I generally use low amounts of oil in my cooking. Just a fourth or half teaspoon is enough for the tempering (esp with whole spices) or spray for baking or other needs. I often get asked about how to cook Indian food without oil and have been meaning to write up this post for a while, probably months now. I cooked some dishes without oil to figure out what works best in terms of tempering whole spices, ground spices, how some traditional Indian recipes would need some adjustment and so on.
Here is how to adjust Indian recipes to be oil-free. These adjustments also apply to cooking oil-free in general.
Whole spices are often tempered in hot oil in many Indian dishes like Dals, one pot meals, mains etc. When the oil is hot, spices are added to it. They are cooked until they get fragrant or change color or start to pop. At this point the spices infuse the oil really well and the oil acts as a carrier to infuse the rest of the dish.
To temper the whole spices without oil, the tempering process can get divided into more than 1 step or the order of the recipe is changed.
1. You can dry roast the spices until they change color and continue with the rest of the steps of the recipe. Use water or broth to saute onions/veggies once the spices are roasted.
2. You can dry roast the spices, remove them from the pan, and add them back to the pan with the ground spices. This reduces the risk of burning the whole spices.
3. You can change the recipe and use ground versions of the whole spices listed. The ground spices will then be added later in the recipe with other ingredients as turmeric.
For option 1, Heat the skillet over the heat mentioned in the recipe without oil. When the skillet is hot, add the whole spices in the order mentioned in the recipe, and cook them until they get fragrant, or change color or start to pop. Yes they will start to pop, it might take a bit longer than when cooked in hot oil. Once the spices are tempered, add a splash of water or broth to bring the temperature of the pan down so the spices do not burn and also to infuse the broth/water. Add onions or curry leaves or whatever the next step. Keep adding more water or broth to cook the onions or veggies and continue with the recipe.
1. Burnt spices: Dry roasting the spices to the expected outcome (popping) can easily go from roasted spices to burnt spices. Burnt spices will add a strong smoky bitter flavor that might or might not work with the dish. If unsure, roast the spices till just about starting to get fragrant or the slightest color change.
If roasted whole spices always turn out bitter, use ground spices instead and add them later in the recipe when you add other ground spices. Or if you are not so particular about traditional flavors, add whole spices directly later in the recipe with liquids. Spices, whole or ground, dry roasted, oil roasted, broth cooked, or unroasted, add different flavors to the final dish. Find the flavors and method that work the best for you.
2. Order of roasting: Some spices roast and burn faster than other spices. Often the recipes will already have this information even when cooking in oil. If the information is not there, and there are many whole spices used in the recipe, you can dry roast each spice separately. Or if you know the general roasting times of the whole spices, then add them to the pan in order of longest to shortest roasting time. For eg mustard seeds will take longer to roast compared to cumin seeds. Larger spices will also take longer to roast.
One of the below Dal Tadka has tempering made without oil and the other tempered in oil. They look pretty much the same. Taste wise, there will be a difference. The oil-free dal tastes better after a few hours as the spices take longer to infuse.
You can cook ground spices in broth or lightly dry toast and then add broth or water. It depends on the recipe. If the ground spices are added later in the recipe, the contents of the pan might already be wet. If not, then mix the spices in broth/water and add to the skillet.
If you often cook without oil, make your own ground roasted spices. Roast the whole spices like cumin seeds, coriander seeds until fragrant, cool, grind and store. Make small amounts to use up within a month or 2. This eliminates the need to roast the spices during the recipe. The pre-packaged spices might not necessarily be roasted.
Cooking onions , garlic or other vegetables:
Use water or broth to saute the onions or vegetables until translucent or golden as the recipe needs.
Depending on the pan used, the onions, veggies or tomatoes will have a tendency to stick or burn. Add additional water or broth to help reduce the sticking.
My Cuisinart Green gourmet pans work beautifully for cooking oil-free. Nothing sticks on them if cooked at the right heat and the pans are cared for. Cast iron would also be a great choice.
Asafetida (hing) is often tempered in oil with whole spices or right after the whole spices are tempered. Asafetida has a really fetid aroma and flavor. Once tempered however it becomes garlick-onion kind of flavor which supports the other flavor profiles in the dish. Without oil, you want to roast the asafetida on a dry skillet. Adjust the time when you add asafetida in the recipe so that, 1. it is roasted on a dry skillet 2. it is roasted only for a few seconds as it will burn quickly.
Fresh Curry leaves have a beautiful flavor profile which is mixture of lime, coriander and other flavors. The strong flavor infuses the oil during tempering and is carried over to the dish. Often the leaves are discarded while eating (not before), as it depends on personal preference. Many people eat the curry leaves while most discard the leaves.
Add curry leaves later in the recipe, as adding them at the step mentioned in With-oil recipe will only dry them out. Add them with the onions, or add them directly to the lentils/liquid.
For my cookbook, I worked on all the usually fried recipes ( Fritters/Pakoras, Manchurian, koftas, Gulab Jamuns etc) to convert them to baked versions. The recipes were developed and optimized to make Crisp and similar texture and flavor baked results. Those recipes use a small amount of oil in the batter or for brushing during baking. They can easily be made oil-free by omitting the oil. Be sure to use parchment paper to avoid things sticking to the baking sheet.
In general, for baking Indian recipes that are deep fried, adjust the batter to be thicker than what is used for frying.
To make flatbreads without oil, use non dairy yogurt in the dough to help keep the breads moist and pliable. Use a good skillet to cook the flatbreads.
What are your tips to cook Indian or other cuisines oil-free?
- 1 cup red lentils
- 2.5 cups water
- ¾ to 1 tsp salt
- ½ cup finely chopped red or white onion
- 5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1 inch ginger, chopped
- broth or water as needed
- ½ tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- ½ to 1 tsp garam masala
- ½ tsp dried fenugreek leaves (kasoori methi)
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- ½ tsp mustard seeds
- a generous pinch of asafoetida(hing) - Omit to make gluten-free or use certified gluten-free asafetida
- 2 dried red chilies, broken into half (cayenne or california red)
- 8 curry leaves
- 1 bay leaf
- Wash and drain the lentils. Add to a deep pan with water and salt. Bring to a boil on medium heat, then cook on medium-low heat for 12-15 minutes or until lentils are tender. Keep them on a low simmer.
- Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, ginger and a pinch of salt. Mix and cook for 6 to 8 minutes or until golden brown. Add a splash of water or broth if the onions begin to stick or brown too quickly.
- Add turmeric, coriander, garam masala and fenugreek leaves. Mix and cook for half a minute. Add a splash of water if sticking. Pour this into the cooked simmering lentils.
- Heat a clean skillet over medium heat, when the skillet is hot, mustard seeds and cook for a few seconds. Add cumin seeds and mix. Cook until the cumin seeds slightly change color and get fragrant. The mustard seeds will change color but might not pop. Add red chilies, bay leaf and cook until the bay leaf starts to change color. Add asafetida and curry leaves and mix in (If you were using oil, asafetida + curry leaves would be added with the chilies). Add this tempering to the cooked lentils. Mix well and take off heat. Taste and adjust salt and spice. Add more water for thinner consistency. Serve hot garnished with cilantro, with Naan, flat breads or rice.
Use 2 to 2.5 cups of other cooked lentils or cooked split peas.
Let me know in the comments if you have tips and tricks that you usually use to convert recipes to oil-free.