Cumin Health Benefits & Culinary Applications

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.

cumin seeds and cumin powder

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.

Taste profile

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.

Culinary applications

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.

ground cumin

Recipe suggestions

  • 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?

As a small seed with very few calories and carbohydrates, cumin can be enjoyed by anyone on a low carb, Paleo, or Whole30 diet.

cumin seeds

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.

Recipes to try

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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4 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Dennis says

    Well written and researched article. Please do more!
    Cumin is one of my favorite spices. Use a lot.

  2. Judy says

    Hi Jessica, Great to see this post. I add cumin to everything I can for the health benefits. I have never tried it whole though so now I want to. It was interesting to find out the history on cumin and where it is grown and when it is picked. Another great food history lesson for me.
    Thank you
    Judy

  3. Victoria Howard says

    Now I just LOVE Cumin even more! I just ran out, and was in a panic until I got more!! Thank you for this article! I’m passing it on!

  4. Linda Patrick says

    I love receiving your articles. Very informative and I’ve made several of your recipes which all have turned out great.

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