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A Guide to Nutmeg

21 January 2022

A Guide to Nutmeg

Discover the many talents of this unusual tropical seed that transforms a plate in a pinch.

What is nutmeg?

Nutmeg is a spice made from the seed of the tropical, evergreen nutmeg tree. It can be used whole or ground and is used to flavour soups, meats, drinks and desserts.

Where does nutmeg come from?

Traditionally grown in Mallacus, the majority of nutmeg is still harvested from the Spice Islands in the Malay archipelago of Indonesia and Grenada in the West Indies, as it needs consistently humid and tropical conditions and sandy soil to flourish.

What does nutmeg taste like?

Nothing better describes nutmeg than to say it tastes like Christmas. It has a warm and comforting taste and aroma; nutty, earthy and slightly sweet, but not sugary, which means it works well in desserts and savoury cooking.

Whole vs ground nutmeg: what’s the difference?

Nutmeg can be mixed into a dish or sprinkled onto food or drink. The whole spice has a much stronger, fresher and more concentrated flavour due to the presence of the oil in the seed. To use fresh, simply grate, ideally with a microplane grater, or scrape your knife over the seed to remove as a powder layer by layer. 

The pre ground spice is arguably more convenient and can be used more heavily without risk of ruining the dish, but like most other ground spices, nutmeg soon loses its flavour or potency when not in its fresh form.

A Guide to Nutmeg

What cuisine can nutmeg be used in?

Nutmeg features in a variety of cuisines, but it particularly in Indonesian dishes such as soups and stews. It also plays a role in curry spice blends like garam masala and curry powder, and its sweeter notes mean it’s a popular ingredient in Indian puddings. 

Middle Eastern and West Indian recipes put nutmeg as the star spice in jerk and ras el hanout seasonings. It’s also a key feature in American bakes, including the Thanksgiving favourite – pumpkin pie.

How to use nutmeg

Nutmeg can be grated directly into or on top of your dish, or used as a key component of an aromatic marinade. It works wonderfully in both béchamel sauce and curry, peps up pasta and vegetables and spices up baked desserts and stewed fruit.

Whole nutmeg is simple to prepare, as despite looking like a hard peach or plum stone, it’s surprisingly powdery when scraped with a knife or grater. Simply shave off the amount you need and store the seed again when done. Both the outer and inner layers of the nutmeg can be used, offering the same flavour and potency however far through you are. The whole seed can also be infused in boiling water to make a refreshing nutmeg tea.

Where to buy nutmeg

Nutmeg is a staple of most supermarket spice aisles, as well as whole foods and oriental grocery stores. It is bought in glass jars either ground or whole, with up to a dozen whole fresh seeds in a jar.

How to store nutmeg

Like most spices, whether ground or whole, nutmeg is best kept in an airtight container away from heat, light and moisture. The ground spice has a shorter shelf life, whereas the fresh seeds will keep indefinitely as long as stored correctly.

Ground nutmeg can stay fresh and flavourful for up to three years, while the whole spice will last up to five years. However, if you find your nutmeg has lost its distinctive aroma or flavour, it’s time to replace it.

Can you freeze nutmeg?

There is no need to freeze nutmeg, as it keeps just as well at room temperature. Freezing won’t do the spice any damage, but equally, won’t do anything to preserve its aroma, flavour or shelf life. Foods containing nutmeg will keep in the refrigerator or the freezer for as long as the main ingredient takes to perish.

When not to use nutmeg

Besides any signs that the spice has gone bad, there are occasions when nutmeg can be an unwelcome addition to a dish. Used to excess, more a risk with the fresh ingredient, it can quickly overwhelm other flavours.

If you’ve added too much nutmeg to a recipe, you have a few options. Physically remove as quickly as possible if it’s not already mixed to minimise the risk of too much of the oil infusing. Otherwise, dilute the dish with water or other wet recipe ingredients and also, the mild taste of dairy can counteract an over-strong spice flavour, so plump for a large scoop of ice cream with a dessert, or add cream in a savoury serving.

A Guide to Nutmeg

Complimentary herbs and spices

Nutmeg packs a real punch when working alone, but also blends beautifully with several other spices to lift a dish. Its sweet, yet bitter taste means it works well with the sweet notes of cinnamon as well as the earthier, savoury flavours of cardamom, cloves, ginger and cumin, plus the herbs coriander and thyme. 

This versatile spice adds interest to the blander flavours of root vegetables, and greens like cabbage and spinach, it complements the tang of onion and distinct flavour of eggs and brings a taste of the exotic to fish, chicken and lamb.

Substitutions for nutmeg

The most obvious substitute for nutmeg is mace, as this fiery-red spice comes from the same fruit and therefore has a similar flavour. Mace is the dried lacy membrane coating the nutmeg seed within the fruit and can be replaced like-for-like, although it has a more intense, spicier flavour than its stable-mate. 

Other spice stand-ins include ginger or cloves in savoury cooking or cinnamon or all-spice for sweeter dishes. All-spice can be directly substituted where a recipe calls for nutmeg, while you should use half the amount stated if replacing with cinnamon.

How to grow nutmeg at home

Although native to the Spice Islands, you can nurture a nutmeg tree purchased from the garden centre at home as long as you keep it in warm and moist conditions.

The more green fingered might want to try and grow nutmeg from seed. Soak in water for 24 hours to increase the moisture level and chance of germination. Then plant the seed in soil and keep the plant damp in a warm inside room or conservatory. 

Nutmeg trees don’t come to fruit for five-to-eight years, so you will need patience and multiple repottings as the plant grows.