Caraway seeds and cumin seeds can easily be confused because of their very similar appearances. To make matters worse, caraway seeds are also called cumin in some places. The fact that the two spices resemble each other is not strange, since they both belong to the Apiaceae family, making them relatives of cilantro and parsley.
Despite all the things they have in common, caraway seeds share few qualities with cumin when it comes to their use in food. To learn how caraway seeds and cumin compare to each other and how to use them, check out the SPICEography Showdown below.
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How do caraway seeds differ from cumin?
Caraway seeds and cumin come from different plants. Caraway seeds are the seeds of the Carum carvi plant; cumin seeds come from the Cuminum cyminum.
Caraway seeds and cumin seeds have different appearances that can range from easily distinguished to marginal. Caraway seeds are usually small and dark brown with pale stripes and can have a relatively smooth surface. Caraway seeds are also slightly crescent-shaped. Cumin seeds are usually slightly larger, medium brown and generally straight.
Caraway seeds and cumin seeds don’t taste much like each other. Caraway seeds have a mild anise or licorice taste, with a slight bitterness. Cumin is nutty and has a warmer, earthy flavor that makes it more savory compared to caraway seeds.
Caraway seeds and cumin will often differ in their availability. Caraway seeds are not rare and will be found in most larger grocery stores, but their use is somewhat niche compared to cumin, and it may be comparatively expensive. Cumin is a heavily used spice, since both Latin American and South Asian cuisines rely on it. You will find cumin in the spice aisles of grocery stores around the world, and if your grocery store has a Mexican section, you will find it there too. Cumin will almost always be affordable.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
Caraway seeds will not make a good substitute for cumin in any application. The flavor of caraway seeds is too mild and too sweet to work in the Mexican and Indian recipes that require cumin. It might be able to provide a little of the nutty note, but it won’t be able to deliver the heat and savory bite that you need in most cumin-heavy dishes.
Cumin will be way too strong to work as a caraway seed substitute. The baked goods and vegetable dishes that typically use caraway seeds might not all be ruined if you use cumin as a substitute, but many will be. Cumin will drastically change the flavor profiles of dishes that require caraway seeds. Cumin may be strong enough to completely dominate any other flavors the dish is supposed to have.
When should you use caraway seeds, and when should you use cumin?
Caraway seeds show up in a range of sweet and savory European preparations including breads, cakes and potato-based dishes and are essential in seeded rye bread and Irish soda bread. You will also see it in some coleslaw recipes and some kinds of sauerkraut.
Cumin is commonly used in Latin American and Tex-Mex fare, as well as in Indian dishes. Cumin is one of the essential spices in garam masala as well as in curry powder. You will also need cumin if you want to make chili powder; it gives everything from Mexican tacos to Texan chili their distinctive flavors.