Fresh nutmeg is nutmeg that you grind yourself from the whole seed of the nutmeg fruit. Pre-ground nutmeg is the same things but comes pre-ground and packaged. Both have the same source: the nutmeg tree. Each form of the spice has different characteristics that will affect how they work in your food. We will consider the differences between fresh nutmeg and pre-ground nutmeg in the SPICEography Showdown below.
How does fresh nutmeg differ from ground nutmeg?
Fresh nutmeg is more flavorful and aromatic than the commercial variety. The reason is that whole nutmeg gets its flavor and aroma from volatile oils that will evaporate quickly after grinding. Because of how quickly the oils evaporate, it is best that you use ground nutmeg right away to ensure that you get as much of the flavor as possible. Ground nutmeg is likely to have lost much of its oil content and therefore much of its flavor.
The potential for lost flavor affects how long you can store fresh nutmeg when compared to the pre-ground variety. You can store fresh nutmeg for much longer. Simply grind the amount that you need and return the remaining whole nutmeg to an airtight, container. Ground nutmeg has a much shorter shelf-life — try to use it as soon as you open the container.
Nutmeg that you grind on a microplane or rasp grater — the preferred tools for grinding nutmeg at home — will not have uniform particles like commercially ground nutmeg. Usually, freshly ground nutmeg will be more similar to shavings than to a true powder. The irregular particle size means that more air is contained in freshly ground, which gives it the appearance of greater volume. In comparison, pre-ground nutmeg will be more densely compacted.
Can you use fresh nutmeg in place of ground and vice versa?
Freshly ground nutmeg and pre-ground nutmeg are the same spice, which means that they are the best possible substitutes for each other. The fact that they are the best substitutes does not mean, though, that they are perfect.
Because of the previously mentioned differences in flavor intensity, you will need to adjust your measurements when using one in place of the other. If you are using fresh nutmeg in place of pre-ground, use less of it to avoid over-flavoring; use more pre-ground nutmeg when using it in place of fresh. The longer pre-ground nutmeg has been in your spice cabinet, the more of it you will need to use when replacing the fresh spice; you will need to compensate for the diminished flavor and aroma due to evaporated volatile oils.
When using freshly ground nutmeg in a recipe that requires pre-ground, be sure to pack it down in your measuring spoon. By compressing it, you remove some of the air and get a more accurate measurement.
When should you use fresh nutmeg and when should you use ground nutmeg?
Use fresh nutmeg wherever you want the full, unfettered flavor of nutmeg in your food. It is the spice you need wherever you want nutmeg at the forefront.
If fresh nutmeg is out of the question and you only have access to the pre-ground stuff, use it in dishes where the muted flavor will not be as much of a problem. Use it in strongly spiced desserts like carrot cake where nutmeg is just one of an ensemble rather than the star of the show.