If you want to spice things up, match your pan to your cooking method. Dry-heat cooking isn’t suitable for every type of cookware.
Recipes have step-by-step instructions and measurements, and celebrity chefs show you the ropes in their shows. And yet, in the heat of cooking, unanswered questions can, and often do, come up.
In “You Asked,” we answer these questions for you. Tell us your name, city, state, and question at firstname.lastname@example.org
Heidi from Australia asked, “Can you tell me if it’s okay to roast spices in my enameled cast iron skillet?”
Not everyone knows that when we roast spices in a skillet, we impart new aromas and flavors to them that they didn’t have before. This is thanks to the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction that takes place at a temperature of 284°F (140°C) and above, which makes our food smell and taste better.
The reaction, named after the French scientist who discovered it in 1912, happens when the carbs and proteins in our food collide and fuse in the heat of cooking. As a result, our food browns—and hundreds of new aroma and flavor compounds with a rich aroma and savory flavor get released on the surface.
This reaction, colloquially known as “browning,” is the main reason why roast spices, toast bread, seared steak, and browned butter are so delicious. Since water boils at a temperature of 212°F (100°C), which isn’t high enough to trigger it, we sear, roast, and brown dry or in hot oil, but never in water.
We dry-roast spices for two reasons: First, it causes the excess moisture that they contain to evaporate, which makes them crispier and easier to crush or grind. Second, it changes their flavor in new and exciting ways, adding a lot of richness and complexity.
The shout out here is that dry roasting—and dry cooking in general—are not cooking methods compatible with every type of frying pan.
To roast spices, use a cast iron, carbon steel, stainless steel, or ceramic-coated skillet. Avoid enameled cast iron and non-stick frying pans; dry-heat cooking can damage their porcelain and polytetrafluoroethylene coatings.
In Le Creuset’s enameled cast iron cookware use and care instructions, it says that vitreous porcelain enamel surfaces are “not suitable for dry cooking.” The fat, oil, or cooking liquid, according to the booklet, should “completely cover the base before the cooking begins.”
Similarly, Tefal’s non-stick cookware use and care instructions advise to “never let cookware boil dry or leave an empty piece of cookware on a heated burner.” Non-stick coatings and dry heat don’t get along well; it is recommended that you rub oil onto your pan or cook with liquid to maximize the coating’s lifespan.
Since cast iron, carbon steel, and stainless steel cooking vessels have no coating, dry-heat cooking doesn’t present challenges to them. Ceramic coatings, on the other hand, are marketed as generally resistant to high heat and suitable for cooking with or without oil.
Tips for Roasting Spices to Perfection
Use medium-high heat, and not high heat. When the surface of your food gets heated to 356°F (180°C) and above, a reaction called pyrolysis—which we know simply as burning—takes over from the Maillard reaction.
When the spices in your skillet burn, the hundreds of aroma and flavor compounds that were created during the Maillard reaction are destroyed. The spices turn black and develop an acrid, unpleasantly bitter taste.
Roasting spices over medium-high heat gives you more control because it lowers the temperature and reduces the margin of error. As a matter of fact, you only need to use high heat when you’re boiling down sauces, soups, and stews, and you want to evaporate the excess cooking liquid quickly.
Medium-high heat is your choice for searing meats and dry-roasting spices, and medium heat for shallow-frying foods or cooking them fully through.
Always start with the spices that need the most cooking time. For example, if you’re roasting whole peppercorn and ground cumin, start with the whole peppercorn and add the ground cumin some 20 to 30 seconds before you’re done.
You know that your spices are done as soon as the aromas start coming out. Remove them from the heat, transfer them to a bowl, and let them cool down for a minute or two before crushing or grinding them into your food.
If you’re crushing your spices with a mortar and pestle, The New York Times’ Melissa Clark recommends that you only crush a small handful at a time. You don’t want the seeds flying out all over your counter. If you’re using an electric grinder, dedicate it to spices and don’t grind your coffee in it, or the aromas and flavors will mix.