Everything you need to know about the versatile spice.

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Cardamom might not be the first spice that comes to mind in holiday cooking and baking, but some of our favorite dishes wouldn't be the same without it. If you've enjoyed a slice of Christmas stollen or sipped a fragrant cup of warm chai, you've tasted cardamom. As the spice's popularity has soared in recent years, we're seeing cardamom added to traditional recipes that didn't originally call for it, such as gingerbread, spice cookies, pear pie, and winter squash soup, where it fits right in with other warm spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger.  Cooks and bakers have fallen in love with cardamom's complex flavor and now consider it one of their most versatile and irreplaceable spices.

Types of Cardamom

We can buy dried cardamom in three forms: whole pods, whole seeds, or ground. The small teardrop-shaped pods can be black, light green, or bleached to creamy white. Black cardamom has a strong smoky flavor and is most often used in Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. We see green cardamom most often in Nordic and Middle Eastern recipes. Because they taste completely different from one another, black and green cardamom should not be used interchangeably.

What Does Cardamom Taste Like?

The pods themselves are a bit bland, but they hold tiny intensely flavorful and aromatic dark seeds. Although we can buy the seeds, some cooks prefer to crush pods with the side of a knife to release the seeds. Some recipes instruct us to lightly toast the seeds to release more of their aroma just before we use them. Many of us use ground cardamom most often, especially when baking holiday sweets with Scandinavian and Northern European roots, such as delicate buttery cookies, tender yeasted buns and breads, and delicious cakes. Ground cardamom, which is sometimes labeled as powdered green cardamom, is ready to use and easy to find in any well-stocked grocery store or spice market.

Harvesting cardamom pods is labor intensive, which makes it one of the pricier spices, although a little goes a long way. We would be wise to buy cardamom in small amounts that we're certain to use while it remains fresh. As with other spices available in both whole and ground version, cardamom pods can remain fresh for several years, but once ground, the flavor and aroma fade after a few months, even when stored carefully in an airtight container in a cool, dry spot.  Cooks who use ground cardamom only for annual holiday baking should always give their supply a quick sniff test each year to ensure it's still bold and pungent. If there is no aroma, little or no flavor remains, and should be replaced with a fresh supply. When a recipe relies on cardamom, nothing else can take its place.