“Raw sesame seeds taste like paper. But toasted sesame seeds are SO delicious! They’re all nutty and rich and like a million times better than they are raw…toast them yourself. The easiest way to do this is in a carefully watched dry frying pan over a medium heat. Keep the seeds moving and pull them off the heat when they are golden brown and smell delicious.”
-Tim Anderson, Japaneasy
Dry frying is one of the most useful and effective culinary techniques, and in almost all cases it is much better than roasting.
Why dry fry?
There are a number of reasons why it’s a good idea to dry fry (or even roast – see below) nuts, seeds, spices…and some other ingredients.
- the texture – the dry frying technique will crisp up nuts and seeds (particularly if they are a bit past their best)
- the taste – the improvement in taste is due to a complex chemical reaction (even now not wholly understood) involving sugars and the amino acids in protein, called the Maillard reaction. It’s why caramelised onions taste better than… ordinary, limp, pale onions. Compare horrible waxy almonds with wonderful, crisp, slivered, toasted almonds….
- why dry fry, why not add oil? Because, with oil you will get a ‘limpness’ – you won’t get the crisp, crunchy texture you achieve with dry frying.
Unexpected advantage – the scent
The main advantage of dry frying is that the most heavenly scent rises into the air, any hopeful partaker of whatever is cooking will become even more hopeful, the saliva and anticipation will start to flow, and the final eating will be all the more pleasurable, and the cooking process itself will be all the more pleasurable also.
Practical advantage over roasting – you can see what you are doing
There is a more practical advantage to dry frying rather than roasting, particularly if you have an Aga. Out of sight is out of mind, and you cannot smell burning in an Aga oven – unless you have iron discipline and no distractions it is easy to forget about something which is time-sensitive after just a couple of minutes. So it’s much better to do this on the hob where you can see, second by second, what is happening.
The technique brings out the flavour of seeds and nut, and even spices (see paprika and tomato sauce for example). All you need to do is to fry them in a good (ideally cast iron) frying pan (my pancake pan is, for example, perfect for this purpose and I don’t use it for anything other than that purpose other than, of course, pancakes) over a gentle heat. Jiggle and shake the pan every now and again to move the seeds or nuts around. Two or three minutes is enough – when you start to smell the aroma they are ready.
Purists (Tony Kitous and Dan Lepard of Comptoir Libanais for example) would say that pine nuts are better toasted on a tray in the oven as they cook unevenly in a frying pan, but I say that Life Is Too Short. You do really need a good, dedicated frying pan for this – the one you use for pancakes is fine. See the best pancake pan.
Dry frying steak, fish and bacon
It’s also possible (and increasingly popular in these health conscious times) to dry fry steak, fish pieces (the more solid fish such as monk fish), and bacon. In the case of less fatty meat or fish, massage a little (flavoured if you have it) oil and some pepper onto the surface. Otherwise just get the surface of the pan good and hot and then just LEAVE it, do NOT joggle or you will break the crust that’s forming (more on why here). Once formed you should be able to detach the meat or fish easily from the pan’s surface, it should just slip away, completely dry. You can then flip the food over and follow the same procedure for the other side.