A simple but powerful technique to get more flavor out of spices.
There’s a trick to getting more flavor out of spice: use fat.
I first learned about this from a Milk Street cooking class. They talked about it in reference to a tarka (goes by a few other names too like tadka). A tarka is an Indian cooking technique where you cook spices and aromatics in a bit of ghee. Then you pour the tarka over dal soup, cooked vegetables, or anything in-between.
Certain spices, including herbs, have fat-soluble molecules. What that means is that flavors are more easily released in fat than in water. Cooks Illustrated did an experiment—lab equipment and all—where they found up to 10x more spice and herb flavor compounds when they were steeped in oil versus water. Amazing. 🤓
But there’s another reason. Fat carries flavor.
Especially when using whole spices, cooking the spice in a bit of fat not only coaxes more flavor out of the spice, it also infuses flavor into the fat. And fat easily spreads through a dish, taking the flavor with it. You’ll get that distinct licorice/anise flavor even if you never get a bite with fennel seeds in it.
It means you should think about when you add in your spices. Add your lightly crushed whole spices—like cumin seeds, cloves, sesame seeds, cardamom, and even peppercorns—directly into a good amount of oil or butter as it is heating up. This will ensure their flavor permeates your entire dish.
Do the same thing for ground spices and dried herbs. Give them a chance to bloom directly in fat for 30 seconds (not much longer or they will burn, trust me I know from experience 😬). I typically use both whole and ground spices. So maybe cumin seed goes in first for a minute or two followed by some smoked paprika and dried oregano.
You can stop there and use the infused fat as a “dressing” for a dish. Or it can become your base for a soup, sauce, or stew. If you continue cooking with it, you’ll need to bring the heat down so the spices don’t burn. That’s typically where aromatics like onion, garlic, or green onions can be added to cool things off.
Then just keep cooking as you would normally.
Where I learned this: Nik Sharma on Serious Eats, Milk Street’s Advanced Vegetable Techniques class, and The Science of Cooking