How To Temper Spices: An Easy Step-by-Step Guide

published Jul 28, 2020
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Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

The technique of tempering or blooming spices (and in some instances herbs, chilis, ginger, or alliums like onion or garlic) in hot fat and adding them to a dish is at the heart of Indian cooking. The process intensifies the flavor of the spices while infusing their flavor into the oil. Depending on the region, tempering may be referred as vagarne, oggarane, chaunk, tadka or baghaar, but the technique pretty much remains the same throughout India — only the type of oil or ingredients used will vary.

If you’re new to South Indian cooking, tempering is the single most important lesson to learn — the technique is used in most every savory recipe in Indian cooking. Don’t worry if you burn spices the first time — you can always discard those few spices and start again until you get it right. And once you get comfortable with it, you can apply the technique to more than just Indian recipes. When I first taught my husband Ben how to temper spices, he applied the process to flavoring butter for his popcorn.

The Best Pot for Tempering Spices

After the spices have been bloomed, the flavorful fat can be used one of two ways. You can add vegetables or rice directly to the fat to begin a recipe, or you can pour the fat onto yogurt, salad, or lentils as a garnish.

If you’re going to be cooking with the fat, you can temper the spices directly in your cooking vessel. But when the seasoned fat is used to finish a dish, the spices are usually fried in a tiny pot called a tempering pot. Using a vessel with as little surface area as possible is the most efficient way to fry the spices in a small amount of fat. I also recommend using a lid — some spices may pop when they hit the hot fat, and moisture-rich ingredients like herbs or fresh chilies might spurt up.

Look for these pots at an Indian grocery store or Indian market. You can also sub in a small frying pan (which is what we’re using here, to more easily illustrate the process) or even a Turkish coffee pot. And you don’t just have to reserve it for tempering: I use my Indian tempering pot to poach eggs, because it’s the perfect size to keep them intact. 

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

Tempering Spices, Step-by-Step

To illustrate how tempering works, I’m going to provide an example using ingredients used in my coconut chutney recipe, but you can use this step-by-step regardless of your ingredients. Since the ingredients are added one or two at a time in quick succession, this is when the functionality of the Indian spice box is most apparent, and why it’s handy to have all of your spices in one place. The general rule is that you can add up to five different whole spices to the fat.

Use the following guide to get you started, but remember: Tempering involves your sense of sight, sound, and smell. You’ll need to listen for the sound of a mustard seed popping and smell the nutty aroma of a lentil fried in oil. That’s the fun and exciting part of it all! 

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

1. Heat the oil. Heat a high-heat, preferably mild-flavored oil like sunflower or canola over medium heat in a tempering pot or small pan.

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

2. Test that the oil is hot enough. To test that the oil is hot enough, add a black mustard seed or two. If the seeds start to sizzle or pop, the oil is at the right temperature.

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

3. Add the rest of the mustard seeds. Quickly add in the rest of the black mustard seeds and asafetida, if using, and cover the pan, as the mustard seeds will pop.

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

4. Toast urad dal. Uncover the pan, add the urad dal, lower the heat to medium-low, and stir until toasted.

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

5. Add remaining spices. Rub three fresh curry leaves between your fingers a little to release their natural oils and drop them and a dried red chili pepper, if using, into the oil. Cover immediately as moisture from the curry leaves will cause the oil to spurt. 

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

6. Pour over chutney. Once the leaves start to crackle, quickly pour the contents of the tempering pot over coconut chutney to season it.

Credit: Kitchn