Things That Are Better Toasted: NOT Your Cook, but Your Spices, Nuts, Grains, Seeds & Chiles

Cooking is all about technique, and sometimes (more often than you think), it's the very simple things that can make the biggest difference. Consider toasting, in which basic ingredients are given a few minutes on a sheet pan in a hot oven, or on the stovetop in a hot skillet, to crisp them up and bring out their flavor. Most commonly this is done with nuts, and the difference between a raw hazelnut and one after 10 minutes in a 400 degree oven is astonishing, even ontological.

To toast: hazelnuts, Sanaam chiles, bulghur, caraway, pepitas
To toast: hazelnuts, Sanaam chiles, bulghur, caraway, pepitas
Photo credit: Amy Scattergood

Seeds, like sesame or pepitas, also benefit enormously from a few minutes in a pan, as do dry spices. Put a skillet on the stove and toast a handful of caraway or cumin seeds before you stir them into a sauce or dough: the flavor is elevated exponentially. And if you aren't already toasting your dried Tien Tsin and Sanaam chiles, your Dundicuts and Piquins, then you should begin doing so immediately. Sure, you may have to blast your kitchen with a standing fan so you can breathe comfortably thereafter, but it's well worth any momentary suffering.

Equally remarkable is the difference that toasting grains can make to their flavor. Before you cook bulghur or quinoa, toast the grains first for 3-5 minutes over medium-high heat in a dry cast iron pan (stir or shake the pan so the tiny grains don't burn). Add some spices--ancho chiles or Aleppo pepper--to the pan while you're cooking the grains, which saves you from doing it separately and allows the flavors to coalesce.

Oatmeal, both flakes and steel-cut, and other cereal grains are also vastly improved by few minutes in a hot pan. Next time try toasting your Irish oatmeal, with a bit of cinnamon and even a nub of butter, before you add water and boil it. The nutty, earthy flavors of the grains will come through. Of course if you add a spoonful of Nutella or a handful of chopped 70% chocolate, your breakfast is even further improved.

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