We unlock the mysteries of this versatile “queen” of spices. 

You may think that you don't know cardamom. But if you've ever sipped on a cup of aromatic masala chai or taken a bite of a hearty Northern Indian curry, then you've experienced the wonder of the complex, versatile, and delicious cardamom. 

What is cardamom?

Cardamom is a spice made from the seeds of the cardamom pod (typically green or black, we'll tell you how to pick), belongs to the ginger family, and has been used for centuries, particularly in Indian, Middle Eastern, and Scandinavian cuisine (wait until you hear about those Nordic baked goods). 

Here we'll tell you how to shop for cardamom and, mostly importantly, how to incorporate this enticing flavor into your next dish or drink. 

Credit: Getty / ChamilleWhite

What should I look for when buying cardamom?

When shopping for cardamom, you'll likely come across either green or black versions. The color refers to the pod; the seeds within both are small and black, like little irregular peppercorns. 

The seeds of green pods are more common (generally available at your supermarket) and provide the flavors most connected with cardamom: herbal, warm, sweet, citrusy, and peppery all at once. If shopping for green pods, look for those with a vibrant color and a strong fragrance. This variety will serve you best in baked goods and sweet beverages.

Black cardamom comes in larger pods with a dark brown color and can be found in South Asian markets and specialty spice shops. Look for it when you want to bring in a smoky flavor that shines in more savory dishes.

Next, consider in which form you'll buy it: pods, seeds, or ground. For most recipes, you'll use the ground up seeds (either fresh or pre-ground) to season your dish. 

The distinct flavor of cardamom comes from the essential oils released when the seeds are ground—and once they're ground, they'll lose flavor quickly. So, opt for whole seeds when you can. Some recipes will call for the whole pod (usually black cardamom), which can be used like a bay leaf to season soups and curries. 

Whichever cardamom you purchase, make sure to store it in an airtight container away from heat, light, and moisture—after all, you want to maintain that aromatic cardamom flavor. 

How to cook with cardamom

First off: What do I do with these seeds exactly? If your recipe calls for ground and you've purchased a pod, start by toasting the pods in a dry skillet for a few minutes then cool. Remove the seeds and grind them up using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. (Pro tip: Save the empty pods to infuse coffee or tea later.) If you've just purchased seeds, grind them up using the same methods. 

Next up, the fun part: What kinds of dishes can I use cardamom in?

Look to Indian, Middle Eastern, and Scandinavian cuisine, for starters. Start by cooking with Indian spice mixtures, such as garam masala, or by making a traditional cardamom-scented Indian rice pudding, also known as kheer. Or try your hand at a jule kaka (a Swedish Christmas bread) or pulla (a braided Finnish bread). 

Think of it alongside your other favorite autumnal flavors, too. We're looking at you, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice! Mix it with your pancake batter, add it to your eggnog, use it to punch up your next fruit dessert—anything where a warm, sweet flavor is what you crave.

Recipes that feature cardamom

Still not sure where to start? Give this special spice a try with these recipes: