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Ingredient Guide

A Guide to Cumin

18 January 2022

Introducing the bittersweet seed that adds character to curries, soups and stews.

A familiar favourite among the spices, cumin, also known as “Jeera” is famed for its versatility and ability to bring out hidden depths of flavour. 

Used as an ingredient in chilli powder, and in a variety of well known spice mixes, cumin can make several appearances on your spice rack without you even realising it.

What is cumin?

Cumin is the dried, crescent-shaped seed of the cumin plant (Cuminum cyminum), which is a member of the parsley family. Believed to have originated in South Asia, cumin is one of the most widely used spices in the world.

It comes as whole seeds or in powdered form, and can be used as either or both depending on the needs of a recipe. Cumin seeds usually have a yellowish brown hue, but black seeds are also available, which are finer and have a smokier finish. 

Where does cumin come from?

Preferring a warmer climate, cumin is mostly grown throughout the Middle East and Egypt, before finding its way into our kitchens. It is also a truly ancient ingredient. 

The ancient Egyptians, for example, used it as a spice (and even as a preservative for mummification), while in ancient Greece, cumin was so popular it was served as a table condiment, much like salt and pepper are today.

What does cumin taste like?

Cumin has a savoury, nutty and quite pungent flavour. By itself it is almost bitter to the taste, but becomes earthy and aromatic when used as an ingredient in cooking. As they heat up, cumin seeds release their essential oils, giving off a reassuringly warm aroma, effortlessly infusing and combining with other flavours, elevating them to new heights. 

What cuisine can cumin be used in?

Cumin is most commonly associated with Indian cooking, as it is a central component of popular spice blends such as garam masala and curry powder, but the possibilities are practically endless with this spice. Wherever you are in the world, cumin’s earthy aromas will never be too far away.  

It’s also found in bahaarat – a spice mix popular in the Middle East and Greece – and in the Tex Mex and Achiote blends of Latin America. In North Africa cumin is often used as a seasoning, and is used to flavour zaalouk- a popular Moroccan salad.

How to use cumin

The best way to cook with cumin will vary depending on whether you are using whole seeds or ground. The seeds should be added to warm oil, usually at the beginning of the cooking process as they take longer to release their flavour.

How to prepare cumin 

While cumin is often bought in powdered form, many cooks like to dry roast the seeds before grinding them into a powder themselves, as this significantly intensifies the flavour. 

Dry roasting involves gently toasting the seeds in a pan without oil, until their rich aroma starts to be released, shaking the pan occasionally as you go. After they have cooled, they can be ground up using a pestle and mortar and added to your dish, as and when needed.

Where to buy cumin 

You can find whole cumin seeds and ground cumin in the vast majority of supermarkets, or in any food outlets that specialise in ingredients for international cuisine. 

How to store cumin

Cumin seeds can be stored in an airtight jar on the kitchen shelf. Once ground, though, it is important that cumin is kept in a cool, dark, environment. 

Whole spices keep the longest because they have not been cracked or ground which would expose their volatile oils to the air which speeds up the breakdown of their flavour. This is why ground spices have a shorter shelf life than whole spices or seeds.

As a result whole cumin seeds can keep their flavour for between one and three years, while ground cumin usually needs to be replaced after six months.

Complimentary herbs and spices

Cumin pairs well with coriander, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves and thyme leaves, as well as rosemary, oregano, star anise, sage and mint, among many others. 

Substitutions for cumin

Ground coriander can be an effective substitute for cumin because it also belongs to the parsley family. Caraway seeds are also a good swap (being so similar to cumin seeds that some languages have the same word for both). 

Cumin has also been called the savoury sister of cinnamon, and these spices can sometimes be used interchangeably if you wish to swap out cumin’s nutty earthiness for sweeter notes, or vice versa. 

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