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Temper, Temper

Are you guys ready to learn a bit of kitchen wizardry? Here's a tip that will make all your curries, stews, stir-frys and general edibles MUCH more tasty. It's called tempering...

Don't you love when you realize you just learned to do ... something you learned how to do a million years ago? When I was studying in Bangalore, India I took a cooking class. It wasn't formal or anything, just our school cook showing us some thing in the kitchen and one of our professors helping translate when we needed extra explanation. Imagine 7 or 8 of us, hunched around a two-top burner, trying desperately to understand the complex methods of curry-making. In the hot kitchen, we jostled for turns at the skillet, offering to chop garlic or measure cumin seeds just to get close enough for a whiff of that sweet, spicy aroma.

One thing I learned, but never really retained, was that in Indian cooking, spices are cooked alone, in hot oil, as a way to release their flavor. Flash-forward to the present, when I actually cook instead of just watching, and I recalled this ingenious tip. If you're making curry, this is a must. Start the curry process by heating up some hot oil or ghee (clarified butter/immediate artery-filler), if you're traditional, and dropping in your cumin, red pepper and coriander. Works just as well with those blended curry seasonings, too. Once they brown just a bit and you can really smell the aromas of the spices, add in the rest of your ingredients like normal. Here's a great crock pot curried lentil recipe that is an easy way to try this technique.

Not a curry fan? Try this trick for ANYTHING else. Honestly. Studies have shown that tempering releases not only extra flavor from the spices, but extra nutritional value as well. Can't beat that. I experimented by tempering a bunch of spices with some minced garlic I wanted to add to a minestrone soup I was making in the crockpot. No surprise, the tempered garlic, oregano and bay leaf made for a mighty tasty tomato broth. Making a stir-fry? I'd temper some garlic, ginger and crushed red pepper in a bit of coconut oil before adding the rest of the ingredients.

A few tips:

  • Heat the oil on high first to get it sizzling, then add the spices and reduce to medium heat.
  • Keep a close eye on them - a few tablespoons only need a minute or two to temper. I burned a batch of spices last night, and it was no bueno. Quickest way to make whatever you're eating taste like charcoal.
  • Don't use olive oil - apparently it doesn't do well at hot temps. Try vegetable oil, coconut oil, or clarified butter.
  • Experiment! Anything that has spices can have tempered spices instead. And anything that doesn't have spices, is bland. Sorry, had to let you know.

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