Caraway seeds are often confused with cumin, especially in some Indian recipes. The same Indian word — jeera — can refer to both spices, which is what causes the confusion. If you are unfamiliar with one or both spices, you should learn their differences before trying to use either since they are not always interchangeable. We will compare them in the SPICEography Showdown below.
How does caraway differ from cumin?
The most obvious difference between caraway seeds and cumin is the fact that these spices each come from different plants. Yes, the plants are related but the spices they produce have somewhat different properties. Caraway is known for its licorice flavor and is most often compared to fennel seed and anise. All three spices have sweet flavor profiles that are in the same general ballpark.
In comparison, cumin is most often described as warm as well as bitter and earthy. It is most often used in very flavorful savory dishes. Cumin works best with other intense spices. You typically use caraway seeds whole, but cumin seeds may be used whole or ground with the latter being the preferred form for Latin American cuisines.
Caraway seeds belong to a group of herbs and spices that are no longer widely used in modern cooking. As a result, it is not always easy to find. You can probably find it if your local grocery store has a well-stocked spice aisle but it is not as hugely popular nor as versatile as cumin. In comparison, cumin has a wider range of applications as it shows up in both Indian and Latin American food.
Can you use caraway as a substitute for cumin and vice versa?
The two spices can replace each other in some dishes, but the substitution will not be ideal in all. In fact, there are quite a few dishes where it would be inadvisable. Caraway seeds can work in many of the dishes that require cumin but it will not provide cumin’s earthiness and musky intensity; however, it is aromatic like cumin and whole caraway seeds do look like whole cumin seeds. Add it to a curry powder, you will wind up with a dish that tastes different from standard curry but that might still be enjoyable in its own right.
Similarly, cumin is not likely to deliver the same effect as caraway seeds if you use it as an alternative. In fact, cumin is too pungent and too intensely savory to be used in most — if any — caraway seed applications.
When should you use caraway and when should you use cumin?
Caraway seeds are common in German dishes. You will need this spice if you are making sauerkraut at home and you will need it for the distinctive taste of rye bread. It also shows up in recipes for a variety of sweet baked goods like cakes and cookies. Its sweetness also allows it to work like rosemary in some of the fattier meat preparations such as sausages and dishes featuring lamb. It licorice note cuts through the fat and contrasts it with something sweet.
Use cumin in savory dishes, including those that feature strongly flavored meats like goat or lamb. It is essential if you are cooking Mexican, Tex-Mex or Indian dishes. It is one of the main spices in garam masala and in curry powder.