Why You Should Always Have Cumin In The Pantry

This versatile spice is a must-have.

spice rack
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Dried herbs and spices are essential to any cook's kitchen, but a few always have a permanent spot at the front of the spice rack. Let's call them your "Starting Five." For me, that is:

  • whole black peppercorns (in my trusty grinder)
  • ground cinnamon (for baked goods, oatmeal, and savory dishes)
  • red pepper flakes (my go-to spice any time I need a hint of heat)
  • chili powder (this mix of herbs and spices is an instant flavor booster in so many dishes)
  • and the MVP (or MVS?), ground cumin

Cumin spice's flavor and aroma work in more dishes than you may realize. Here's more about what cumin tastes like and how to use this essential spice in your kitchen.

What Is Cumin?

Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) is a tiny, dried, boat-shaped seed harvested annually. As a parsley family member, cumin is a popular spice available as a ground spice or whole seed. According to spice experts at McCormick, cumin is one of the top ten spices sold in the U.S.

Some cumin varieties include brownish-yellow (the most common), black, green, and white seed. Cumin, described as having a warm, earthy flavor, gained popularity in the Middle Ages. Its popularity spread, and it is an essential ingredient in traditional Mexican, Spanish, Indian, North African, and Middle Eastern cuisines.

Cumin is also one of the main ingredients in chili powder, which is essential to flavoring Southern favorites like chili, barbecue sauce, baked beans, and more.

Whole vs. Ground Cumin

Cumin adds a rich, warm, earthy spice, with a hint of citrus, to any dish. Using seeds or whole cumin might not disperse flavoring as evenly as the ground spice. When cooking with whole cumin seeds, adding this spice to hot oil before combining other ingredients helps distribute this flavoring—often used in traditional Indian dishes. Applying heat to whole seeds helps to release more of their flavoring. Storing seeds in the freezer can help cumin maintain its flavor, but whole cumin should be fresh for up to four years when stored in the pantry.

Grinding roasted cumin seeds is how ground cumin gets its earthy flavor notes. Because the seeds have already released their flavoring throughout the roasting and grinding process, you can use the ground cumin at any point while cooking. However, ground cumin will lose flavoring more quickly than whole cumin, so you should not leave it unused for a long time. Ground cumin will remain fresh for six months when stored in a cool, dark place. 

How To Use Cumin

I run out of ground cumin more than any spice in my spice cabinet, which tells you a lot. Cumin's warm, earthy, slightly peppery flavor and aroma work in more dishes than you may realize. It is probably in your favorite chili recipe and is a key ingredient in Indian curries, Middle Eastern specialties such as hummus, and Mexican dishes like fajitas. Cumin is a delicious match for meat, especially beef and pork, but it can also give vegetarian dishes more depth and complexity. I love pairing roasted sweet potatoes and carrots with cumin—the smokiness of the spice balances out the vegetables' natural sweetness.

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How To Toast Cumin Seeds

Whether or not you grind your own cumin seeds (confession: I don't), it's a good idea to toast the spices before using them, especially if they have been in your cabinet for a while. Here's how to toast cumin:

  1. Over low heat, place the whole seeds or ground cumin in a small, dry skillet.
  2. Toast, constantly stirring, until the spices are fragrant.
  3. Immediately take the pan off the heat and transfer the spices to a bowl, so they don't burn.
  4. If you are using whole seeds, you can grind them once they cool.
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