100 Techniques

Technique #41: Toast and Grind Whole Spices for Bolder Flavor

 We guarantee you'll taste the difference.

Published Sept. 21, 2023.

This is Technique #41 from our 100 Techniques Every Home Cook Can Master.

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Nearly every spice or dried chile that is sold ground in jars in the supermarket can be purchased in whole form as well. While there’s no denying the convenience of preground spices, sometimes you end up paying for semi-flavorful dust.

You get far more intense flavor for your dollars if you toast and grind whole spices before adding them to a dish.

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Toasting Versus Blooming

Since the flavors and aromas of spices and chiles are volatile, they can vanish from preground versions long before you buy the jar. Toasting and grinding whole spices releases these volatile compounds, along with their essential oils, exactly when you need them for a dish, not before. Plus, toasting triggers browning and caramelization of the spices’ proteins and sugars for even more flavor.

Whereas blooming spices involves cooking ground spices in fat to help reawaken their flavors, with this technique spices are toasted whole in a dry pan, without any fat. Since it’s often the first step in a recipe, the toasting can be done in a Dutch oven or whatever vessel you’re already using rather than pulling out a separate skillet.

Toasting Doesn't Have to be Time Consuming

To gain the full benefit, spices only need to be toasted until they become fragrant, usually 1 to 3 minutes.

Toast them in the pan over medium heat, shaking the pan occasionally to prevent scorching. Remove the toasted spices from the pan right away to prevent burning. For chiles (whether left whole or torn into smaller pieces), the toasting time is a bit longer, typically 2 to 6 minutes.

Grinding Spices 101

We suggest having a dedicated spice grinder; an inexpensive blade-type electric coffee grinder is a good choice. For everyday cleaning, simply wipe out the interior with a damp cloth. For a more thorough “dry cleaning,” which is smart especially after grinding chiles, add a few tablespoons of raw white rice to the grinder and pulverize to a fine powder, about 1 minute. The rice powder will absorb the oil and residues left behind; then you can wipe it out with a damp cloth. 

Or, as an alternative to an electric grinder, a large mortar and pestle with a rough interior and long, heavy pestle is fun to use and makes grinding spices and chiles by hand a breeze. This piece of equipment is also easy to clean.

Equipment Review

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Step by Step: How to Toast Whole Spices

Follow these simple steps for toasting and grinding whole spices at home.

Step 1: Add Spices to a Dry Skillet

Place spices in dry skillet or pot over medium heat, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, until you can smell aromas.

Step 2: Remove, Cool, and Grind

Immediately transfer to small bowl to prevent burning. Let cool, then process in spice grinder until finely ground.

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Step by Step: How to Toast Chiles

Whether you use a skillet, pot, or oven, it's easy to toast whole chiles, too. Here's how.

Step 1: Add Chiles to Dry Skillet or Pot

Place chiles (either stemmed, seeded, and torn or left whole) in dry skillet or pot over medium heat, stirring frequently, until fragrant, lowering heat if chiles begin to smoke.

Step 2: Or Use the Oven

Alternatively, arrange chiles (either stemmed, seeded, and torn or left whole) on baking sheet and toast in 350-degree oven until just fragrant and puffed.

Watch Cook’s Illustrated’s Steve Dunn demonstrate how to make Pollo en Mole Poblano (Chicken in Puebla-Style Mole).

5 Recipes That Illustrate This Technique

Ready to toast your own spices and chiles at home? Try it with these recipes.


Pistachio Dukkah

The combination of toasted spices, nuts, and seeds makes for a fragrant and crunchy garnish.
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Best Ground Beef Chili

Ground beef chili is convenient, but its texture is often dry and grainy. With this recipe, you don't have to sacrifice flavor for convenience.
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Spice Rub for Steaks and Chops

Make-ahead spice blends provide deep flavor with practically no effort.
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Pollo en Mole Poblano (Chicken in Puebla-Style Mole)

Our interpretation of chicken cloaked in Mexico's iconic sauce is less labor intensive but still remarkably rich tasting.
Get the Recipe

Lamb Barbacoa

Mexico's unctuously tender, slow-cooked meat is meant for wrapping in warm tortillas, serving with a chile-spiked broth, and sharing with loved ones.
Get the Recipe

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