What Is Cardamom?

Uses, Benefits, and Recipes

green cardamom pods
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Cardamom is used to spice both sweet and savory dishes. It is widely employed in Indian, Middle Eastern, Arabic, and Swedish cuisine. It comes in two types and is used as whole pods, seeds, or ground. Cardamom is found in the garam masala spice mixture that seasons meat and vegetable dishes and in hot beverages such as masala chai and Turkish coffee.

What Is Cardamom?

Cardamom is a spice that comes from the seeds and seed pods of various plants in the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family. Cardamom pods are spindle-shaped and have a triangular cross-section. The pods contain a number of seeds, but the entire cardamom pod can be used whole or ground. The seeds are small and black, while the pods differ in color and size by species.

Varieties of Cardamom

There are two main types of cardamom: black cardamom and green cardamom, and there is also white cardamom which is a bleached version of green cardamom. Green cardamom is the kind found most often in Nordic and Middle Eastern cuisine, while recipes in India and Asia will often specify whether green or black cardamom is used.

Green cardamom (Elettaria cardamomom) is known as true cardamom. This is the most common variety you will see sold in the spice aisle of the supermarket. It is the top choice for sweet dishes but also works well in savory dishes. The bleached version, white cardamom, has less flavor. It is grown in tropical areas including India, Malaysia, and Costa Rica.

Black cardamom (Amomum subulatum) has larger pods that are dark brown. It has a smoky element that makes it more appropriate for savory dishes, but it spices sweet dishes as well in southern India. It is grown in the eastern Himalayas.

Cardamom is found mainly in Indian cooking as well as Middle Eastern cuisine. In Indian recipes, whole cardamom pods are used in preparing basmati rice and various curries. In Middle Eastern recipes, ground cardamom is the spice in certain desserts.

Whole vs. Ground

Recipes using black cardamom often call for using the whole pod with the seeds intact. The pods are then discarded after cooking is done as chomping into the whole pod is unpleasant.

If you're using green cardamom in a recipe, ideally start with whole cardamom pods. You can buy ground cardamom (cardamom powder) in the grocery store, but the flavor is lost quickly after grinding and it won't be as potent as that you grind yourself.

What Does It Taste Like?

Cardamom has a sweet, pungent flavor and aroma, with elements of lemon and mint. Black cardamom has a smoky note and a cooling menthol one as well.

Cooking With Cardamom

You can add powdered cardamom directly to recipes that call for ground cardamom, but you will get more flavor by starting with the pods. Cardamom starts to lose its flavor and aroma as soon as it is ground, so it tastes much better if you buy cardamom pods and cook with the whole/crushed pods or grind them yourself.

Some recipes will call for whole cardamom pods and instruct you to whack them with the back of a knife (or another hard object) to slightly break the pods open. This helps to release the flavor from the seeds into your dish. If you are cooking with whole cardamom pods, be sure to either remove them prior to serving or alert your diners that cardamom pods are in the dish. They can be tough to chew and eating them should be avoided, if possible.

To make your own ground cardamon, toast green cardamom pods in a dry skillet for a few minutes. Let them cool for a minute and then remove the seeds from the pods. Save the pods to use for adding to coffee or tea for flavor. Grind the seeds in a ​mortar and pestle for best results, or you can use a motorized spice grinder (like a coffee grinder).

If you are using green cardamom for hot drinks such as coffee, simply grind three to four cardamom seeds along with your coffee beans and brew your coffee as usual. Or, you can grind the whole pods if that is what you have on hand.

Recipes With Cardamom

Through its early history, cardamom was employed mostly around India, the Middle East, and Greece. It has since become a popular spice in many parts of the world, especially in Sweden where it is used in both sweet and savory dishes. Cardamon matches well with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves in autumn-spiced and holiday recipes. These spices are also included with cardamom in Indian spice mixtures, such as garam masala. Drinks from mulled wine to hot cider to eggnog will benefit from an unexpected hint of cardamom. 

Substitutions

It will be hard to find a true substitute for the unique flavor of cardamom, but in a pinch, you can blend other warm spices to help replace it. Cinnamon will be the key, and the best blend would be equal parts of ground cinnamon and nutmeg. If you don't have nutmeg, use ground ginger or ground cloves along with the cinnamon.

Where to Buy Cardamom

Cardamom is one of the world's most expensive spices by weight. It is sold in a wide variety of formats including whole pods, crushed pods, seeds only (which are found in the pods), and ground or powdered cardamom.

You can find green cardamom sold as ground cardamom and whole cardamom pods in the spice section of the grocery store. Black cardamom is best found at an international specialty grocer, and you will find green cardamom there generally at a much better price than the usual supermarket.

Storage

It is best to store cardamom as whole pods in a sealed container in a cool, dry place. Ground cardamom can be stored similarly, but will quickly lose potency and should be used as soon as possible.

Benefits of Cardamom

Cardamom seeds or pods are sometimes chewed to refresh the breath and as a digestive aid. Cardamom has various uses ascribed in traditional medicine. While there has been some scientific research into using cardamom for health benefits, not enough has been done to merit a report by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a division of the National Institutes of Health.