Whether you’re an experienced home cook or a novice, the term blooming spices may be one that has been heard in passing but never experimented with in the kitchen. If that’s the case, you are missing out on a ton of flavor.
“When you cook, you’re building a house and you are building it from the ground up. Making sure the basic ingredients are on point will mean you are on your way to a delicious meal,” says Dennis Prescott, a Canadian chef, cookbook author and featured chef on Netflix show “Restaurants On The Edge,” which is in its second season. “It’s these added little steps that really take a restaurant dish to the next level, so why not use these techniques at home?”
And, says Julio Genao, executive chef at Stamford, Conn. restaurant Prime Stamford, blooming spices can actually help give them a second life in the kitchen, instead of being discarded—which can be a factor when creating meals at home, too.
“Spices don’t expire but they do lose their fragrance after three to four years, so it is important to bloom them in order to bring your spices back to life and release their essential oils and make them more fragrant,” says Genao.
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When to Bloom Spices
“When preparing stews, braises, soups, and curries it is essential to bloom your spices. However, when making desserts or white sauces if you are using sweet spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, you may want a milder spice flavor and may skip the blooming process since you may also not be using oil or butter at the beginning of the cooking process. Toasting spices in these situations is preferable,” Genao said.
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However, says Brandon Collins, trained chef and mustard sommelier at Maille, looking at the overall flavor profile of the dish will help to make the decision of if a spice should be bloomed or if the spice’s innate flavor is enough.
“There may even be times you won’t want to bloom a spice. You’ll want to see what the competing flavors in your dish are and [what] the amount of fat will be. Anything that will mute flavors will help you make the decision about spices,” he said.
Prescott says that the decision to bloom also depends on the spice. He said that hard spices like mustard seed, fennel seed, dried herbs like rosemary and basil should be bloomed, as should anything that will be added at the end of a dish. This brings an additional depth of flavor and a complementary aroma that makes the dish more enticing. However, the one spice he always recommends toasting—chili flakes. “I just love adding that kick to a dish,” he says.
Whole dried chiles, bay leaf, and curry leaf can also be bloomed (or tempered, another name for the technique), but fresh garlic and ginger should go in after the spices are bloomed; they’ll help lower the temperature of the oil so the spices don’t scorch.
Bloomed spices can form a flavorful base for a dish, or the mix of spices and oil (which is often called tarka or tadka in India) can be used to to perk up a finished dish, from rice and beans to lentils or boiled potatoes.
How to Bloom Spices
To bloom spices, you cook them whole in hot oil or ghee until they’re fragrant, but you don’t let them brown. This technique is often used in Indian and other South Asian cuisines. Frying ground spices is also an option.
Toasting whole spices over dry heat does release essential oils and intensifies their aroma and taste, but using a fat base as in blooming will create the best results for flavor impact.
“A lot of the flavoring agents are fat-soluble, so using a fat is better than a water-base. It helps to bring out more of the flavor, but also gives those flavors more reach,” says Collins. This, he explains, is because fat coats the tongue and allows the flavors to spend more time on the taste buds.
But, if you don’t have fresh, whole spices, Genao says one of his hacks for blooming ground spices is to first turn them into a paste in order to allow for enriched flavors without the worry of burning the ingredients. (For maximum impact, you can also toast whole spices and grind them yourself to make into a paste and bloom.)
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Ideal for grinding fresh spices at home.
“The most difficult task is to bloom ground spices since they are so easy to scorch. Frying a paste of ground raw spices is a classic trick. I don’t toast ground spices in a dry pan because they’re very quick to burn,” he said.
To make a paste, he says, mix the spices with a little of the liquid from your recipe, whether vinegar, water, stock, or wine. The moisture in the spice paste helps keep the ground spices from burning in the hot oil, he says.
Blooming Goes Beyond Sauteing
Genao also says blooming spices can make for a better tasting marinade that can also take less time to add flavor to your dish of choice.
“Blooming releases more flavor into your marinade and as a result will require less time in order to impart the flavor intensity that you want into your foods. I usually buy whole spices so I either toast them on the stove top using a sauté pan and grind them or I add them whole. Infusing the oil with ground spices by slowly blooming them is my preference and it’s great for marinating proteins, especially poultry and fish,” he says.
Prescott notes that, “You can take these spices and add [them] to a marinade and it will be delicious. It will change the flavor but not the marinade time. It will just bring out so many more flavors.”
Also, explains Collins, blooming spices does more than just benefit one dish. He says if oil is the fat of choice used when blooming a spice (and it isn’t going into the dish itself), don’t discard it after the spices are bloomed—it can be used to create infused oils that can be used to cook with, marinate with, or even use as dressings in the future.
Don’t Give Up, Even If You Don’t Get It Right the First Time
Prescott says that even though the experience may seem intimidating, it will be worth doing once the flavor difference is noticed in home cooked meals.
“Don’t be afraid—just jump into it. The biggest key is to watch the oil. You don’t want it smoking hot, you just want the spices to be aromatic and fragrant. That’s when you know they’re good to go,” he explains. It may only take a matter of seconds, and never more than a minute or so to unlock the full flavors of your spices.
Brandon echoes this sentiment, but says like anything, the more practice, the better the result. “You’re going to mess up, but that’s OK, that’s the beauty of it. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to make the flavor adjustments you want in your dish,” says Brandon.
Header image courtesy of Mike Kemp / Getty Images