Mace is a yellowish-brown spice that is derived from the dried lacy coating of the nutmeg seed. Available in ground form and as dried "blades," it is often paired with other aromatic spices. Mace figures prominently in Asian, Caribbean, Indian, and Moroccan cuisines, and is also used in British, Dutch, and French cooking. It is commonly found in spice blends and baked goods, as well as savory dishes like soups, sauces, and poultry and fish recipes. The "mace" that is used as a defensive pepper spray has no relationship to the spice.
What Is Mace?
The nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) is a tropical evergreen that produces both nutmeg and mace. Mace is the red lacy coating (called the aril) that encases the nutmeg seed. When the tree's fruit reaches maturity, it splits open and reveals the aril and seed. The fruit is harvested and the aril is removed by hand, flattened, and left to dry outside for 10 to 14 days. The red aril takes on an amber-, yellow- or orange-brown color as it dries and, when left whole, is called a "blade" of mace. The blades are sold as is or processed into a ground spice.
Mace is native to Indonesia and also found in some Caribbean islands, particularly Grenada, where nutmeg is the national symbol and appears on the country's flag.
Varieties of Mace
The color of the spice can often help determine the origin of mace. While orange-red blades tend to be from Indonesia, orange-yellow blades most likely come from Grenada.
The Myristica fragrans evergreen tree is indigenous to the Moluccas Islands in Indonesia, also known as the Spice Islands. Grown extensively in other tropical regions, this plant can be found from China to Sri Lanka, the Caribbean, and South America. Although it said mace arrived in Europe in the 12th century thanks to Arab merchants, it was the prosperous spice trade of the 16th century that made it more widely available around the world, alongside cloves, nutmeg, and black pepper.
Whole vs. Ground
Although mace is sold in whole pieces called blades, it's more common to find the ground form. As with nutmeg, for the truest flavor, it is best to purchase whole mace blades and grind them as needed. However, ground mace does keep its flavor longer and better than ground nutmeg and other spices. When switching between the two forms, be mindful that one tablespoon of mace blades is equivalent to one teaspoon of ground mace.
What Does It Taste Like?
Mace's flavor is sweet, woody, and warm, with a mild pungent kick, very much like nutmeg but softer and not quite as sweet. The taste of mace can also be described as a combination of cinnamon and pepper.
Cooking With Mace
The majority of recipes call for ground mace. No preparation is needed and it can be used right out of the jar. Add it to a dry spice mix, incorporate it into a recipe, or sprinkle it on top of sweets, porridge, or beverages in a similar manner to ground nutmeg.
Mace blades are easy to grind, either with a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. Gently roasting the blades and let them cool off prior to grinding wakes up the essential oils for a more fragrant spice and helps prevent the oils from clogging a spice grinder. Mace blades should be toasted in a dry pan, just until crispy and fragrant; it's common to toast other whole spices like cardamom and cloves at the same time.
Recipes With Mace
Mace is a component of numerous spice mixtures, including curry powder, garam masala, and ras el hanout. It is used in baked goods–particularly donuts, cakes, puddings, and custards–but also in pickling recipes or to infuse flavor, as is done with a bay leaf. The spice can also be a part of cheese dishes, souffles, sauces, soups, and poultry and fish recipes. It especially complements dishes with cherries or chocolate. The blades can also be used to infuse flavor into rice, steamed dishes, stocks, or similar liquid-based recipes with long cooking times.
The best substitute for mace is an equal amount of nutmeg, though the flavor of nutmeg is stronger. To maintain a balanced flavor, it may be best to use a little less nutmeg in some recipes.
The next best substitute for ground mace is ground allspice. It has a similar flavor profile but is considerably stronger, so reduce the recipe amount by half and then add more if needed.
Additionally, ground cinnamon and ginger are good options for certain recipes in which the flavor difference will not detract from the dish. Similarly, if a recipe uses a combination of mace, cinnamon, ginger, and allspice (or similar aromatic spices) a pumpkin pie spice blend may work well to replace all of the spices.
Uses of Mace
Besides being used as a flavoring agent, mace has been also used in traditional medicine for alleviating diverse digestive issues, from excessive gas to upset stomach and diarrhea, but there is little evidence of its effectiveness. One study did find preliminary evidence that extracts from nutmeg and mace have antioxidant properties and may help reduce inflammation.
Nutmeg and mace contain an oil called myristicin. In large amounts, nutmeg can be toxic and produce hallucinations, among other serious negative effects. However, the amounts required for this far exceed the spices' culinary uses, so they are safe to use in food.
It also used in folk medicine to treat symptoms of graver diseases like cholera and rheumatism and to aid in the healing of mouth wounds or oral bacterial overgrowth.
Where to Buy Mace
Mace (particularly the blades) is more expensive than the more popular aromatic spices. Ground mace is often available in the spice section of many grocery stores and supermarkets, whereas mace blades may be found in international food markets, spice shops, and stores with a larger selection of high-quality spices. But it is also easily found at online retailers both whole or ground.
Mace has a longer shelf life than most other spices when stored properly in a tightly-sealed jar or container in a cool, dark place. Both ground mace and blades should retain the flavor for up to one year, though may lose potency after six to eight months. While they are dried, mace blades that release a bit of oil when pressed with a fingernail are still considered fresh. Do not refrigerate mace and consider buying only a small amount at a time to ensure it's always fragrant and flavorful.
Benefits of Mace
Because mace is used in such small amounts, generally one teaspoon or less, there's little chance for it providing a substantial nutritional benefit or to make a difference in your diet. But this spice does have good amounts of vitamins A and C, in addition to iron, carotenes, calcium, copper, and magnesium if consumed in quantities of 100 g or more, an overreach for recipes that call for very small amounts of the spice.
Champasuri S, Itharat A. Bioactivities of Ethanolic Extracts of Three Parts (Wood, Nutmeg and Mace) from Myristica fragrans Houtt. J Med Assoc Thai. 2016;99 Suppl 4:S124-30.
Mckenna A, Nordt SP, Ryan J. Acute nutmeg poisoning. Eur J Emerg Med. 2004;11(4):240-1.