Nigella seed is a black, drop-shaped seed that is traditionally used as a spice in Indian, Middle Eastern and North African cuisines, where its aromatic flavor and crunch make it particularly useful in bread and pastries. It is also used in curries, soups and stews.
What Is Nigella Seed?
Nigella seed comes from the seeds of the flowering plant Nigella sativa, which is found throughout Turkey, Syria, and parts of Iraq.
Nigella is sometimes referred to by other names, such as black cumin, black onion seed, and black sesame seed, which can lead to some confusion, as nigella is not related to any of these. Rather, it's a member of the Ranunculaceae family, which also includes flowers such as the buttercup and delphinium.
What Does It Taste Like?
Nigella seeds have a strong aroma and a flavor profile that has notes of onion, oregano, and black pepper. The perception of these flavors can differ from person to person, and some may taste a slight nutty flavor as well. These characteristics contribute to why savory dishes make a great pair with these savory seeds.
Cooking With Nigella Seed
Nigella seeds are found frequently in Indian, Middle Eastern, and North African cuisines. This means you can find these seeds in curries and lentil dishes alike. Nigella seeds also pair well with root vegetable dishes as well as squashes such as spiced butternut squash. Many Southern Asia meals can be found with Nigella sativa garnished on top or incorporated into their stir-fry. It's also used in making pilafs, curries, vegetable dishes and pickles.
A popular Bengal spice called paanch poran also includes nigella seeds along with other spices like fenugreek, mustard seed, fennel seed, and cumin seeds. A common use of nigella is in bread and pastries. Often in India, they mix nigella seeds into their traditional naan bread. There are many other unique ways to use nigella seeds; for instance, garnish on a salad for an extra crunch.
One way to start using nigella seeds is to incorporate them into pancakes or scones. You can also use them much as you would use sesame seeds, like if you were making your own homemade crackers. They're also great sprinkled on eggs, in salad dressings, and since they pair well with dairy, they can be sprinkled on yogurt to add some flavor and crunch. One of the best ways to use nigella seeds is to sprinkle them on homemade breads or bagels before you bake them.
Recipes With Nigella Seed
Celery seed, cumin seed, poppy seed, black sesame seed, caraway seed and fennel seed will all stand in adequately for nigella seed. Some, like celery seed and cumin, will impart some of the herbaceous nature of the nigella seed but not its color, while others, like poppy seeds and black sesame seeds, will provide the black color while imparting a different but still enjoyable flavor.
Another substitute is fresh or dried oregano. While not a seed, this herb will provide a similar flavor note to that of nigella seed. Likewise, onion powder will also provide some of the flavor of nigella seed, but not its essential seedness.
One thing you can't substitute for nigella, but might think you can, are true onion seeds, mainly because these are not available as a food. Recipes that call for onion seeds are actually referring to nigella seeds.
Where to Buy Nigella Seed
You can purchase nigella seeds at many health food stores, whole food stores and other specialty food stores, as well as from Indian and Middle-Eastern grocery stores. They're also available from a number of online merchants.
Nigella seeds can be stored along with your other dried spices, sealed tightly in glass jars or containers, and kept away from heat and moisture, both of which will accelerate the loss of flavor. Stored properly, nigella seeds will keep for up to six months.