What Can I Substitute for Cumin in Cooking?

After pepper, cumin is the second most used spice in the world!

It will add a kick to your recipes, bring out the flavors of meats and soups, and may even have health benefits.

Cumin is a spice of Mediterranean origin that is popular in many types of cuisines worldwide.

Fresh cumin is used in cooking, both as whole seeds and as a powder. Its taste is spicy and earthy, and its distinctive flavor is commonly found in soups, stews, and curries.

There are several options to use as a substitute for cumin, and the spice is often used in popular spice blends like taco seasoning and curry powder.

Cumin has long been believed to have numerous health benefits, but while several animal studies have shown impressive health benefits resulting from the consumption of cumin, there is yet little to no quality clinical evidence to prove such health benefits for humans.


What is Cumin?

Cumin is a distinctive and ancient spice used commonly in Mexican, Latin, Mediterranean, African, and Indian cuisines.

It is known for a spicy, earthy taste and aroma. The spice is used often in curry powders and taco or fajita seasoning blends.

The seeds are small, oval, and dark yellowish brown in appearance and look very similar to caraway or fennel seeds.

The seeds are ridged horizontally. While some recipes call for whole seed, the seeds are usually ground to a fine powder.

Buying whole seeds and grinding the seeds into a powder just before cooking will produce a more flavorful spice than using prepackaged, ground spices.

The cumin seed comes from the Cuminum cyminum plant, a relative of carrots and parsley.

The plant, native to the Mediterranean region, is small herb with long, thin leaves.

China, India, Egypt, and Iran are the top producers of the world’s cumin. As cumin is a popular food source for migratory birds, the plant has been introduced all over the world. It grows best in arid areas with hot summers.

Cumin contains essential oils and many vitamins and minerals.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, one teaspoon of cumin can help meet daily nutrition requirements and contains vitamins A, C, E, B6, riboflavin, and niacin.

Minerals found in cumin include iron, magnesium, and calcium, among many others.

Additionally, cumin is an excellent source of dietary fiber.


Cooking with Cumin

While some recipes call for cooking with whole seeds, most recipes call for powdered spice.

According to Seriouseats, cumin is the second most used spice on earth after black pepper.

It brings heat to a dish that perfectly balances chilies and stews while balancing their fruitiness. The pungency of cumin plays well with gamey meats like goat, lamb, and venison.

You can find cumin in meals like Mexican beef tacos, spicy Indian curries, Texian chile, and even some European cheeses.

Store bought, pre-ground cumin powders seldom have the flavor impact of fresh, whole seeds. It is not uncommon to toast the spices until aromatic in a dry pan prior to grinding.

This process excites the volatile oils that give cumin so much flavor. Whole cumin seeds may also be fried in oil to create flavored oils for cooking.

Care must be taken to not burn the seeds as the bitter flavor that results from burnt seeds will overpower any dish.

Another option to getting as much punch as possible from the cumin in the dish is to use it at both the beginning and the end of cooking.

For example, begin the recipe with some fried cumin in oil and then top the finished dish with toasted seeds.


What Can I Use as a Substitute?

There are several options for chefs trying to substitute cumin for something else in their dishes.

Many spice blends contain cumin and depending on the qualities desired from the final recipe they should be considered an easy way to both replace the cumin and add some extra interest.

For cooks looking to replace the cumin completely with another spice, coriander, caraway, and paprika offer the best options.

According to Organicfacts, cumin is the primary ingredient in many readily available supermarket spice mixes including garam masala, curry powder, and taco seasoning.

Since cumin is a primary ingredient in most of these, they make a logical substitution easy.

Consideration must be given to the other ingredients in the mix to assure the recipe remains balanced.


1) Spice blends

Garam masala is an Indian blend of spices widely used on the subcontinent to flavor curries and many other dishes.

Its primary component is cumin, which is combined with coriander seed, pepper, cloves, and cinnamon.

Depending on the dish being prepared, garam masala makes an excellent alternative to fresh cumin and imparts a very subtle, complementary flavor.

Taco seasoning, as used in Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking, often contains cumin combined with other ingredients like chili powder and garlic.

Taco flavorings usually focus on a hotter, spicier taste than cumin alone by using cayenne pepper powder, so keep this in mind when using as a substitution.

Alsi, it often contain extra salt or even MSG, so consider reducing salt in other areas of the recipe if using one of these pre-made seasonings and check the package’s ingredients list carefully.

Similarly, curry powder contains cumin mixed with turmeric, mustard and fenugreek seeds.

Curry powder can be used as a cumin substitute, but like taco seasoning expect a slightly more nuanced flavor to your overall dish.

Fenugreek, in particular, has a strong flavor that many people associate with “curry” due to its prevalence in premixed curry powders.

Also, expect the turmeric to change the color and appearance of the final dish.


2) Direct alternatives

For a more direct replacement in dishes, consider a similar substitution with either coriander seed, caraway seed, or even paprika.

  • Coriander, the round, dried seeds from the cilantro herb plant (Coriandrum sativum), is often combined in recipes with cumin. The combination is known in Southeastern Asian cuisine as Dhana jeera. While coriander does not have the same flavor or heat as cumin does, it shares a very similar taste and aroma. More coriander may need to be added to the recipe to make up for a lack of cumin.
  • Caraway seed is another possible substitute, though the flavor of caraway is significantly different from cumin. Caraway is known for having a citrusy flavor that is quite different from the spiciness found in cumin. For this reason, should caraway be used as an alternative, use a smaller amount of caraway seed than the recipe calls for to prevent changing the dish’s flavor dramatically.
  • Paprika, popular in many cuisines for its flavorful and smokey qualities, can be used very successfully as a delicious substitute for cumin. Caution must be used, however, as paprika is much stronger and the amount must be reduced for recipes. Smoked paprika especially pairs nicely with meats and stews.


How to Store

Storing cumin seed is not any different than storing other spices: whole cumin seed keeps the longest when kept in a dry, air-tight container.

Powdered spices tend to lose their punch soon after grinding and soon after being exposed to air due to the loss of volatile oil compounds found in the seeds.

Grinding the seeds results in a loss of up to 50% of the volatile oils found in cumin seeds. Most of this loss occurs within 1 hour of grinding.

Pre-ground spices and spice mixes should be used within a few months of opening the package for maximum flavor.


Health Benefits

Many cultures have touted the health benefits of cumin for centuries and it is one of the most mentioned herbs in the Bible.

Cumin is widely accepted to aid digestion, and it’s Sanskrit name “jiraka” means literally “to aid in digestion”. According to drugs.com, “Traditional uses of cumin include anti-inflammatory, diuretic, carminative, and antispasmodic.

It has also been used as an aid for treating dyspepsia, jaundice, diarrhea, flatulence, and indigestion”.

While many other benefits of cumin are touted, there is little quality evidence and more research needs to be conducted.

An animal study by Talpur et. al (2005) found that cumin reduced blood sugar levels in diabetic (hypoglycemic) rats, while another similar study concluded that it may also reduce cholesterol.

Still more studies have linked cumin to antioxidant and anticancer (Gagandeep et. al, 2003) effects, but there is insufficient human clinical evidence to suggest any such benefits to humans.

Whether or not these health benefits extend to humans in a clinical settings remains a topic of research, but one teaspoon of cumin contains many vitamins and minerals.

There is no doubt that cumin is healthy and good for you. It may even improve your health markedly while adding an unmistakable and delicious kick to any dish.


In conclusion

Cumin is a diverse spice that can be found in many dishes from all over the world.

It adds a unique, flavorful zing to meat dishes, stews, and chiles. It is the basis for many world cuisines and fresh cumin seed deserves a place in every cook’s pantry.

  • Cumin is chock full of vitamins and minerals and may have further health benefits still being studied.
  • Cumin is a staple in Mexican, Indian, African and Meditteranean cooking and is the second most used spice in the world.
  • Always buy whole, fresh cumin seed and grind right before using or use whole.
  • Store spices in dry, air-tight containers.
  • If cooking with ground cumin, consider toasting the seeds prior to grinding.
  • If cooking with whole seeds, consider frying the seeds in a little oil for maximum flavor.
  • When you are unable to get whole seeds or powdered cumin, consider using a spice blend or a flavorful alternative, like coriander, paprika, or caraway.

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