How to Stock an Indian Spice Pantry
There are few books that offer home cooks a new way to cook and to think about flavor—and fewer that do it with the clarity and warmth of Nik Sharma’s Season.
Nik, beloved curator of the award-winning food blog A Brown Table, shares a treasury of ingredients, techniques, and flavors that combine in a way that’s both familiar and completely unexpected. Here, he shares his tips to stocking your Indian spice pantry.
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How to Stock an Indian Spice Pantry
The typical image that conjures up with Indian cooking is a long and exhaustive list of ingredients and spices that can be intimidating. Do you really need them all if you are starting out, especially if you want to explore? Where does one even start?
My advice: begin with a few ingredients, familiarize yourself with them, and then build up your pantry as you get comfortable. It is better to start out with 2-3 spices when flavoring a dish, as this will help you understand what how these spices work together in different combinations.
Never buy more than you think you will use. Spices lose their potency after they are opened and exposed to sunlight and air. This happens much faster in the case when the spices are ground. I typically replace any unused spices after six months, or when I notice that they no longer taste or smell as good. Store spices in dark and in airtight containers; sunlight and moisture are mortal enemies to their longevity.
Toast most dried spices in a dry pan for a few seconds until you start to smell the aroma. Be careful and watch, as they can burn quickly! Toasting not only helps dry out any remaining moisture, but it also helps reduce their harshness. Adding spices to hot oil is another way to achieve this effect. Do this first and then add your vegetables or meats to the pan.
Below are a few of my essential spices and flavor ingredients to get you started building an Indian pantry.
Salt and black pepper
I use fine sea salt for most of my cooking because it is readily available everywhere. It is better to grind black peppercorns right before you need to season as the ground pepper loses its oomph very quickly. I recently replaced my pepper mill grinders with a small cast-iron pepper mill that uses a twist and turn motion to break the coarse peppercorns down to a fine powder and it does not utilize blades, which in my experience tend to weaken over time and use. The grinder can be used to pound down other whole spices like fennel or coriander.
Not only does turmeric add a bright yellow orange color to food but it also adds a sensation of warmth. You don’t need a lot of turmeric when you cook, it overpowers a dish quickly. Start with a little and if you feel you need to add more, bump the amount up in small increments. Raw turmeric can also be a bit unpleasant in food, I always cook it to reduce the harshness by cooking it in a little hot oil to temper and mellow the pungency.
Red pepper flakes and red chili powder
The flakes are a fun way to create a few “hot spots” in a dish but the powder is a faster way to infuse heat. Use milder red chili powders like Kashmiri to add deep red color tones to stews and other dishes.
The seeds of the cilantro plant carry an aroma that is reminiscent of citrus. You can release the potential of this spice by toasting it for about 30 to 40 seconds before you use it. Grind it to a coarse powder and rub it with a bit of salt and black pepper on your steak before you grill it, or add it to a salad dressing.
Not only does this add aroma to food, it also builds up the sensation of warmth in food. It is one of the key spices in the seasoning garam masala, and of course we love it in apple pie!
Fennel seeds add that licorice-like flavor, and benefits from toasting or heating. It goes great in both savory and sweet dishes, especially when paired with equally powerful aromatic ingredients like citrus.
Cumin seeds are wonderful for their aroma and taste. Use them whole or ground and toasting them really amplifies their flavor.
India’s “vanilla,” as it is used in many desserts. Cardamom adds a cooling effect and aroma to stews.
Ghee is a form of clarified butter, and can add the most wonderful nutty scent to food—it is worth exploring in all kinds of baking and cooking! Add a few drops to cake batter and see how it changes the flavor profile of the entire cake.
Try using lime juice instead of lemons, and tamarind or apple cider vinegar to brighten up the flavors of your dishes. Their acidity can play with the other ingredients in the dish, creating very interesting and wonderful unique flavor profiles.
At the end of the day, just remember to have fun when cooking and celebrate your failures as much as your successes.
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Feeling ready to get started? Check out Nik Sharma’s new cookbook Season—coming October 2018, available to preorder now.
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