Caraway seed is a versatile spice used in many European, Asian and African dishes. Its complex flavors are suitable for both savory and sweet dishes and they are an important component of most traditional rye bread recipes. You will need caraway seeds if you plan to make sauerkraut, polish sausages, or Tunisian harissa and want them to taste authentic. If caraway seeds are not easy to find where you live or if you need them right now, consider any of the many effective substitutes. Most of the alternatives can be found in your local grocery store, or you may already have them in your spice cabinet.
Your best bet: Anise seeds
The main use of both anise and caraway seeds is to add licorice notes to the overall flavor profile of a dish. Anise seeds and caraway seeds are both members of the carrot family, which also includes other aromatic spices like cumin. The licorice flavor that cooks want from caraway seeds is present in anise seeds in abundance, so much so that these seeds are included in the flavoring for licorice candy. Note that anise seeds work best as a caraway substitute when used in baked goods like bread and cookies. The strong anise flavor can survive baking without becoming bitter. When using anise seeds in place of caraway seeds, remember that anise has the stronger flavor of the two spices. Experiment with smaller amounts than your recipe requires and adjust to taste.
A decent second choice: Fennel seeds
Another member of the carrot family, fennel seeds are popular in Italian and Indian cooking and are also widely used in the Middle East. They provide a flavor that many Americans associate with Italian sausage. Fennel seeds provide clear licorice notes that are very similar to those from anise seeds. In fact, these two spices are similar enough in flavor and appearance that they are often mistaken for each other. Fennel seeds are best used as a caraway seed substitute in curries, stews and similar dishes where you will need a spice that can handle long cooking times. In these dishes, you will also need a spice that can compete with other strong flavors. If you use fennel seeds in place of caraway seeds, use the same amount that your recipe requires for the caraway seeds.
In a pinch: Nigella seeds
This spice goes by many names including black onion seeds, charnushka and kalonji. Nigella seeds were being used as far back in history as the era of Tutankhamen. Like caraway seeds, they provide notes of licorice and thus are an acceptable substitute. To get the best results from your nigella seeds, you should toast or fry them before use. Note also that this spice works best as a caraway seed substitute in wet dishes like stews and curries, but is also used in breads including Indian naans and Russian rye bread. You can also grind them for use in spice rubs. Nigella seeds pair well with common herbs and spices including allspice, coriander and thyme.
Dill seeds are another way to get the licorice notes that you want from caraway seeds. Dill is another member of the carrot family, which accounts for the similarities. These seeds are perfect for use in cream-based soups and for cooking cabbage.
Star anise is another spice that you can use to replace caraway seeds. Its potent licorice notes can be overpowering, so use it carefully.