste versions of things like lemongrass are presumably for people who cook, say, Thai food once in a blue moon and want some to store. I reckon, if you're cooking it that infrequently you might as well buy just enough fresh for one meal, and if you're cooking it regularly, you'll want lots of fresh stuff, so either way the answer is to buy fresh.)

      Delete
  3. Hi Mim,
    I've seen dried lemongrass & wondered how that'd taste, I guess not good from what you describe. Dried curry leaves are pointless too, once dried they taste like cardboard. Mint & garlic are two herbs the have different flavors when dried but they're both good & have their different uses.

    I just think this "must dry roast" everything & then going on & frying or pressure cooking it dulls flavor & is pointless.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm with you, I don't get the dry roasting before cooking bit, it makes no sense at all. I dry roast spices and nuts if they have to go on top of an already cooked dish, or in an uncooked preparation like a raita.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Cyn,
      I really don't get a lot of the 'double cooking' that goes on with some Desi dishes- especially with spices.

      Delete

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