An ancient spice with global appeal, cumin has an intriguing aroma that adds complexity to any dish. Like so many other edible seeds, it also packs a serious nutrient punch and has been used for thousands of years in traditional medicine.
A member of the parsley family, cumin, or Cuminum Cyminum, is a small plant that is native to the Middle East, Nile Valley, India, and the Mediterranean. Its seeds are primarily used in Latin American, Tex-Mex, Indian, and Middle Eastern cuisine.
Because of its distinctive, earthy, warming aroma, cumin is used in numerous spice blends such as garam masala, curry powders, ras el hanout, chili powder, and sofritos. It can be also used in pickling blends, like a few of its plant cousins: dill, caraway, and parsley.
How it’s grown, harvested and processed
Because cumin is a small plant that needs warm, arid going conditions, without too much moisture to thrive, it grows best in Mediterranean climates. Once it blooms clusters of little purple flowers, the stems are picked and allowed to dry, then the seeds are harvested. The seeds resemble caraway seeds, but are yellow-brown in color and ridged.
Types and uses
Although there are several types of cumin seeds, the most common variety by far is green cumin. Black cumin, (Bunium Bulbocastanum) another variety, is much less common and is rarely used outside of Indian and Pakistani cuisine.
While black variety is left whole and almost never ground, green cumin is plentiful either whole or in powdered form. Both of these varieties of seed are used dried or made into essential oils for use in traditional medicine.
Cumin is the main ingredient in aromatic spice blends and is used in savory applications throughout India, the Middle East, North Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.
- Tagines and stews: Try your hand at creating a Moroccan tagine with couscous.
- Dry rub: Make your own signature dry rub or taco seasoning with chilis, herbs, and spices. Sprinkle on vegetables or rub on a rack of lamb or pork tenderloin before grilling.
- Salsa: A little cumin makes a homemade salsa something special.
- Curry: Once you master making your own curry powder blend, you’ll love having it on hand for complex Indian recipes.
- Tea: In India, people make tea, or jira water, with the seeds. Try boiling a teaspoon of seeds in water and letting them steep.
- Beans: Beans and legumes taste great with nothing more than a little pinch added to the pot.
Buying and storing
Cumin is widely available in grocery stores, but specialty grocery stores and spice stores often carry the freshest selection, so try those places first. Cumin stores the longest when left in the whole form. Whenever possible, buy whole cumin seeds instead of cumin powder since the powder loses its flavor more quickly.
If you need to grind cumin seeds, use a spice mill or a mortar and pestle. The seeds and powder should be kept in a tightly sealed glass jar in a cool, dark, and dry place. Ground cumin will keep for about six months, while the whole seeds will stay fresh for about one year.
How to cook with it
Perhaps the most important way to bring out cumin’s unique flavor is to lightly roast the seeds in a dry cast iron skillet or pan before adding to recipes. The heat releases the oils in the seeds and makes a huge difference in your cooking.
Can cumin be used with certain diets?
Nutritional profile per serving
One teaspoon (or roughly 2 grams) of seeds is about 8 calories and is an excellent source of iron, a very good source of manganese, and a good source of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin C, and vitamin B1.
Health benefits of cumin
Cumin may aid in digestion. Not only is it rich in dietary fiber, but it contains thymol, one of the components which stimulates the production of digestive enzymes, to help your body digest foods efficiently.
This spice may boost the immune system. Foods that contain vitamin C can act as immune system supporters and can also reduce inflammation, fight free radicals, and regulate blood pressure.
Cumin may also help balance blood sugar levels. Current research suggests that one of the components, cuminaldehyde, may be useful as a lead compound and a new agent for antidiabetic therapeutics.
Black cumin oil is being studied for its high levels of linoleic acid, undoubtedly one of the most important polyunsaturated fatty acids in our food. Linoleic acid is known for reducing the risk of heart vascular diseases. Because it’s a newer source of edible oil, however, please seek medical advice before incorporating it into your daily regimen.