Don’t Dry Roast Spices


Want to be controversial in the foodie world here, tell them not to dry roast spices before making a masala mix.  If I hear or read one more chef, cookery writer stating, “you should dry roast spices for masala because it enhances them, giving a better flavour..”  I might just scream…quietly inside.

It was a year ago when I started looking into the modern mantra of  must dry roast spices, must dry roast spices… I did so because I would hear or read this and then come across recipes for using raw ground masalas.  Can you see where I was going with this.  Why?  Why are seemingly traditional recipes using raw masalas mixes and today I’m forever hearing that dry roast is best?

Raw or Dry Roasted Masala

Raw masalas (that I refer to) are whole spices ground, without being dry roasted first.  Dry roasted masala blends are whole spices warmed in a dry pan until they give off an aroma slightly darken and ground.

I keep seeing raw masalas used in traditional based recipes.  I don’t know about you but I pay a huge attention to those who have been cooking recipes passed on from their family, recipes that have stood the test of time so well they’ve survived generations.

My query was, if you have home cooks who make masalas this way, every week, for as long as they’ve cooked, why then are we being told dry roasting spices is a must do.  Is dry roasting really better?

What My Curry Books Say

Everyone it appears is on the dry roasting wagon, even one of my favourite chefs, Atul Kochhar.  I had to take out my curry books, 13 of them and I started to see a pattern.  I have books written by writers who say they’ve been influenced by their mother or family and proceed to write recipes with raw masalas as well as not, older writers such as Shehzad Husain, Rafi Fernandez and the very well known Madhur Jaffrey.

Madhur Jaffrey’s book Flavours of India has a note under dry roasting spices, “spices are often dry roasted before using”,  but you’ll find recipes in there for raw masalas.  In her other book Ultimate Curry, she states “spices are sometimes roasted before grinding” and will give a basic recipe for a raw garam masala.  Ok, there’s recipes for both but no reason as to why.

The Monsoon Season

I have two books written by the next generation, both writers were brought up in London, Manju Malhi’s first book, Brit Spice and Anjum Anand’s Indian Every Day.  These two books are an interesting contrast.  In Manju’s book she follows today’s mantra of dry roasting spices, “cook for a couple of minutes to bring out the aroma and flavour..” for her spice blends.

It was Anjum’s book I found the most interesting read regarding dry roasting spices.  Anjum says, ” Spices are roasted for two reasons; first to facilitate the grinding of potentially soggy seeds (India can be very damp) and secondly to change the basic flavour…..monsoons in India, the damp gets into everything and the seeds would need a light roasting to crisp them up enough to grind them but not to change the flavour.”

She also says, “…when roasting for flavour (this is always indicated in the ingredients list) roast until the spice releases an aroma and turns a shade or two darker”.  She writes on roasting cumin, “We use roasted cumin powder in a lot of our chutneys and yoghurt dishes.  It does not need to be cooked further.”

I find it interesting and incredible it was only in Anjum’s book I found reference to the dampness in Monsoon season and the effect it will obviously have on grinding spices, making the act of drying them first essential.  What Anjum Anand says makes sense.

Not Better but Different

About a year ago when this question came to mind; is dry roasting better?  I asked Mamta who runs Mamta’s Kitchen Site here , on how she makes her masalas mixes.  Mamta who’s from Uttar Pradesh in Northern India said her masalas are raw so are those of her family and friends, and that was the custom.

If roasting spices to the point of  changing their flavour was better regardless, you would think generations of cooks would’ve figure this out by now, wouldn’t you?  I do.

You know me by now, right?  you didn’t think I would leave it there?  Remember I’m a dog with a bone.  Enter trustree McGee.

He says, “Once the aroma molecules in herbs and spices are released into a preparation and exposed to other ingredients, the air, and heat, they begin to undergo a host of chemical reactions.  Some fraction of the orginal aroma chemicals becomes altered into a variety  of other chemicals, so the initially strong, characteristic notes become more subdued, and the general complexity of the mixture increases….When cumin or coriander are toasted on their own, for example, their sugars and amino acids undergo browning reactions and generate savory aroma molecules typical of roasted and toasted foods (pyrazines), thus developing a new layer of flavor that complements the original raw aroma.”

Further down on the same page he says, “The toasting on a hot pan of whole dry spices, typically mustard, cumin or fenugreek, for a minute or two until the seeds begin to pop, the point at which their inner moisture has vaporized and they are just beginning to brown.  Spices cooked in this way are mellowed, but individually; they retain their own identities.”

Flavour Change

If you’ve tried the masalas both ways, dry roasted and raw, of course there’s a noticeable change, but ask yourself this:  is it better?  Because that’s a different question.

McGee states above the spices become subdued or mellowed once the chemical change has happen.  This may not be the effect you’re after.

I took notice of this mellowing change when cooking a large pork curry for a party over a year ago.  I remember smelling the roasted grounded mixture (the photo below) expecting to pack a punch with aroma but it didn’t, quite disappointed, not bad, but not what I was expecting.

For me once you’ve ground dry roasted spices they don’t keep well, I use it within a day or so.  Ground raw whole spices keeps longer, in tight container away from light.

Coriander Spice Is a Case In Point

If you have a jar of ground coriander and put your nose right in, it has this wonderful tangy fragrant orangey smell to it, and if it doesn’t you’ve kept that jar too long, throw it away…now!  I absolutely love this aroma, I make butternut squash soup with it here, delicious.

Coriander seed’s oil according to McGee has a floral and lemony note, making it unique and irreplaceable in the cooks supply of aromas.  There’s two common types of coriander seed (to be correct they’re fruits) one is the European variety, smaller and higher in essential oil content, large flowery proportion of linalool.  The Indian variety, larger in size, lower in oil content, less linalool but has several aromatics not found in the European type.

As soon as the coriander is roasted and ground, as McGee says, changing by the chemical reaction it will undergo…well…I’m here to say that I don’t like the aroma/taste of it anywhere near as much as I do in its raw state.  It loses the floral note, the essential oil is lost.

The coriander’s example makes it quite simple, a blanket statement of roasting is better is plain wrong because there will be spices you’ll prefer raw.

This is why I think I see plenty of traditional recipes for raw masalas, the cook knows exactly what flavour they’re after, and it’s not because they haven’t discovered the idea of dry roasting.

Essential Oils

If I haven’t convinced you this far, I’m bringing out the big guns now;  Essential Oils.  Taste is smell, spices are part of a plant, be it in the form of seed, fruit, bark and as such they contain the aromatic and volatile essential oils.  As you heat the spices these oils evaporate but where to?  The air.  Hence the resulting subdued smell of dry roasted spices.

Remember above McGee saying, “When cumin or coriander are toasted on their own, for example, their sugars and amino acids undergo browning reactions and generate savory aroma molecules typical of roasted and toasted foods (pyrazines), thus developing a new layer of flavor that complements the original raw aroma.”

Well, what McGee hasn’t mentioned in this process is that essential oils are lost.

If you read on wiki it says the way to collect essential oils is to put the plant, “…into an alembic (distillation apparatus) over water. As the water is heated, the steam passes through the plant material, vaporizing the volatile compounds. The vapors flow through a coil, where they condense back to liquid, which is then collected in the receiving vessel.”

When dry roasting spices you’re not collecting the essential oils, they’re just making your kitchen smell spicy.  Those volatile oils are lost.

Tempering Dishes, Tarka

There’s a way of spicing dishes, especially legumes, that comes under different names, tarka, tadka, chaunk, phoron, vaghaar and other names. I have a post on tarka coming up.

This method is where spices are added to hot ghee or oil at the very last minute once the dish is cooked, (photo above) the spice mixture is then poured on top and quickly the pan is covered with a lid to trap all the aromas coming off it.  Another version of this method is using a hot coal as the heat source called dhungar.  

With this method you’re trapping the aromas coming off.  (By the way I have notice the hole in my lid)

Dry Roast Spices or Not

I’m not trying to convince you not to dry roast your spices, but merely to think of dry roasting as a different flavour to that of the spices in the raw form.  Not better, just different.  You’re the cook, think about how they taste both ways and the effect you’re after in the resulting dish.

How many cooks are there using raw masala mixtures?  Oh I don’t know…has to be millions doesn’t it?  My point is this, surely they can’t all be wrong.

Decide for yourself when to roast and when not to roast, be guided by your nose and tastebuds, rather than follow the modern herd of: must roast spices.


If you want to find out lots of detail on spices and herbs this is by far the best site I’ve seen, bookmark it: Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.