Turmeric, a relative of ginger, is responsible for the rich, golden-orange color of curries. At the supermarket, "Indian saffron" is most often seen in its powdered form, either alone or blended with other spices in prepared powders and pastes. Finding and using fresh turmeric for your Indian recipes may require some extra effort, but guarantees that no color and flavor are lost in storage.
Turmeric in Indian Cuisine
Throughout India, cooking styles and flavorings vary enormously by region, but turmeric is important all over the country. The flavors of Indian food come from blends of many spices, not one or two alone, and mild-mannered turmeric's contribution has always been more for color than flavor. Its earthy, bittersweet taste is far less assertive than many other spices commonly used in Indian recipes, such as cumin, anise, cardamom, fenugreek and cloves. Turmeric also features in Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Chinese and Middle Eastern recipes.
Fresh vs. Powdered Turmeric
In India, spices move so quickly from field to market to consumers they don't have time to get stale, but the same doesn't apply to packaged powdered spices and blends sold in U.S. supermarkets. Fresh turmeric is bright orange but as it ages, its color fades to a dull gold, taking flavor along with it. Passing on powdered turmeric in favor of the root ensures brighter color and taste. You grate turmeric root the same way you'd grate ginger root. The recommended ratio: If your recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of dried turmeric, use 3 teaspoons of fresh.
Using Whole Spices
To ensure maximum freshness, buy whole spices in small quantities, grinding only what you need for one dish at a time. If you can, avoid the inferior prepared spice blends and pastes. With a coffee grinder and a basic stock of whole spices, you can create food more nuanced and authentic than any you could achieve with prepared blends -- and you'll taste the difference.
A typical supermarket probably won't have fresh turmeric root, but shops catering to a South Asian clientele will, along with many other whole spices. Another reason to shop where Indians shop: You get the opportunity to pick the brains of store staff and customers on spicing and cooking the foods.
Removing Turmeric Stains
Don't find out the hard way why turmeric makes a great fabric dye. When handling the spice, wear an apron, and when grating fresh turmeric, surgical gloves can save a lot of explaining about why your hands are orange. Skin stains fade away on their own in a couple of days, but rubbing them with cooking oil or a mild astringent can hasten the process. For turmeric on clothes, rinse the stain with water, apply liquid dish detergent, let it sit for half an hour, then launder the garment. Rubbing a cut lemon on the stain and letting the garment sit in the sun before laundering also works.
Storing Fresh and Dried Turmeric
The rule of thumb for storing ground turmeric also applies to other spices: Put them in an airtight container and keep them in a cool, dark, dry place well away from the heat of your stove. Freezing dried spices also keeps them somewhat fresher. After fresh turmeric root has been cut, if you wrap it in a damp paper towel and put it into a storage container or plastic bag, it will keep for several days in the refrigerator. If you can't use it before then, put it in the freezer.
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects: 2nd edition: Chapter 13: Turmeric, the Golden Spice
- Oregon State University: Leader's Guide: Spices of India
- Michigan State University: Asian Studies Center: India - Culture
- Cook's Illustrated: Spice Grinders
- Colorado State University: Spice it Up for Health
- Expat Recipe: List of Spices & Herbs
- Health Diaries: Eat This!: How to Remove Turmeric Stains
- Photo Credit Visage/Stockbyte/Getty Images