Cumin is a spice that is heavily used in Mexican cooking as well as in Indian, African and Malaysian dishes. It provides an earthy flavor with nut and citrus notes that is described by some as being slightly bitter. It is one of the most important ingredients in curry powder and it is also used in almost all chili recipes. You can buy cumin seeds in whole form or ground. Cumin’s strong, distinctive flavor comes from the oil it contains. If your recipe calls for it and you do not have any available, you will need to find a substitute that is just as flavorful. Consider the following options:
Your best bet: Caraway seeds
Caraway seeds are used to flavor a wide variety of European breads and pastries and even a liqueur. Like cumin, caraway seeds are the fruit of a member of the parsley family and are also highly aromatic. Cumin and caraway seeds are similar in appearance as well as in flavor. Caraway seeds’ flavor can be used to replicate the powerful, slightly bitter flavor of cumin; however, you will need to halve the amount of caraway seeds used. Some experts recommend adding anise seeds to the caraway seeds to make them even more like cumin. This should be done carefully since the flavor of anise seeds is sweeter and more like licorice. It can easily overpower other flavors.
A decent second choice: Chili powder (especially with high cumin content)
Chili powder can be found in the spice aisles of almost all grocery stores. It is a spice mix containing ground chili along with a variety of other spices including cumin. It provides a distinctive flavor but without cumin’s bitterness. Chili powder can be used as a good substitute for cumin in recipes for chili and should provide similar benefits in other recipes. Note that different chili powders contain different amounts of cumin so this is one of those cases where you will have to adjust to taste. Note that chili powder should be used carefully when substituting it for cumin as too much may make a dish too spicy. Note also that pure chili powder (sometimes labeled as chile powder) will contain no cumin and therefore is not a good substitute.
In a pinch: Coriander
Like cumin and caraway seeds, coriander comes from a member of the parsley family and therefore shares some of the same flavor characteristics. When sprouted, the leaves are referred to as cilantro and the spice itself is available in either ground form or whole. You will need to use 1 teaspoon of coriander for every 3/4 teaspoon of cumin that a recipe requires.
Cumin comes in three varieties: black, white and amber with amber being the most widely available. The flavor of black cumin is more floral and less bitter when compared to the other two varieties. While white and amber cumin cannot be used in place of black cumin, black cumin can serve as an effective substitute for both of them. You can find black cumin in most Indian food stores. Other possible substitutes for cumin include garam masala and curry powder, which both contain cumin. It is important to note that curry powder contains turmeric, which is bright yellow and can alter the appearance of a dish while garam masala typically has several other flavorful spices besides cumin.