The Flavor Equation: Spotlight on Aroma

Nik Sharma

Hey Friends, I’m a multi-award-winning and best-selling cookbook author and photographer.

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Aroma is the sense most strongly associated with our memory; when we reminisce about food or drink, it’s their unique scents that we recollect, and rarely their taste. That’s why Aroma is the focus of this week’s post about The Flavor Equation. Spices are used to enhance or build aroma, and a few of my favorites make regular appearances in my recipes:  Aleppo pepper, saffron, and nigella seeds are a few of them.

When I first learned to cook with my mother and grandmother, I noticed how aromas were carefully built into the food we prepared. If we made a stock or a dal, spices or aromatic ingredients like onions, garlic, and ginger were cooked in fat over heat to release their aromas and draw them into the fat. Sometimes aromatic ingredients were added toward the end, just before the food would make its way to the table—like fresh lime zest scattered over a slice of pound cake, so you’d smell the citrus aromas immediately.

I use a variety of spices in my recipes, but some of my favorite spices include:

  • Aleppo flakes: A red chilli flake noted for its rich, bright red capsaicin pigment and distinct flavor. Not only can you use it to add heat to food, but it is also wonderful in hot oil and imparts a bright red color. Also, look to other varieties like Maras and Urfa and pay attention to their flavor, color, and aroma differences. These three chilli flakes carry a smoky flavor, but urfa has a scent reminiscent of chocolate. 
  • Saffron: A little bit goes a long way with this spice. It gives an orange tinge to sweets and savory dishes and adds a unique floral aroma. 
  • Omani limes: Sometimes called Persian Dried Limes are a staple in Persian cooking. I love them for their smoky citrus flavor and smell. Add them to savory and sweet preparations. 
  • Nigella seeds: Often erroneously called the onion seed, it won’t produce onions but beautiful flowers. Use this for its onion-like flavor when making breads just like you would sprinkle sesame seeds on buns or flat-bread. I added it to tadkas and other savory preparations for its nutty fragrance. 

Some additional tips worth sharing: When cooking, smell your ingredients as often as possible. Because most aroma molecules are highly volatile, they evaporate when exposed to air. Temperature can also produce effects; for example, The warmer the room, the more quickly the aroma molecules evaporate and escape. 

Buy dry, whole spices and herbs in small amounts based on your needs and store them away from sunlight, in airtight containers in a cool, dark place. Lately, I’ve been partial to the ones I’ve been using from Spiceology, which offers whole spices in most kitchen essentials. For some dishes, fresh herbs are added just before serving to take full advantage of their aroma, but in other dishes, these can also be incorporated into the dish and cooked. 

Another tip I’ve learned over the years with recipe testing is to make sure your spices are under a year old. Otherwise, they lose their potency quickly, especially when ground. You will need to increase the amount of spices listed in a recipe due to this decrease in flavor. I suggest buying your spices from companies like Spiceology, which don’t grind their spices until they are ready to pack and ship direct to your doorstep. Not only will the spice have a richer smell and deeper flavor, but their coloring will be more vibrant too.  

I’d love to hear about your favorite spices and how you incorporate them into your cooking. You can also experiment with the spices and aroma of Baked Sweet Potatoes with Maple Crème Fraiche – a recipe from The Flavor Equation that I will share tomorrow.

Find out how else you can immerse yourself in The Flavor Equation experience, including a chance to win a full revamp of your spice drawer with the A-Z line from Spiceology, and other products from participating partners here

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