No country uses a wider range of spices than India, so it makes sense to look to India when you want to learn to use spices subtly and skillfully. Cooks the world over rely on spices like ginger, cinnamon, fennel, pepper, bay leaf, and chiles; they just use the spices in different amounts and combinations.
A flat metal or silicone spatula is best for cooking with spices; wooden spoons absorb spices' flavors.
Helping spices release their flavor
Spices are naturally fragrant, but to reach their full flavor potential, they need help. Cracking and grinding spices is part of the equation. But it’s heat that really wakes up those aromatic oils. Toasting (dry heat) and blooming in oil (moist heat) are classic techniques.
Blooming whole spices: Blooming a spice in oil is a bit like sautéing a vegeetable: It’s quick, and the resulting flavor is bright. The combination of heat and oil quickly extracts aromatic compounds from a spice.
How to bloom whole spices: Heat the oil over medium heat until it’s hot but not smoking. Add the whole spices and cook until very fragrant and little bubbles form around the spices. Don’t let them brown. You can then add other ingredients to the hot pan and proceed with your recipe. (If you bloom large spices like cardamom pods, cloves, or cinnamon sticks, be sure to remove them from the finished dish before serving because you don’t want people to bite into them.)
Frying a paste of ground raw spices
Don’t toast ground spices in a dry pan because they’re very quick to burn. Instead, bloom them in oil—but even then be careful because hot oil can also scorch ground spices.
How to bloom ground spices: First, you need to mix them with a little of the liquid from your recipe—vinegar, water, stock, wine, whatever—to make a thick paste. The moisture in the spice paste helps keep the ground spices from burning when you put the paste in the hot oil. Then you cook the paste until all the liquid evaporates. You can tell it’s time to stop cooking when the oil starts to separate from the spices.
How to experiment with spices: Chefs use spices differently from recipe to recipe, even within recipes. Here’s how to experiment with spices on your own:
Choose a versatile spice: Cumin is a good spice to begin with as you experiment with spice combinations. It’s great with both coriander and mustard seed. The trio of cumin, coriander, and mustard seed works with any kind of meat, fish, or vegetable. Fennel seed is another friendly spice; you can add a little to almost anything.
Use a new spice (or spices) to season a familiar dish: It’s easier to like a new flavor if you already like most of the ingredients that go into a dish. If you toast spices, add them to the dish toward the end of cooking or sprinkle them on the food right before serving, because the toasting process has already released the spices’ aromatic oils. Soups, stews, and braises are great for experimenting with bloomed spices. Just add spices to your cooking oil at the start of a recipe, before you add your aromatics. Or pour in a tarka as a finishing touch.
Finally, be judicious. Some spices will ruin a dish if you use too much. It’s better for a dish to be under spiced than over spiced. If you find you like the flavor of a new spice, you can always use more next time.