Ever notice how amazing black pepper tastes when it’s cracked fresh? Whether you’ve only had it that way at a restaurant or keep a mill of whole peppercorns next to your salt shaker, the bursting flavor difference between fresh-cracked and pre-ground pepper isn’t hard to detect.
Whole spices are superior to pre-ground spices in the same way that whole dried chiles are superior to chile powders or whole flax seeds superior to pre-ground flax meal. In their “whole” state, these seeds and herbs have more of their vitality and essence—flavor, aroma, micronutrients, enzymes, and health properties.
When we break them down ourselves, we’re preserving as much of that essence as possible, and our end product is more flavorful and nutritious because of it. Make no bones about it, grinding your own spices takes extra steps and extra time, making pre-ground spices awfully appealing in their grab-and-go state.
I like to keep some spices pre-ground, some whole, and some both. There’s a time and a place for everything. For recipes in which the spice is the star or those with complex spice mixtures, grinding your own whole spices makes the difference between bland and bold. Curry and berberé are great examples.
Here are five tips for grinding your own whole spices:
Toasting your spices before you grind will bring out more of their oils and flavor. It will also kill some of the nutrients, but if you’re going for flavor, it’s a worthy sacrifice. Toasting also makes them easier to break up.
Pour your whole spices in a dry skillet over medium heat. Cast iron is great for this. Allow them to toast, shaking the pan frequently, until they’re very fragrant and just beginning to brown, about 10 minutes (slightly more or less depending on the spice.)
Get a spice grinder
Propellor grinders (like the kind you use for coffee) are great for grinding your own spices (more on these later this week.) If you get a second coffee grinder to use for spices, it’s a good idea to make sure it’s a different color/model than your coffee grinder, or else you run the risk of a surprisingly spicy pot.
Work in batches
Don’t overestimate the power of your average grinder. Those little blades can get overwhelmed easily, so resist the urge to fill the grinder to its max. Instead, work in small batches. Make sure to wipe the grinder out between uses to prevent flavors from crossing over.
Don’t overdo it
Only grind as much as you need. As soon as you break the spice up, its oils and enzymes begin to degrade, so the longer it sits around the closer it gets to the bottle you bought at the store. It’s great to grind up a big batch of chili or curry powder if you eat those dishes often, but don’t get grinder-happy and end up with more than you can use.
To make sure your home-ground spices last as long as possible, store them in airtight containers, preferably in the dark (like in a cabinet.) Once you open and use a batch or bottle of ground spice, you have roughly a year before it’s lost its punch.