Cumin is an essential ingredient that many may recognize from its use in both Indian and Mexican cuisines. The spice’s flavors are pungent and are among the most distinctive elements in both curries and burritos. Cumin seeds come from a plant in the parsley family and you can use them whole or ground. In each of those forms, the spice offers specific qualities and different ways that you can use it. To get the best value from cumin, you should consider questions such as: do the whole seeds and the ground spice have different flavors? Alternatively, can whole cumin seeds and ground cumin be used in the same ways? We provide the answers to those questions and more in this installment of SPICEography Showdown.
Do cumin seeds and ground cumin differ in flavor?
Because cumin seeds and ground cumin are really the same spice in two different forms, it is reasonable to expect that they would taste the same. The truth is that the grinding process can and does affect the flavor. It does this by releasing many of the compounds responsible for cumin’s distinctive pungency. Those compounds will evaporate shortly after the spice has been ground, leaving you with that a spice that will continue to be flavorful but that will lack many of the subtler complexities. Experts recommend that spices like cumin be stored whole and used right after grinding precisely because of this. The overall flavor of freshly ground cumin is typically more intense and complex when compared to pre-ground cumin.
Can you use ground cumin in place of cumin seeds and vice versa?
You can grind whole cumin seeds to use in place of ground cumin if you have access to a spice grinder, but that is not your only option. You can also use the Indian cooking method called “tempering” which involves frying the cumin seeds and adding the infused oil to the dish. Of course, this may not be suitable for all dishes. If you decide to grind your own cumin, remember that you should toast the seeds before grinding to bring out the flavor.
Toast your cumin seeds by placing them in a dry pan over a low flame for a few minutes, stirring them every few minutes to prevent scorching. Note that toasting does not work well with ground cumin as it can stick to the pan and burn.
What are the best uses for whole cumin seeds and for ground cumin?
Whole cumin seeds can be tempered for curries and for rice pilafs. Tempering is also effective when preparing ground meat for tacos and burritos; it is very useful if you have no way to grind spices. You can drizzle the oil into soups or over vegetables for roasting or grilling. You can also use the whole seeds after you have tempered them. Simply sprinkle them over the dish as a garnish; this will allow the seeds to enhance the texture of your dish while also delivering bursts of flavor as you bite into them.
Ground cumin is the more traditional form of the spice and you can add it to your barbecue rubs or use it to season meats and vegetables just as you would use any other ground spice. It is an excellent complement to many other flavors including those of garlic, coriander and even ginger.