Cooking with Spices Part 2: Grinding spices and herbs
This is the second in the series of learning how to cook with spices. In the first post, we saw how easy it was to use spices in cooking. Now we’ll learn how to use all spices. Freshly grinding spices makes them all taste better. Spices lose their taste and flavour the longer they sit powdered. To get the most out of your spices, it’s best to buy whole and powder just before using. A compromise would be to powder weekly. This is still many times better than letting a powder sit on your spice rack for months, as by the end it will impart nearly no flavour at all. Grinding spices is easy to do, and well worth the effort. Experience freshly ground spices once and I can guarantee that you’ll be a convert forever.
Toast before grinding spices
Nearly all spices benefit from a light toasting before grinding. Before grinding, toast dry spices gently on a pan for 30 seconds – 1 minute first. No oil is necessary, and cleanup is easy. This releases the oils trapped within, and brings dormant flavours to life.
Here we explore all the different alternatives from grinding spices. You can choose what’s best for your purposes.
Pestle and Mortar
The most common way of grinding spices is using a Pestle and Mortar. It’s the most traditional method and also the cheapest. As an added bonus, it also doesn’t involve any wires or electricity, unlike some of the other methods. There’s also something mildly therapeutic about slowly working away on a spice by hand. If that wasn’t enough, you’ll also be left with a perfumed kitchen once you’re done.
Most spices and herbs can be ground using a pestle and mortar. Cleanup is also very quick. It’s the best option for grinding softer spices (such as black peppercorns), and also works extremely well for curry pastes, dips and sauces.
Most coffee grinders can also be used to grind spices! Pick an electric blade grinder, not a burr grinder for this purpose. Burr grinders are not strong enough, or have wide enough gaps to grind most spices, but a blade grinder will happily pulverize most spices in seconds. It goes without saying that you won’t want to use it for coffee once you’ve used it for spices.
Coffee grinders are very fast, so if you have a large amount of spices to grind of varying thicknesses, use a coffee grinder. Cheap and reliable ones can be found for as little as $20. However, cleaning is more time consuming with this method. Also, coffee grinders should not be used to grind herbs and the like into pastes, as liquids are very difficult to clean out. The easiest way to clean out a coffee grinder is by using a stiff brush to scrape out any leftover spice grounds. You can also scrub with a damp dishcloth or sponge. To get rid of existing odours in the coffee grinder, pulsing some rock salt for a few seconds will do the trick.
Overall, coffee grinders are great for grinding bark spices such as cinnamon, seeds, pods, peppercorns and other similar shaped spices.
Microplane / Grater / Zester
You can use an ordinary kitchen grater for specific spice grinding purposes too. They makes grinding the tougher spices such as ginger and nutmeg a breeze, and you can also portion spices better with them. Unlike other methods, as you’re able to see the exact quantity being ground at each swipe, you grind exactly as much as necessary.
If you’re a cheese lover, chances are you already have one! If you already do have a grater / zester, and are thinking of making the upgrade to a microplane – it’s worth it. Microplanes have sharper edges, and make powdering tough spices such as nutmeg faster. A high quality microplane can be found for just $15 online.
Here’s a recipe for Indian Curry Powder so you can see how easy it is to make from freshly ground spices instead of using the blander store-bought powder. This is as hard as it gets with grinding spices, and it can still be done in minutes.
Recipe: Curry Powder (mild)
- 1 tablespoon Cumin Seeds
- 1 tablespoon Coriander Seeds
- 5 grams Turmeric
- 1 dried Red Chilli
- 1/4 teaspoon Black Mustard Seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated Ginger
Makes about 1/8 cup (25 grams) of Curry Powder. Time: 5 minutes
Gently toast the cumin seeds seeds, coriander seeds, red chilli and mustard seeds. Remove from the heat. Then combine them, the turmeric and ginger in a coffee grinder or food processor. Process into a fine powder. Store in an airtight container.
It’s that easy.