Bringing out the flavors while trying to create a good balance among them in one dish is a difficult skill to master. Chefs spend their whole careers trying to perfect this art but at times, some of the best practices are closer to home.
When Samantha Seneviratne sat down with her Sri Lankan grandmother, she had one goal in mind: to talk about food and learn as much as she could from her late grandmother. One thing caught her ear and stuck with her.
As she was being directed what to do for a curry recipe, her grandmother mentioned "tempering" the spices which confused her because that term was usually used in the context of dessert, particularly chocolate. But what her grandmother meant was letting the spices simmer in oil.
But my grandmother was talking about spices—coaxing the flavor out of cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and other aromatics by simmering them briefly in oil. Blooming the spices in this way, as opposed to just throwing them in willy-nilly, draws out more flavor and leads to a better curry, she assured me.
When it comes to baking, most of us just whisk ground spices into the dry ingredients without a second thought. But there is another way: the spice-tempering technique I learned from my grandmother can be applied to dessert.
The technique is quite deeply refined as you are putting an equal amount of attention to every ingredient in a dish, not simply the main element. It is true that spices bring out the flavor of the core of a dish, but they themselves can also be elevated in a masterful way without overpowering the whole dish.
Tempering aromatics in oil or butter works well because the flavor compounds in certain spices are fat-soluble. That means that hot fat (oil or butter, usually) will extract those compounds, flavoring the fat.
If you’re working with spices with more fat-soluble flavor compounds, like bay leaves, lavender, or sage, you’ll get up to 10 times more flavor if you bloom them in fat versus water. But of course the converse is also true: spices with more water-soluble compounds, such as saffron, are better tempered in a water-based ingredient like milk.
Learn more about it on Epicurious.