A Guide To Turmeric
Get the lowdown on this brilliant botanical, famed for its fantastic flavour and health-boosting benefits.
Since ancient times, chefs have reached for turmeric thanks to its ability to add an earthy, almost musky, flavour to food, but in recent years it’s also reached buzzworthy status thanks to its supposed medicinal properties.
But what is turmeric, and, more importantly, when and how are you supposed to cook with it? Let’s take a closer look at this radiant root.
What is turmeric?
Part of the ginger family, turmeric is a rhizome (grows roots horizontally) and grows underground.
To transform the root into the powdered-form you find in the spice aisle at your local supermarket, the freshly harvested rhizomes are boiled and then sun-dried for around a week, before being ground into a fine powder.
You can also buy fresh turmeric which looks a lot like small knobs of ginger. It has a dull orange exterior, but once you cut it open, it reveals its signature bright orange interior.
Where does turmeric come from?
Native to the monsoon forests of Southeast Asia, India has been the largest producer of turmeric since ancient times, but the root is grown and harvested throughout the tropics.
What’s the historical significance of turmeric?
While turmeric is currently a popular ingredient the use of the golden spice dates back nearly 4000 years to the Vedic culture in India. Analyses of pots discovered near New Delhi revealed residue from turmeric that dates back as early as 2500 BCE.
It was around 500 BCE that turmeric emerged as an important part of Ayurvedic medicine. Ayurveda is an ancient Indian system of natural healing still practised today, and that translates to science of life – ayur meaning life and veda meaning science or knowledge.
In Indian culture though, the importance of turmeric goes far beyond medicine. The natural colouring of the root has also been used to dye clothing and thread for centuries. Saffron-hued Buddhist robes were dyed with turmeric, and in Kerala, a state in southwest India, children were given turmeric-dyed clothing to wear during the Onam festival.
For centuries the Hindu religion has regarded turmeric as auspicious and sacred, as demonstrated on the day of getting married, where the groom carefully ties a piece of string, dyed yellow with turmeric paste, around his bride’s neck. In parts of southern India, a piece of the turmeric rhizome is still worn as an amulet for protection against evil spirits.
What does turmeric taste like?
Turmeric has a subtle earthy, almost musky, flavour with a satisfyingly peppery aftertaste. While both varieties are slightly bitter, fresh turmeric offers a brighter flavour than its dried counterpart, and is sometimes described as invigorating, almost citrusy.
What cuisine can turmeric be used in?
Turmeric is mostly commonly associated with South Asian and Middle Eastern recipes. Both sweet and savoury dishes from India and Nepal are infused with it’s unusual flavour, while Indonesian cuisine often features it in soups and stir-fries. It’s also a staple of Persian cooking, particularly in stews and as a base in spice mixtures. Perfect to accompany any rice dish!
How to use turmeric
Dried and powdered is most commonly used mixed into marinades or spice rubs, or added to the base of a sauce, soup or stew. Because of its slightly bitter bite, it usually needs to be balanced out by other ingredients that take the edge off – such as mellowing ghee, butter, coconut oil, coconut milk, or other fats commonly added to curry.
When cooking with fresh turmeric, treat it as you would fresh ginger: Peel, slice, mince, or grate into an array of foods and drinks. Blend it into smoothies, brew into a tea, or add it’s famous earthy flavour to soups, stews or curries – the possibilities are endless. It’s also less potent than powdered, so can be used a little more generously.
How to prepare turmeric
To prepare fresh turmeric, simply grab a vegetable peeler or paring knife and slice off its skin. Alternatively, you use the chef’s trick of rubbing the stem with the back with a spoon to remove the hard outer layers. Once that’s done, you’re ready to slice, grate, crush or blitz your turmeric, depending on what your recipe calls for.
A word of warning…
If you’ve ever wondered what’s staining your tupperware after it’s contained a curry, it’s probably turmeric. The incredible hue of this spice is a big cause of it’s notoriety, and just a teaspoon will instantly turn any dish a bright yellow-orange. In fact, it’s often added to things like prepared mustard as a natural food dye.
It also means it can permanently stain almost anything it touches, so always wear gloves if you’re handling fresh turmeric and avoid cooking (or eating) it in your favourite clothes.
Complimentary herbs and spices
If you’re looking for dried spices that taste great with turmeric, reach for cumin, cinnamon, or paprika. If you’re cooking with fresh turmeric, then fresh ginger is an equally punchy partner. Just ensure you use them sparingly, as both of these fresh ingredients are pretty strong, and can quickly overpower other ingredients.
Substitutes for turmeric
If you can’t get your hands on fresh turmeric, you’re hesitant to add to your overcrowded spice rack, or you’ve simply just run out, there’s a few alternatives you can try.
In terms of flavour and colouring, saffron is regarded as the best substitute for turmeric. However, it can be pricey. If you’re looking for a more economic option, ginger and cumin are also adequate stand-ins. While neither is going to give you the same vibrant colour, they can mimic turmeric’s flavour. Both are strong in terms of flavour, so use them sparingly.
How to store turmeric
If you’re bought some fresh turmeric and aren’t quite ready to cook yet, or you have some left over, you’ll need to start by giving it a thorough wash.
Next, pat the turmeric root dry with a clean sheet of paper towel. One of the biggest problems with refrigerating turmeric root is mould growth, but drying it thoroughly will remove excess moisture, and should help avoid this problem.
Finally, loosely wrap the turmeric in a fresh, dry piece of paper towel and place it in a resealable plastic bag. Once you’re ready, squeeze the extra air out of the bag, and seal it.
As with all spices, powdered turmeric should be stored in an airtight container, away from sunlight and moisture. Your cool, shady spice drawer will be perfect.
Fresh turmeric will keep in the refrigerator for a few weeks, or in your freezer for up to six months. However, like all fresh roots, it will lose potency and flavour the longer it’s waiting around to be used. You can also dehydrate the fresh root to make your own dried turmeric powder, which will stay fresh for up to nine months, if stored correctly.
Can you freeze turmeric?
The short answer is yes. To extend fresh turmeric’s shelf life it’s possible to freeze the root for up to six months. You’ll need to wash it, dry it, then cut or slice it into portion sizes, then wrap it in a piece of dry paper towel and put it in an airtight container.
It’s best to cut it into single portions before freezing (around 1-2-inch per piece), so that when you need to use some, you’ll be able to take out just the right amount, rather than having to thaw out (and risk wasting) your whole supply.
Does turmeric have any health benefits?
Just like ginger, turmeric has some great health benefits. This is mostly down to it’s most active compound, curcumin, which can boost the immune system, aid digestion, as well as possessing potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.