All About Cardamom (Cardamon)

green cardamom pods
The bright green, football-shaped pods above are whole, freshly dried green cardamom. keithferrisphoto/Getty Images

Cardamom (sometimes spelled cardamon) is a spice with a strong, perfumey, resinous aroma, and a sweet flavor. It is commonly used in Indian and Arabic cuisines, both in sweet and savory foods, and in drinks. Cardamom is a key ingredient in many spice mixtures such as garam masala and used to flavor masala chai and Turkish coffee.

Types of Cardamom

The most common cardamom variety is green cardamom (a.k.a. Elettaria or true cardamom). It is used in sweet and savory foods around the world. Green cardamom has a thin, papery, green pod filled with small, blackish seeds.

A less common type of cardamom is black cardamom (a.k.a. Amomum, brown cardamom, kravan, Java cardamom, Bengal cardamom, or Siamese cardamom). It is often used in biryani and other savory dishes. Black cardamom has a thick, large, rough, blackish-brown pod filled with black seeds. It smells smokier and, some say, tastes mintier than green cardamom. Both types of cardamom are part of the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family.

How Does Cardamom Grow?

Cardamom is a tropical plant that grows between 5 and 10 feet tall. It thrives in partial shade with large leaves that can grow up to two feet long. The cardamom plant produces tiny flowers that are white with either yellow or red. It also produces pods, which are where the seeds are located and the source of the cardamom spice.

Purchasing 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. It's most often found in the spice aisle of grocery stores and sold as whole pods or powdered. If you cannot find it in your local store, many online retailers sell cardamom in all of its varieties.

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. Often some recipes will call for using whole cardamom pods and whacking 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.

Cooking With Cardamom

Cardamom is used in many different types of foods and drinks around the world. Through its early history, cardamom was used mostly around India, the Middle East, and Greece. It has since become a popular spice in many parts of the world, particularly around Christmas time, when it is used in recipes for cakes, cookies, and other goodies.