In South Asian cooking, a popular method known as blooming (or tempering) spices involves heating those spices in hot oil. While blooming and tempering are the English translations, there are many words in South Asian languages that you may also see in reference to this technique: tadka, tarka, phodni, baghaar, phoron, or chaunk.
Blooming spices is a fundamental part of South Asian cookery; for example, dal tadka is a classic lentil dish that takes advantage of this process whereby lentils are cooked down into a liquid and topped with sizzling spices in oil.
Why Would You Want to Bloom Spices?
Heating spices in oil (or fat such as ghee) helps pull the fat-soluble compounds from spices to extract more flavor. Phodni, the Marathi word for tempering, translates to "something you are breaking open," as in breaking open the spices to release flavor. As a result, it makes a spice taste more like itself.
Mustard seeds, for example, taste bitter and unappealing when raw; when cooked, they mellow out to become more pleasant.
What Spices and Ingredients Can You Use?
While there are a set of classically used spices in the blooming process, you should feel free to experiment with whatever combinations you like. Think of this more as a technique than a strict set of ingredients or instructions. You can use both whole and ground spices, but the former has the added benefit of providing texture to a dish.
For whole spices, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, cinnamon, cloves, and dried chilies are very common. In addition, many recipes will call for asafetida (hing) and chili powder, popular ground spices to use.
Many cooks also add herbs, like curry leaves or bay leaves, fresh chilies, minced garlic or ginger, or even a pinch of lentils to their oil. As you can see, when we extend this process to any ingredient, even something like a mirepoix – a common French cooking technique of onion, carrots, and celery cooked in oil or butter – can fall under this category.
At What Point in the Cooking Process Do You Bloom Spices?
You can use this method at the beginning or the end of the cooking process. Done at the beginning, and the spiced oil flavors the whole dish evenly. Pour this hot oil on top of your finished dish, and it will add a pop of brightness, the same way an herb garnish might.
Do's and Dont's for Blooming Spices
- Do use an oil with a high smoke point, such as canola, safflower, avocado, mustard, or ghee.
- Do make sure to add your spices in a particular order. Different spices (and herbs) will burn at different rates. Ground spices will burn exceptionally quickly, but whole spices have more leeway. I typically turn the heat off right as I add in ground spices. Even within whole spices, a mustard seed can withstand more heat than a cumin seed.
- Do try to use a small pan if blooming spices to finish a dish. A small, high-walled pan, known as a tadka pan, is helpful because it keeps splattering oil inside the pan. You can also use less fat in a narrower pan.
- Don't use too much oil. You only need a couple of tablespoons maximum for a dish.
- Don't let your spices burn -- use all your senses to pay attention to the way the spices are cooking. Sizzling, crackling, and popping is a good indication you're ready to move to the next step. The spices will emit a nutty fragrance and look toasted before they begin to burn. Burnt spices are practically inedible, but if you do mess up, start again. When in doubt, keep the heat down. Burning can happen within just a few seconds, but if you prep all your ingredients ahead of time, you'll be well prepared.
- Don't stand too close to the pan since the oil can splatter.
How to Bloom Spices (Step-by-Step Instructions)
- Heat the oil: Heat your oil to medium-low heat in a small pan and to medium heat for larger pans.
- Test the oil: Test to see if the oil is hot enough. Add a couple of whole spices to see if they begin to sizzle. If they do, add the rest.
- Add whole seed spices: Add any whole spices first. Mustard seeds can withstand the highest heat, followed by other seeds (i.e., cumin, fenugreek, fennel). Once the seeds begin to pop, you can add the next set of spices. Swirl the pan, if needed, to ensure even cooking.
- Add whole warming spices: Add whole warming spices, like cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom next until lightly toasted.
- Add alliums: Quickly add in any alliums (ginger or garlic) and let cook until toasted as desired.
- Add herbs: Next, add any herbs (curry leaves or bay leaves) until they sizzle.
- Turn off heat and add ground spices: Finally, turn the heat off, and add any ground spices. Stir to combine.
- Continue with recipe: If blooming at the beginning of the cooking process, proceed to the next step in the recipe. If blooming at the end, pour the finished spices on top of your dish.
How Can I Apply This Method to My Cooking?
While many South Asian-specific recipes use this method, there are a zillion ways to apply it to all types of cooking. For example, blooming spices is always a great technique to add flavor to stir-fried vegetables. But I will also mix sizzling spices into a snack mix, top a soup, or fold into chilled yogurt. I've even cooled the spiced oil to use as the base of a salad dressing.