Cumin Nature: All About the Spice That Goes With (Nearly) Everything
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article by Max Falkowitz ran in 2010. It has since been updated with additional copy by Elazar Sontag.
Flavor profile: Earthy, pungent, musky, and peppery.
Goes well with: Gamey meats such as lamb or venison.
Try it in: Indian, Chinese, Mexican, North African, and more cuisines.
What to cook: Beef chili, spiced Bangladeshi eggplant, pork chile verde.
Storage: Stored in an airtight container in a dark cabinet, ground cumin remains fresh up to three months, whole cumin up to one year. Discard and replace when fragrance is difficult to detect.
For best results: Toast whole seeds over medium-high heat in a dry skillet until just fragrant, then grind. Bloom ground or whole cumin in hot oil until fragrant, about 30 seconds, before adding the rest of your ingredients to the infused oil.
Cumin has an unmistakable flavor, at once earthy, musky, gamey, and slightly spicy. And for more than 5,000 years, humans have been grinding it, toasting it, and adding it to their food. On ancient Greek dinner tables, it was commonplace to find cumin positioned right next to salt. It was the other seasoning cooks and diners couldn’t live without. And not much has changed since then—all these years later, we still add the spice to many of our favorite dishes.
In the 7th century, traders spread cumin from Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean across North Africa, and eastward on their trade routes to Iran, India, China, and Indonesia. Hundreds of years later, Spanish conquistadors brought cumin to the Americas, where it became essential to Mexican cooking, and where the spice is still heavily cultivated—it’s a crucial spice in our tacos al pastor and carne asada recipes.
Wherever the spice traveled, it became crucial to the cuisine it was introduced to: In Morocco, cumin features prominently in ras el hanout spice blends, used to season all sorts of marinades, stews, and tagines. In India, it was added to the garam masala that flavors curries, chickpeas, and countless other Indian dishes. The near-worldwide use of cumin is a testament to just how easily the spice mixes with and complements an endless array of vegetables, meats, and other spices.
How to Buy and Store Cumin
Aromatic cumin seeds come from a bushy, flowering plant, native to the Eastern Mediterranean, though India now produces and consumes the largest portion of the spice. Its wispy fronds are similar to those of its cousins, anise, carrot, and parsley. The seeds are harvested after the plant’s stalks have dried, and the fruit pods containing the seeds crack open. From this point, the cumin seeds are cleaned of any remaining dirt, and dried further before they’re packaged.
When you’re shopping for spices like cumin, it’s ideal to find a grocery store where the spice is selling out and being restocked frequently. Look for stores catering to cultures where the spice is in high demand. If you have an Indian grocery store in your neighborhood, go there. Since it’s hard to know when a grocery store last restocked their spices, this gives you the best chance of getting a fresh batch. Online retailers like Snuk and The Spice House are also reliable sources of fresh spices like cumin.
Buying whole cumin seeds is a great call, even if you intend to grind them before cooking. The whole spice keeps much longer in a cool, dark cupboard, and its flavor will be more pronounced if you grind it moments before cooking. That said, there’s plenty of good quality ground cumin on the market, too, if you don’t have the time or patience for the whole spice. If you opt for the pre-ground spice, buy less of it, so you don’t end up with a pound of stale, flavorless cumin on your hands.
Spend some time taking inventory of and organizing your spices so you don’t forget about the cumin you bought three months ago, finding it again only after it has lost its magic. Kept in an airtight container, the whole seeds will last for about a year, while the ground spice loses fragrance and flavor after about three months. If your whole cumin doesn’t smell like much when you crush a bit between your fingers, you’ll know it has started to lose its oomph. A sniff test will also give you a good sense when ground cumin is ready to be tossed, or is on its last legs. The spice won’t go bad, exactly, but after it has lost its intensity, it’s worth replacing.
Buying whole seeds offers an additional advantage in that some recipes specifically call for them, both because the whole seeds offer up some textural pleasures while also contributing the spice’s unique musk and bitterness to the dish. In addition, when you bite down on a seed, those unique qualities are all the more discernible. That said, we do also use the ground seed in plenty of spice mixtures and dishes, so we keep a good spice grinder and a mortar and pestle on hand.
How to Cook With Cumin
When cooking with whole cumin seeds there are two critical choices: how to heat them (to extract their oils) and when to add them to a dish. How you initially cook the spice determines how it will flavor the end result.
To keep the flavor more confined to the seeds, toast them over medium-high heat in a dry skillet until fragrant, then remove them to a plate or bowl so they don’t keep cooking. To infuse the entire dish with cumin’s flavor, bloom the seeds in hot oil until they begin crackling and popping, before adding additional ingredients. Watch them carefully as they cook, as small spices burn easily. If you do burn cumin seeds, toss them out and start again; there’s no rescuing bitter cumin, and its powerful flavor will ruin a dish.
Cumin added at the start of a dish—a common method when making a curry or rice pilaf—forms an earthy, spicy backdrop, but long cooking kills cumin’s subtleties. When tossed in at the end, it works more like an herbal garnish. Try adding the toasted seeds to roasted potatoes or vegetables along with some coarse salt. Or drizzle cumin-infused oil into a bowl of carrot soup in lieu of olive oil, along with a dollop of yogurt. To really make this spice the star of a dish, start with some toasted or fried cumin and finish with more of the same.
One of our favorite quick weeknight meals revolves around this fragrant, punchy spice. We start by browning fresh sausages like merguez or chorizo—both of which usually contain cumin—in a skillet with a little oil. Once the sausages have taken on some color and rendered some of their fat, we remove them from the pan, and bloom whole cumin seeds in the flavorful oil. When the seeds begin to snap and pop, we add green lentils, crushed tomatoes, and chicken stock. We simmer the lentils, uncovered, until they are nearly tender all the way through, and the cumin has been given a chance to flavor the tomato-and-chicken-stock cooking liquid. A generous bunch of slightly bitter dandelion greens get stirred into the mix, where they wilt before we nestle the sausages back into the pan to finish cooking. Garnished with a handful of cilantro, it’s a comforting and perfectly balanced dinner which comes together in minutes, and reminds us exactly why we always have a full jar of cumin seeds in our spice cabinet.
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