Nutmeg is a spice made from the seed of the nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrant), a native Indonesian evergreen tree that is the source of two popular spices: nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is the inner seed, while mace is the red, lace-like substance that covers the seed. Nutmeg is a quintessential autumn spice, frequently found in fall desserts and beverages. It can also be used in savory dishes, such as butternut squash soup, and pairs well with cream- or cheese-based recipes like a vegetable gratin.
What Is Nutmeg?
To make nutmeg for seasoning, the nutmeg seeds are dried gradually in the sun over a period of six to eight weeks. During this time, the nutmeg shrinks away from its hard seed coat. The spice is ready when the kernels rattle in their shells when shaken. It is separated from the outer coat (the mace) and sold whole or ground up and packaged.
Nutmeg has a very interesting history, dating all the way back to the 1st century A.D. It was a treasured spice, considered high currency for trade, and was even the cause of war.
Nutmeg vs Mace
Although both spices come from the same tree, nutmeg and mace do differ from each other. The mace is removed first and ground into a red-colored spice, while the nutmeg pit or seed can either be kept whole or ground up. Nutmeg has a more mild taste compared to mace and is sweeter and more delicate; mace is a little spicier and can be described as a combination of pepper and cinnamon. Even though they grow as one, they are rarely used together in a recipe.
Whole vs Ground
Nutmeg can be purchased as the whole seed or ground in a container. Grating the seed directly into a recipe will impart a fresher, cleaner taste than using store-bought ground nutmeg. Whole nutmeg is approximately the size of an apricot pit and will last a very long time while pre-ground nutmeg has a shorter shelf life.
What Does It Taste Like?
Nutty and slightly sweet, nutmeg is an intense spice that has a strong and distinct aroma. For those who are more sensitive to heat, nutmeg might seem almost spicy.
Cooking With Nutmeg
Nutmeg has a long culinary history and can be part of both sweet and savory dishes. It can be used whole and grated directly into a recipe or measured or shaken from a canister of pre-ground nutmeg. To use whole nutmeg, you will need a microplane or nutmeg grater to shave off a small portion of the seed. When including nutmeg, make sure not to use a heavy hand, as this intense spice can easily overpower the flavors of a dish.
Nutmeg is also an ingredient in different spice blends, such as pumpkin pie spice, ras el hanout, and garam masala. It is also sprinkled over a variety of hot beverages like cappuccino and eggnog for added flavor and garnish.
Recipes With Nutmeg
In the United States, one of the most common uses for nutmeg is in desserts, especially apple or pumpkin pie. Nutmeg is particularly well suited for creamy or cheesy dishes and is often added to alfredo or bechamel sauce to create depth.
Substitutions for Nutmeg
There are several substitutions that you can use in the place of nutmeg. The best is mace; as it is the outer covering of nutmeg before it's harvested, it shares a lot of the same flavors.
If you don't have mace, however, you can try swapping the nutmeg out for garam masala, pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, or ground cloves. As all of these alternatives tend to have more intense flavor profiles, make sure to use them sparingly.
Where to Buy Nutmeg
Nutmeg can be purchased in two forms: ground or whole. Ground nutmeg is easily found in the spice section of the grocery store. It has been milled into a rough powder form and, although convenient, tends to lose its flavor and aroma quickly. For this reason, ground nutmeg is generally sold in very small quantities. Whole nutmeg can be found in well-stocked supermarkets, gourmet shops, and online.
Store ground nutmeg in an air-tight container away from heat, light, and moisture. When stored properly, ground nutmeg will retain its freshness for approximately six months.
Whole nutmeg will stay fresh indefinitely, but should always be stored away from heat and moisture. If your nutmeg use is only occasional, buying whole nutmeg is the best option because each time it is grated it will provide fresh, fragrant, and flavorful spice.
In high doses, nutmeg has hallucinogenic properties and can be quite toxic. Although rare, a few deaths have been reported from nutmeg toxicity, usually in the case of accidental ingestion. The dose required to achieve these effects or potential danger far exceeds any culinary use and caution does not need to be taken when flavoring foods.
The deliberate use of nutmeg for its psychoactive effects or accidental ingestion of a large amount by a child may result in nutmeg poisoning.
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Beckerman B, Persaud H. Nutmeg overdose: Spice not so nice. Complement Ther Med. 2019;46:44-46. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2019.07.011