How is Cumin Used as a Spice?

Popular in Latin America, Middle East, Africa, and India

Ground cumin and cumin seed

Linda Lewis/Getty Images

Cumin (pronounced "KYOO-min") is a spice made from the dried seed of a plant known as Cuminum cyminum, which is a member of the parsley familyCumin is commonly used in Latin American, Middle Eastern, North African, and Indian cuisines, among many others.

Cumin can be used in its whole seed form and ground into a powder. Cumin has a warm, earthy flavor and aroma. Ground cumin is often added to chilibarbecue sauce, baked beans, and marinades.

Cumin is a typical ingredient in chili powder. Cumin is also often found in other spice blends such as garam masala, curry powder, achiote blends, adobos, berbere, and bahaarat. The most common variety of cumin is a brownish-yellow color, although you can also sometimes find black cumin, green cumin, and white cumin.

History of Cumin

Cumin is an ancient spice grown in Egypt and the Middle East. It has been found in four-thousand-year-old excavations in Syria and in ancient Egypt, where it was used both as a spice and in preserving mummies.

It appears in the Bible in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and in both cases, it was mentioned in the same sentence as dill.

It was used extensively in India from ancient times as well as by the Greeks and Romans. It made its way into Mexican and South American cuisine after European colonization, especially by the Spanish and Portuguese.

Cumin Seeds

Cumin seeds are small, boat-shaped seeds that resemble caraway seeds. They have eight longitudinal ridges with oil canals. The seed is harvested by hand from an annual plant. Whole cumin seeds are used in some dishes, for example, added to hot oil at the start of an Indian dish so its flavor infuses the oil and therefore the rest of the ingredients. More flavor is brought out when the seed is lightly roasted, as can be done easily at home using a dry pan over medium heat.

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. The seeds can be kept in the freezer over a long period to maintain their flavor if you do not use them regularly.

Cumin seeds, also called jeera 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.

Ground Cumin

Ground cumin is readily available at most grocery stores in the spice aisle. More intense and nuanced flavor can be had by lightly roasting whole cumin seed and then grinding the seeds in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle. The flavor is intense. 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.