Cumin may be a spice you’re less familiar with, especially if you tend to stick to American or European staples, but it’s one you really should make room for on your spice rack. The spice can come in two forms, whole and ground. In its whole form, cumin is a dried seed that can be ground at home, toasted, or used in its whole form. Most commonly, however, you’ll find it in the store as ground cumin, which is a brown powder. However you’re using it, cumin is an excellent spice that you can use in so many dishes to add that missing something that you haven’t been able to put your finger on.
So, what makes this spice so great? As we hinted at earlier, cumin rounds out the mix of flavors in a dish in a really neat way. The best way to describe the flavor of cumin is earthy, which adds a base that other flavors can build off, similar to how a bass instrument in music creates a foundation for the other instruments. This earthy taste can be used to bring depth to your flavors, preventing it from tasting flat or one note. It can also be used to accentuate other flavors that may be overpowered or simply missed without cumin’s help.
Cumin is also deeply aromatic, meaning it brings your sense of smell into play — which is important since smell is influential to your sense of taste. This is partially why cumin can be so helpful for taking your seasoning to another level.
With cumin, you’ll even find an ever-so-delicate balance between sweetness and bitterness.
That isn’t to say cumin itself is a one-note spice, adding earthiness to a dish and calling it quits. No, cumin brings a lot to the table in its own right. When you taste cumin, you’ll find that it adds a warmth to your dish that allows it to work really well with other warm spices like cinnamon, as well as a very slight smokiness. You’ll even find an ever-so-delicate balance between sweetness and bitterness. This mix of contradictions is what allows cumin to be such a team player in your recipes. This may all sound fairly abstract, so if you’re trying to get a practical sense of what we’re talking about, add a little to your cooking here and there. You’ll notice the difference. Another way to figure out the flavor of cumin (or any spice for that matter) is to make some white rice, season it lightly with a little salt and pepper, and then stir in some cumin.
As we mentioned earlier, there are two ways you’ll find cumin — whole seed and ground. We’ll start with how to cook with ground cumin, since that’s how many people will find it at the grocery store. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to use ground cumin in your cooking. Just use it like you would any other ground spice. You can mix it into a spice blend, marinade, or meat rub to be added before you cook a meal. You can add it to dry ingredients if you’re baking. You can even toss some into already cooking ingredients to adjust the flavor, since it can be helpful to taste as you cook.
You can mix it into a spice blend, marinade, or meat rub to be added before you cook a meal.
While that makes ground cumin fairly easy to work with, cumin seeds are a little different. When using cumin seeds, it’s usually a good idea to toast them before use, as this can bring out a lot of extra flavor in the seeds. Toasting them is pretty easy, luckily. Simply heat them in a pan (without oil or butter, just an empty pan) and allow them to cook until you begin to smell the warm, earthy aroma. Remove them from the heat and allow them to cool. From here, you can either use them whole or grind them yourself. If you’re using whole seeds, it’ll be important to add the seeds early in the cooking process to allow the flavor to mix with the other ingredients. In this way, it’s similar to dried herbs that take time to have the flavor coaxed out of them. This can make cumin seeds great for soups, stews, roasts, braises, or other dishes that take a long time to make.
Switching between cumin seeds and ground cumin is possible, but requires different amounts for a similar flavor profile. Essentially, you’ll need about a quarter more cumin seeds to make a similar flavor to ground cumin. Besides this, the two can be used fairly interchangeably, though you should account for the cooking time when using cumin seeds.
Okay, so as we shared earlier, you can use cumin in a lot of different recipes and it’ll likely bring something special to your creation. That said, it does work better for certain recipes more so than others. Inherently sweet and decadent dishes and desserts may not mix well with cumin’s earthy notes, while dishes you may describe as light or delicate may be overpowered. This is more of a general consideration, as you’ll certainly find fish recipes or desserts that call for you to use cumin, but unless you’re following a recipe or open to a little experimentation, you may want to stick with mostly savory-forward dishes.
Now, we can focus on what cumin is great with, which is a lot of things. Traditionally, cumin is found in Asian (especially Indian), Middle Eastern, North African, and Latin American cooking, all cuisines that use a lot of warm, aromatic spices, making cumin right at home. Furthermore, cumin is an excellent addition to roasted vegetables, especially root vegetables. The earthy taste of the cumin enhances the sweetness of roasted carrots or parsnips and adds a smoky, robust quality to roasted potatoes.
Cumin is an invaluable option for spice rubs for different preparations of meat, especially ones that rely on warm, smoky, or sweet flavors.
Maybe the best place to use cumin is with meats, as it ties to the naturally savory flavor. This makes it an invaluable option for spice rubs for different preparations of meat, especially ones that rely on warm, smoky, or sweet flavors. Tacos and barbecue gain a lot from having a little cumin mixed in, for example. In fact, a really simple spice rub that we use often for barbecue or smoked meats (that we later cover in barbecue sauce) is equal parts cumin, cinnamon, and brown sugar with half parts salt and pepper. This is just an example, though, because cumin works as an underlying flavor to add depth and complexity to an otherwise simple seasoning mixture.
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We’ve raved about cumin a bit today, but that’s because it’s a really useful ingredient that a lot of people use on a daily basis. Is it possible that some people just don’t like the taste of cumin? Absolutely, and that’s not a moral failing. But, if you want to give cumin a try, there’s nothing wrong with adding a little bit of cumin to your cooking here or there to see how you like it. Our money is on most people who try it will be using cumin more often than they expected!