Taste Test: Does Crushing or Toasting Spices Make Better Chai?

Most homemade chai recipes instruct you to crush your spices. Others recommend toasting. Does crushing or toasting your spices make your masala chai taste better? Is it worth the extra effort?

What is masala chai?

Chai means tea in Hindi. Masala, according to my friends from India, means a mix of spices. Masala chai is black tea with spices, including cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, and many others.

Popularized by Western coffee shops like Starbucks, masala chai is commonly called “chai tea” or “chai latte”. This taste test focuses on the homemade version of chai made from scratch.

RELATED: Read Tea 101 to learn the fundamentals of tea.

Case Study: Masala Chai

Every family has a unique blend of masala using different proportions of spices. You might like it with more heat. If so, add more grated ginger. You might like it more cinnamon-y. If so, throw in extra sticks of cinnamon.

Because everybody has their preferred spice ratios, I can’t weigh in on spice blends. The right spice mix is based on your personal preferences.

But I can weigh in on the range of techniques used to prepare chai.

Why do a taste test?

After reading numerous chai recipes, there is a range of techniques for making chai. Some recipes call for crushing the spices. Some recommend crushing and toasting spices. Others suggest adding milk at the beginning. Others recommend milk only after boiling the spices in water.

My question is: Does the extra effort of crushing and toasting spices make a better cup of chai?

Spicy chai is a great test to understand the impact of crushing and toasting to determine whether they bring out more flavors.

This taste test generalizes beyond chai to address whether it’s worth crushing and toasting spices for mulled wine, curries, pumpkin pie, and other spiced food and drinks.

Let’s run the experiment to figure out whether crushing and toasting are worth the effort.

RELATED: Learn the difference between loose-leaf tea vs. tea bags.

How are we running the taste test?

We created 4 different spice conditions:

  • No crushing spices and no toasting
  • Crushing spices without toasting
  • Toasting spices without crushing
  • Both crushing and toasting spices
The toasted spices look like they have a golden, summery tan.

For a (more) controlled test, it was important that I weigh the spices rather than measure based on volume. If I used a teaspoon, how would I know the chai tasted better because of crushing and toasting rather than accidentally adding more spices?

My kitchen scale was insufficiently precise for measuring spices. It was calibrated to 0.1 oz / 1 g. I purchased a pocket scale that measures milligrams. Now, I have a new instrument in my food blogging arsenal 😀

Who is in the taste test?

Alex + Anna

What are the results of the taste test?

Our preference by ranking

Alex’s ranking from most to least favorite chai (including comments from the taste test):

  1. Toasting without crushing (Very creamy, almost chocolatey, most nutty, least bitter chai)
  2. No crushing and no toasting (More bitter but less spicy than “crushing and toasting”, strong cloves after taste)
  3. Both crushing and toasting (More bitter and spicier than “toasting without crushing” but less of a nutty after taste)
  4. Crushing without toasting (Least flavorful of all but same bitterness. Less interesting because lack of flavor, tastes like bitter milk)

Anna’s ranking from most to least favorite chai (including comments from the taste test):

  1. Both crushing and toasting (Stronger and spicier than “toasting without crushing”, more bitter and more aromatic, flavors are more intense)
  2. Toasting without crushing (Not too bitter and still very flavorful)
  3. Crushing without toasting (Most mild and least flavorful, it’s OK)
  4. No crushing and no toasting (Hate this one, really bitter and intense flavor, almost astringent, and dull)

Can you taste the difference when toasting versus crushing spices?

“They all taste quite different,” Alex told me. “I’m not a chai connoisseur so I can’t explain the differences. But they all have a different personality.”

Alex and I both preferred the chai with toasted spices. Alex strongly disliked any of the conditions where spices were crushed.

“I’m surprised I dislike crushing so much,” Alex told me. “I assumed it would provides more flavors, and flavors are always better. But it brings out flavors I don’t like.”

I found that the chai made without crushing or toasting spices the most bitter and astringent. Could it be that the black tea overpowered the drink?

What did we learn from the masala chai taste test?

Toasting the spices produces a more flavorful tea. It produces a nutty flavor (in Alex’s words “chocolatey”) that Alex and I both enjoy.

Crushing is a lot more work than toasting spices because it requires elbow grease to pound the spices. And ironically, we both dislike chai with crushed spices.

Toasting is far easier, considering you can toast spices by heating them in a warm pan. You can toast spices a week before using them, allowing you to do it in advance. Plus, you have to heat a saucepan for boiling the chai anyway. So why not toast the spices while you’re at it?

Going forward, whenever we make masala chai, toasting the spices before brewing chai is a no-brainer. But we likely will NOT crush spices to keep the chai milder.

Tip to stop your milk from spilling over

My masala chai recipe came from Sean D’Souza over at Psychotactics. Sean makes a “Mumbaikars’ version” of masala chai that he grew up with.

He offered a tip to avoid milk spilling into a puddle when you’re boiling the tea.

I keep a ladle over the tea, because the milk will cause it to rise and spill. Kept on a lower flame and with a ladle, it won’t spill.

Sean D’Souza at Psychotactics
I used a spatula instead of a ladle. You simply put it over the saucepan. Sean’s advice works. The spatula stopped the bubbling milk from spilling over the edge of the saucepan. Eventually, the milk calmed down, and I could remove the spatula without fear of it overflowing.

RELATED: Worried about tea staining your teeth? Get my tip on how to reduce staining.

What kind of recipes can you enjoy with chai?


FAQ about masala chai

What’s in chai tea?

Chai is made from black (red) tea leaves and a mixture of different spices, including cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns, and ginger (see the next question for chai spices). In the British tradition of tea, chai typically contains milk and sugar (though we drank ours without added sugar).

The ingredients in Sean’s version of masala chai.

What is chai spice made of?

The most common spices in chai are the following:

  • peppercorns
  • green cardamoms
  • cloves
  • fennel seeds
  • cinnamon
  • ginger

Some recipes also call for the following spices and flavorings, though they are less authentic:

  • star anise
  • nutmeg
  • allspice
  • bay leaf
  • vanilla

Even though authentic masala chai doesn’t have vanilla, I love the idea of adding in a vanilla pod.

What is the best chai tea?

Our favorite chai recipe is to toast half a teaspoon of cardamom, peppercorns, cloves, and fennel with 1 stick of cinnamon and 2 inches / 5 cm of ginger in a saucepan on medium-low heat for 3 minutes. Then add a cup of half and half (or whole milk) and two cups of water. Bring to the boil and add 2 tablespoons of black tea. Cook for 10 minutes and then strain. Add sugar to taste.

How do you toast the spices for chai?

Toasting requires heating the spices gently in a saucepan on medium-low heat until the spices smell fragrant and are browned slightly. Continually shake the spices in the pan until they are brown or else they will burn. Typically, it takes 3-5 minutes to toast on medium-low heat until they are browned.

Sources

Here’s my lit review for all the recipes I evaluated for this taste test:

What’s your experience with crushing and toasting spices? Is it worth it? Let us know if you disagree with our findings in the comments.

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on GarlicDelight.com with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

6 thoughts on “Taste Test: Does Crushing or Toasting Spices Make Better Chai?”

  1. This was a great read and I can’t wait to experiment with the spices myself!
    I have a few questions I’d like to ask though:
    1) Did you crush and then toast or toast and then crush? I suspect toasting after crushing the spices may change the level of bitterness because the surface area would be sealed.
    2) Have you considered selective toasting? I think some spices burn faster and create bitter flavor while others will create a nutty flavor.
    3) If I want to toast the spices gently in the oven, do you have a recommendation for temp and time?

    Thank you so much in advance!

    Reply
    • Hi Young,
      Thanks for your message.
      1. I crushed and then toasted the spices for the crush & toast scenario. Yes, you’re probably right. It would be interesting to try the toast and then crush scenario which I hadn’t considered. If you try it, will you let me know how that turns out?
      2. No, I haven’t but that also sounds like a terrific idea. I wonder if cardamom and cloves would be more bitter but peppercorns and cinnamon would do well with the toasting. I can imagine some spices might also benefit from crushing without toasting like cinnamon to capture more surface area.
      3. I haven’t tried this yet. Would you like me to test and write up an article for you on it?

      You’re welcome and thanks for your kind message. Feel free to leave a recipe review if you try the masala chai.
      Anna

      Reply
  2. I’ve recently started making my own marsala chai tea. This was very helpful thank you I will definitely start toasting I think. My only other question is could you crush certain spices to bring out a specific flavor that you look without making the whole thing tooastringent

    Reply
    • Hi Zac,
      Thank you for your feedback! What did you find to be the most helpful tip from the article?

      Great question about crushing certain spices. I think cinnamon could benefit…though cinnamon is super hard which makes it a pain to crush. Do you have any particular flavor you’re looking to emphasize? Let me know and I can do a special edition taste test to answer your question. Is it the peppercorns, cloves, cardamon that you want more of?

      Reply
  3. Love it! Thank you …months of making chai that I don’t like. Finally I feel that I am underway thanks to your advice and coaching.

    Jane

    Reply
    • Hi Jane,
      Thank you for your feedback! What are you doing differently than before that makes your chai better now? Is it the toasting instead of crushing? Or is it brewing the tea leaves for 2 minutes (so the tea is less bitter)?

      Reply

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