Cumin is a spice made from the dried seed of a plant known as Cuminum cyminum, which is a member of the parsley family. Cumin is one of the most popular spices and is commonly used in Latin American, Middle Eastern, North African, and Indian cuisines, among many others. It is available both as whole seeds as well as in ground form.
What Is Cumin?
Cumin seeds are harvested by hand from an annual plant; they are small, boat-shaped, and resemble caraway seeds. The most common variety of cumin is a brownish-yellow color, although you can also sometimes find black cumin, green cumin, and white cumin. You will find whole seeds in Indian recipes (also called jeera) and ground cumin as an ingredient in Mexican and Middle Eastern dishes, as well as chili, barbecue sauce, baked beans, soups, and marinades. Cumin is a typical ingredient in chili powder and is also often found in other spice blends such as garam masala, curry powder, achiote blends, adobos, berbere, and bahaarat.
Cumin is an ancient spice grown in Egypt and the Middle East. It has been found in 4,000-year-old excavations in Syria and in ancient Egypt, where it was used both as a spice and as an element in preserving mummies. It appears in the Bible in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Since ancient times, cumin has been used extensively in India as well as by the Greeks and Romans. It made its way into Mexican and South American cuisine after European colonization, brought by the Spanish and Portuguese.
Whole vs. Ground
Cumin is available as both whole seeds and ground powder and both are used in recipes. Whole cumin, for example, is featured in Indian dishes, where the whole seeds are added to hot oil at the start of the dish so the flavor infuses the oil and therefore the rest of the ingredients. More flavor is brought out when the seed is lightly roasted, which is done easily using a dry pan over medium heat.
Ground cumin is made by grinding dry roasted cumin seeds. It can be added at any time to a recipe as its flavor doesn't need heat or time to be released, as is the case with the seeds.
More intense and nuanced flavor can be enjoyed by lightly roasting whole cumin seeds and then grinding the seeds in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle. You might want to take that into consideration when using measurements for a recipe and are grinding cumin from freshly roasted seed. Once ground, cumin will gradually lose its flavor over time and should be replaced regularly.
What Does It Taste Like?
Cumin has a warm, earthy flavor and aroma with a bit of both sweetness and bitterness. The whole seeds need to be toasted in order to reach the optimum flavor.
Cooking With Cumin
Depending on whether the recipe calls for cumin seed or ground cumin, you will use it differently in recipes. Whole cumin seeds should be included early in the recipe so the spice has time to release its essence; adding them to a hot broth or oil will allow the aroma and flavors to disperse into the dish. Ground cumin is a quintessential spice in a few different blends, including curry powder. It is also used as part of a rub, in a marinade, and as a seasoning for hearty dishes.
If switching from whole seeds to ground (or vice versa), you will need to add different amounts. Because the flavor of ground cumin is more concentrated than whole cumin seeds, you will need less in a dish. For a recipe that calls for 1 tablespoon of ground cumin, use 1 1/4 tablespoons of cumin seeds.
Recipes With Cumin
Cumin is used in both meat and vegetable dishes, as well as in soups and sauces. A popular Indian recipe is jeera rice, which is a combination of rice and cumin seeds. Cumin is also a seasoning in Middle Eastern falafel.
Where to Buy
Whole cumin seeds can be found packaged in the spice section of most grocery stores. It is often cheaper to buy cumin seed at an international market catering to Latin American, Indian, North African, or Middle Eastern cuisine. Ground cumin is readily available at most grocery stores in the spice aisle.
The seeds can be kept in the freezer over a long period to maintain their flavor if you do not use them regularly; otherwise, the seeds can be stored in the pantry for up to 3 to 4 years. Ground cumin should be stored in a cool, dark place and will last up to 6 months.
Health Benefits of Cumin
Cumin seeds in Indian cuisine are often chewed as a digestive aid in India and may be offered at Indian restaurants at the completion of a meal for this purpose. Cumin is also high in iron and contains plant compounds that are antioxidants. Studies have shown that cumin may improve cholesterol levels, promote weight loss, and help prevent diabetes.
US Department of Health & Human Services. FoodSafety. Cumin. Updated April 26, 2019.
Samani Keihan G, Gharib MH, Momeni A, Hemati Z, Sedighin R. A Comparison Between the Effect of Cuminum Cyminum and Vitamin E on the Level of Leptin, Paraoxonase 1, HbA1c and Oxidized LDL in Diabetic Patients. Int J Mol Cell Med. 2016;5(4):229-235.