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How to Toast Spices (And Why You Should)

John D Lee is a chef and restauranteur living and working in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He's always loved to cook.

Toasting spices

Toasting spices

How Long Do Spices Keep?

If you’re like a lot of people, you’ve got a spice and herb rack (or drawer or bag or whatever) filled with a great selection of things that were acquired a long time ago.

OK, time for some tough love here: You’d probably be better off throwing that collection straight into the trash!

Herbs and spices have a limited lifespan (not measured in years!). Over time, oxidization occurs, and aromatics dissipate. After a while, instead of herby, you get dry and bland. Instead of a spice-bang-pop, you get a musty whimper!

Spice and Herb Tips

  • Buy very small amounts of spices and dried herbs.
  • Toss anything older than a few months in age and replenish your stock with fresh additions often.
  • Buy whole spices and grind them yourself.
  • Toast your spices before grinding!

Fresh and freshly ground toasted spices make a world of difference and will add some pretty substantial excitement to your everyday dishes.

Although buying pre-ground spices is certainly convenient, ground spices oxidize and lose their flavors much more quicker than whole spices. With the pre-ground stuff, there’s a risk that what you purchase from the store is already well past its “best by” date by the time it reaches your kitchen.

Anyway, it’s easy to toast and buzz up your own as needed, and it will make you a much better cook. Here’s how to do it.

How to Toast Spices

  1. Add whole spices to a cold, dry (no oil) frying pan. You can do this in any type of frying pan, but it’s easiest in a heavier pan, which won’t get the hot/cold sections that can result in burning. You do not have to use a non-stick pan here, as these will not stick.
  2. Heat the pan over medium, and as the pan heats and the spices become fragrant, stir or shake the spices often. They may pop and jump a bit; this is OK.
  3. Once the spices just start to brown, transfer them immediately out of the pan and into a waiting bowl—their residual heat will keep the cooking and toasting process going a little bit longer. If you wait until they are very toasted in the pan, they will become burnt and bitter once off the heat.
  4. Process them in a blender or food processor until finely ground (or a mortar and pestle).

The total cooking time generally only takes 3 or 4 minutes in all.

Toast Spices Separately

Do not toast different spices in the same pan at the same time. The spices will toast and brown at different speeds, so you’re either left with some that aren’t toasted or some that are burnt!

Spices That Benefit From Toasting

  • Cumin seed
  • Fennel seed
  • Cinnamon
  • Cardamom
  • Coriander seed
  • Star anise
  • Mustard seed
  • And many more!