Cumin is most well known for its presence in Indian, Mexican, Asian, North African, Middle Eastern, and Latin American dishes. It is one of the most popular spices, second only to black pepper. If you’ve only even used cumin in a curry, don’t worry; we’re here to demystify this nutty, peppery spice.
Selection & Storage
Cumin generally comes in three colors: Amber/brown (most common), black, and white. White seeds are generally interchangeable with amber, but black is more peppery and complex.
You can buy cumin in either seed or ground form. If you have the tools to grind your own spices (a mortar and pestle, or a coffee grinder specifically reserved for grinding spices), it’s better to buy cumin whole. Cumin seeds will stay fresh for about a year, while ground cumin has a shelf life of about 6 months. Cumin keeps best in a tightly lidded glass jar, stored in a cool, dark, dry place. To test for freshness, just use your sniffer! If it still smells fragrant, you’re good to go!
Historically, a lot of cumin’s popularity was due to the fact that, because it tastes peppery, it could be used as a (much cheaper) substitute for black pepper, which used to be quite expensive. And even though it packs a punch of flavor, cumin was (and is!) known for its medicinal benefits, too. It is an excellent source of iron, aides in good digestion, boosts the immune system, and has anti-carcinogenic properties.
Toasting your spices, especially in seed form, before adding them to your recipe provides a more blended flavor. Especially when spices are being added to a curry, soup, or stew, they can have an unpleasant “raw” flavor unless toasted first.
If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, seeded spices like cumin, coriander, and peppercorns can be cracked using a garlic press.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “which of my dishes could use a dash of cumin?” a good rule of thumb is to follow black pepper; if it goes well with black pepper, chances are it’ll pair perfectly with cumin. Some safe choices, if you want to test the cumin-spiced waters, are beans, chicken, fish, pork, potatoes, rice, and eggs.
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