Despite its name, allspice isn't a universal blend of multiple spices. It is actually the dried unripe berry of the Pimenta dioica tree, which is indigenous to an area of the Caribbean, as well as Mexico and Central America. It was the English who gave the spice its name in 1621 since they found the dried berry's flavor to be similar to a combination of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.
Allspice is a versatile spice that can be used in sweet or savory dishes but may be best known in the Caribbean as a key ingredient in Jamaican jerk seasoning and in Mexico as part of a mole recipe.
Allspice, botanically known as pimenta officinalis, is also known as the pimento tree or the Jamaican pepper and is a relative of the myrtle. The berries contain 2 seeds and have a dark reddish-brown exterior when they're dried. You might easily confuse the dried allspice berry with a peppercorn at first glance—as the early Spanish explorers did—although allspice is slightly larger and has a smooth surface. They're harvested when they reach full size, but before they mature, they are sun-dried, a process that turns them brown. Allspice berries lose their flavor and aroma when they're fully ripe.
Allspice in Jamaica
Allspice is native to Central and South America but it's most closely associated with the West Indies island of Jamaica. Jamaica exports the majority of allspice for consumption around the world, so it's no wonder that most classic Jamaican dishes such as jerk seasoning and beef patties make generous use of this spice. Although the spice is known in Jamaica as the "pimento," there's no relation between it and the pickled red cherry pepper that is stuffed into olives.
Folk medicines in Jamaica use allspice for a variety of maladies. As an infusion, it's been prescribed for infant colic and diarrhea, cholera infantum, bleeding from the lungs, and even excessive and painful menstruation.
Allspice in Cooking
Allspice berries have a combined flavor of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, with a hint of juniper and peppercorn. Allspice used for cooking can be in powdered form or a whole berry. Be aware that some spice companies sell a mixture of spices labeled as "allspice," so check the ingredients on the label to make sure you're getting the real thing.
Allspice holds a prominent place in Caribbean and Latin savory and sweet dishes and is an important ingredient in many spice mixes, chutneys, vegetables, soups—and, of course, desserts. This spice is also a favored seasoning in holiday treats such as mincemeat and eggnog and is a major component of pickling spice, which is a combination of ground allspice pimenta and a dozen other spices. Allspice oleoresin is a natural mixture of resin and the oils of the myrtle berry and is often used in making sausage.
If you find yourself halfway through making a recipe and realize that it calls for allspice but you don't have any on hand, you can make a mixture of spices that resembles it, although this combination won't have quite the same subtle taste. Use equal portions of cinnamon and ground cloves, then add a pinch of nutmeg and mix well.
You can substitute up to 1/2 teaspoon of ground allspice in recipes that call for the whole allspice berry (equalling about 6 allspice berries), or an equivalent mixture of the cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg.