It's not a delicate spice, but it sure is a delicious spice.

By David McCann
Updated October 05, 2020
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Cumin (scientific name Cuminum Cyminum) is a seed from a plant in the parsley family. It originated in the areas between the Middle East and India, perhaps accounting for its presence in the cuisines of those regions. Cumin seeds look very much like caraway seeds, another member of the parsley family, and they are often substituted for one another. But be aware that the flavors of the two are quite different. While I love both equally, I would not substitute when the specific flavor of one or the other is predominant in the recipe. Cumin, especially when roasted and ground or crushed, has a spicy flavor, but does not have the licorice notes caraway has.

I rarely use whole cumin seeds as-is, but I will only buy the whole seeds. Pre-ground cumin, while a fine powder that mixes easily into things, does not, to me, have much of the pungency of the seeds. But, if cumin is new to you, ground cumin is a mild “gateway ingredient” that can introduce but not overwhelm.To use the seeds, I place some in a dry skillet over medium heat, and toast them until I see wisps of smoke begin to rise from the pan. I remove the cumin seeds immediately, pour them onto a plate to cool, and when cool, I grind them using a mortar and pestle.

Credit: Michelle Arnold / EyeEm/Getty Images

Michelle Arnold / EyeEm/Getty Images

As with many herbs and spices, I tend to use cumin at two times during cooking. First, I add some of the ground seeds during the early stages of cooking, to impart its deep spicy background flavor. And then, at serving, I sprinkle more cumin on top of the hot dish, both as a “wow factor” burst of flavor, and for the unmistakable perfume that, when released, adds immeasurably to the dish.

I think we’re all familiar with the punch cumin adds to hummus, many Indian dishes, African stews, and a great deal of Tex-Mex and Mexican cooking. This powerful little seed can add its flavorful punch to such a huge array of dishes.

I’m particularly fond of cumin with chicken, beef, pork, lamb, ground meats of all types, chickpeas, mild cheeses, cream cheese, fish, cucumber, yogurt, sour cream, potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, cooked greens, and salad greens. Don’t forget chili, because whatever version you use, cumin should be there. Take a look at most spice rubs and blends… you’ll find cumin in the mix. So, anywhere you might use that rub or blend, you can use cumin.

Try some of these recipes highlighting cumin to get better acquainted with the spice:

This is not, by any means, a delicate spice. It announces its presence with no apology. And once you familiarize yourself with it, you’ll be surprised how often you’ll reach for it!