Need a cumin substitute for your recipe? There are a couple of alternatives out there like ground caraway seeds, ground up coriander, and even chili powder.
Cumin is a very popular spice in many different kinds of foods, but if you don’t happen to have any cumin on hand, there are a couple of alternatives we’ll cover below. You can find cumin as an ingredient in Indian and Mexican food primarily, although it is seen in Middle Eastern and even African food, and, of course, lots of Tex-Mex ingredients call for cumin as well. To get a more in-depth guide into cumin, including cumin substitutes, check out this guide.
Cooking is all about people. Food is maybe the only universal thing that really has the power to bring everyone together. No matter what culture, everywhere around the world, people get together to eat. – Guy Fieri
What is Cumin?
Probably one of the first things we should address is what cumin actually is.
First and foremost, cumins been around for forever. Maybe a slight exaggeration there, but, the point is is that cumin has been around for a long time. Ever seen King Tut or a mummy? There’s cumin used in the mummification process. The ancient Romans and Greeks used cumin in their dishes way back when, and even the bible talks about cumin in their recipes. Priests tithes were even paid with cumin. So, cumin has been around for a long time.
You can find cumin in curry powder and even in chili powder, and even the Chinese use cumin in the Szechuan region of China. This spice is almost ingrained in human history and human culture.
Cumin states its life like any spice does; a plant. You can see in the picture above the actual plant, and then the pods you can find the seeds in. Basically, once the pods start developing on the plant and they reach a specific point they are removed and are allowed to dry. The pod is then rubbed down and the seeds are removed. Those seeds are cumin seeds and can then be toasted and ground down to create the cumin spice.
Cumin has a very distinctive flavor, that can be described as almost warm. It is nutty, earthy, and spicy (but not in a super spicy way that chili powder has). The flavor can be described as smoky by some, I personally love it in just about any Mexican dish we make (particularly beef tacos). Cumin is also found in curry and it tends to deepen the flavor of the curry. There are three types of cumin seeds: Iranian, Indian, Middle Eastern. Each seed has different amounts of oils, different flavors, and even different coloring
Replacing cumin in a recipe is not an easy task since cumin is such a distinctive flavor. However, if you are in a pinch and don’t happen to have any cumin there are a couple spices that you can use that have a somewhat similar taste to cumin. Coriander, caraway, and chili powder are good substitutes for cumin, but they still have vastly different flavors than cumin, meaning that you will probably notice a difference in the final outcome of your dish.
Coriander is a member of the same family of cumin (and caraway for that matter), parsley. Because of this, they share some similar flavor characteristics. Now you might know coriander leaves as cilantro, a common ingredient in Mexican food as well. Most websites say that for every 3/4 teaspoon of cumin you will need to use 1 teaspoon of coriander.
Honestly, coriander is a spice you can use as a last resort if you truly don’t have anything else.
If you are in a bind and need cumin but don’t have any, caraway is probably going to be your best alternative (not that caraway is a totally popular spice that you use on a daily basis). Just like with coriander, caraway is in the same family as cumin, so it has similar flavor characteristics. Caraway also looks very similar to cumin and is just as aromatic as it, so it is truly going to be your best bet.
Because caraway is so potent that you need to halve the amount of caraway used. So, for example, if you need 1 teaspoon of cumin you will need to use 1/2 a teaspoon of caraway.
Chili powder is something that a lot of people have in their spice cabinet. Chili powder can be found in just about every single grocery store across the United States and it contains a bunch of different ingredients, not just ground up chili. It actually contains some cumin (depending on the blend and brand of chili powder you get) so it can be used as a substitute to cumin. However, chili powder is spicy, so you will need to add different amounts of chili powder based off of taste. If you add too much your dish will be way too spicy, so pay attention and be careful.
Also, note that you get chili powder and not chile powder! Chile powder is simply ground chile so it will not contain cumin in it.
So, besides those three main spices, what are some other good alternatives to cumin out there?
There are three cumin varieties: black, white, and amber. Amber is probably the kind that you are familiar with and is what is most widely used. White cumin tastes somewhat familiar to amber cumin, but black cumin is considerably less bitter and a little airier than the other two varieties. When in a pinch, you could substitute black cumin in for white or amber cumin. Black cumin can be found in Indian food stores.
Curry powder is also an alternative because it does contain cumin. However, it will alter the color of your dish drastically since curry powder contains turmeric. Tumeric is bright yellow, so it will be very noticeable and may make your meal look a little different than expected.