The first ingredient you reach for in the kitchen is usually oil. So lets talk about oil and curries. It helps food cook evenly, adds flavour, stops it sticking and brings an attractive sheen to the dish.
Cooking oil is plant, animal, or synthetic fat used in frying, baking, and other types of cooking. It is also used in food preparation and flavoring not involving heat, such as salad dressings and bread dips, and may be called edible oil.
Cooking oil is typically a liquid at room temperature, although some oils that contain saturated fat, such as coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil are solid.
Oil and water have different boiling points. Oil has a higher boiling point as compared to water.
Spices and aromatics release their flavours mostly in oil because the compounds in them that are responsible for aroma/flavour are oil soluble.However, they can burn easily in very hot oil.
Most Indian recipes require that they are cooked in a mixture of water and oil (typically onion + tomato or in some regions, coconut or pastes).
Water evaporates, raising the temp slowly of the mix. Spices, vegetables, meat etc. release their flavors slowly. When the oil separates and is visible, the temp is the highest. Depending on how you want spices to release flavour, you add them before or after oil separates. These practices vary from recipe to recipe and region to region in India as the oils, spices and other ingredients are varied in nature.
How it works:
Oil is separated in curries normally after you have cooked spices or sauces for approx 10-15 mins. You can tell by seeing “bubbles” appearing, craters forming then the oil making a thin layer on the surface of your sauces/curry.
As mentioned above it varies based on many factors, on heat level, quantity you are cooking and the ingredients but normally after 10-15 mins the oil separates from your curry.
Thats because normally after cooking for 10-15 mins most of the water dries up which then causes the curry (mostly made of thick sauces) to separate from the oil.
It’s always good to let the oil separate from your curry because of two things:
Extra water dries up
All spices and curry get cooked properly.
The food tastes much better if spices and the curries are properly cooked.
Use your senses, nose and ears. After a while the sauce will lose its watery appearance. The rawer flavours in the air emanating from the pan will begin to be replaced with a moorish mellow aroma and a greater sizzling.
By these stages you’ll see angry looking bubbles of oil around the sauce and the need to keep stirring. I tend to stir a little longer often covered to prevent sticking but aid oil release while getting my (meat/stock/lentils – whichever- etc) ready to pour in.
Often adding small amounts of water and cooking further will further help release more oil as you cook further.
I find this stage is easy to identify by colour in the case of tomatoey sauces. these tend to develop a browner appearance by the oil-separating stage.
Oniony-garlicky-gingery mush sauces lose their raw aroma and then their wateriness and start to develop the oil bubbles after a while – usually about 10-15 mins.
With some meat curries add the meat and dry spices to the still cooking onion and it gets a refry from the meat juices until drying again. When its really sizzling and sticking to the pan in goes the water, stir until boiling, and on goes the lid for slow cooking.
Cook slowly, stirring, till oil separates. This can take a long time and requires patience. It is also the difference between correctly cooked spices and gravy bases and not – what we would refer as to “raw” or “kaccha” masala – meaning it’s not cooked long enough / correctly.
The water from the tomatoes and onions cooked off and they reduce to a jammy consistency. There is an assumption that you used enough oil for it to separate at the edges / on top. If you didn’t, or are in doubt, and the paste starts sticking to the pan, add a tbsp of water to loosen and continue to cook.
The other way you’d know is by smell – but that’s a harder cue if the cuisine is not one you are used to cooking. Eventually, you can tell the smell of cooked masala from one that’s not quite done yet.
Keep in mind that oil separating is not synonymous with browning the onion/tomato base. You can have a bright red paste that oil separates from – and you should, unless the recipe calls for brown.
Oil or No oil; Sweating spices is not same as frying spices. The spices will not cook appropriately. You will taste the spice but not in the developed way which gives the dishes its true depth, flavour and taste.
Even if you use the minimum oil it still needs to be cooked out so it releases its natural oils which change in its profile during the cooking process.
Don’t be scared about using additional oil if the dish requires it as once you have finished cooking you can skim off/take out the excess oil and keep this as seasoned oil.
This seasoned oil is excellent when doing marinades, roast potatoes, roast vegetables or starting other dishes or currys. This beautiful flavoured and spiced oil can be used for many other recipes and dishes to add a lovely undertone. So if the recipe asks for oil or looks like it may benefit from a little more oil add it, with that in mind that you will remove as much as you can at the end of the dishes cooking process.
Often curries need oil to properly cook off both the spices and raw ingredients for caremalisation to take place. It’s different to braising and steaming. This process adds a different sweeter and softer mellow flavour on your palate and taste to your finished dish.
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