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Here's The Best Time To Add Spices While Cooking For Optimal Flavor & Nutrition

August 19, 2020

Even the simplest recipes can be elevated with a few spices—both in terms of flavor and nutritional value. But is there an optimal time to add spices during the cooking process, and could getting it wrong diminish the effects? 

To get the most out of every dish, mbg spoke with food experts for insight on the best time to add different spices while cooking and why. 

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When to add spices for flavor. 

When trying to get the most flavor out of every spice, spice expert Kanchan Koya, Ph.D., recommends adding different spices, herbs, or vegetables at every step of the process. 

In traditional Indian dishes, like curry or stews, she says adding whole spices into hot oil is the first step. Aromatic spices, such as garlic, ginger, and onion come next. Finally, sprinkle in dry, powdered spices at the end. This layering method ensures a rich, nuanced, and flavorful dish every time.

To get even more flavor from each spice, chef Akhtar Nawab says to toast them prior to cooking. "All spices have essential oils tucked inside them, and to release them, they have to be activated with heat," he explains in his book Good for You. "When you warm those spices and start to toast them, that's when those oils get released and the aroma and flavor come alive." 

When to add spices for nutrition. 

When it comes to nutrition, heat can activate certain compounds but deactivate others. This is why it's important to add spices at both the beginning and the end of the cooking process, Koya explains. 

Turmeric, for example, contains a potent compound called curcumin, which has been studied for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Unfortunately, curcumin is not always well absorbed in the body. To make these properties more bioavailable1, Koya says they need to be activated by heat and fat. In other words, adding turmeric to hot oil at the start of the cooking process is the best way to ensure optimal nutrition. 

According to one study, clove and cinnamon were able to maintain their antioxidant properties2 when heated to 365 degrees Fahrenheit. Therefore, you can add these ingredients to the beginning or middle of the cooking process, as long as the temperature is at or below 365 degrees. In the same study, nutmeg actually showed an increase in its ability to fight free radical activity when it was heated to 365 degrees. 

Heat has also been shown to release certain vitamins3, minerals, and antioxidants in the cooking process. While these effects have yet to be studied on spices, Koya says, incorporating spices to the beginning and end of the cooking process is the safest option. Based on what we know, it's important to add some in the heating process and still sprinkle dry spices on at the end for optimal benefits, she says. 

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Bottom line.

Knowing when to add spices in the cooking process can be complicated. Toasting spices before cooking them can release their essential oils and help optimize flavor. Adding different flavors at different stages of the cooking process is another good way to ensure an evenly balanced dish every time. 

In terms of nutrition, different spices react differently to heat. Clove and cinnamon can withstand high temperatures without losing nutrients, while turmeric and nutmeg can actually become more beneficial with heat. Since there is not enough research to determine which spices lose value with heat, sprinkling or garnishing them as the final step may be the safest choice.

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