Know Your Spices: Cumin

Cumin is a deeply earthy, fragrant spice that makes everything from Indian curries and rice to chili and falafel sing. It comes in whole seed and ground form and is an essential part of a well-stocked spice cabinet.

Cumin seeds and powder in a white bowl

Simply Recipes / Lori Rice

Earthy cumin is a spice that brings instant warmth and depth to a recipe. Whether you’re sitting down to a steaming bowl of chili or digging into a fragrant lamb curry, the dish really wouldn’t be the same without the popular spice.

Cumin is a key player in any well-stocked spice cabinet and is absolutely worth getting to know. Dive into this curious spice, from its ancient history to its variations and versatility.


Origin: Made from the dried seed of the Cuminum cyminum plant, which is part of the parsley family

Varieties: Whole seed form and ground powder

Commonly found in: Middle Eastern, Indian, Latin American, and North African cuisines. It's a hugely popular and versatile spice!

Ground and seed cumin

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What is Cumin?

Cumin is an ancient spice. It was discovered in excavations in ancient Egypt, where it was used as both a spice and a preserve for mummies. Today, it’s one of the most reached for spices in Middle Eastern, Indian, Latin American, and North African cuisines. Part of the parsley family, it’s a pale brown spice made from the dried seed of a plant called Cuminum cyminum.

You can cook with cumin in both whole seed and ground form, both of which lend warm, earthy aroma and flavor to dishes. Cumin is also a component in many different spice blends, such as curry powder, chili powder, garam masala, and ras el hanout.

Cumin Seeds vs. Caraway Seeds

It’s easy to confuse cumin seeds with caraway seeds at first glance because they resemble each other. Look closer, however, and you’ll see that caraway seeds are a bit darker in color and more curved. It’s their flavor that’s the real indicator of their difference: caraway seeds have a licorice-like flavor rather than an earthy spice.

Whole cumin seeds

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Whole vs. Ground Cumin

You’ll find cumin in both whole seed form and as a ground powder. To make the powder, seeds are dry roasted then ground until fine. Whole seed cumin is usually sold unroasted and is roasted in a dry pan on the stovetop before adding them to recipes.

Regardless of the form, roasting helps draw out the rich flavor of cumin. You’ll find recipes calling for both cumin seeds and ground cumin, which is typically determined based on cuisine and usage. In many Indian dishes, for example, whole seed cumin is popular because it is fried in oil with other whole spices first, which infuses the oil and therefore the rest of the dish. Ground cumin, however, is easier to stir into chili or turn into a rub for meat because its flavor disperses instantly.

What Does Cumin Taste Like?

Cumin is bursting with warm, earthy spice and is a touch nutty, especially when roasted, which helps heighten this characteristic. It’s also uniquely citrusy, with a touch of both sweetness and bitterness.

Ground cumin

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Where to Buy Cumin

You’ll find cumin in both whole seed and ground form in the spice aisle of just about every major grocery store, as well as in spice shops and markets that feature Indian, Middle Eastern, Latin American, and North American ingredients.

How to Store Cumin

Ground cumin has a shorter shelf life than whole cumin seeds. Once ground, cumin’s rich aroma and flavor will start to fade. That’s why it’s wise to buy ground cumin in small quantities or keep just cumin seeds on hand and roast and grind them with a spice grinder in small batches.

Store ground cumin in an airtight container in a cool, dark place such as a pantry or spice cabinet and use it within six months. Whole cumin seeds should also be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark spot but they’ll stay fresh for up to four years.

Cumin seeds being toasted in a black skillet for vegetable samosa filling.
Prerna Singh

How to Cook with Cumin

How to cook with cumin depends on whether you’re starting with whole cumin seeds or ground cumin. Ground cumin can simply be treated like any ground spice and sprinkled or stirred into a dish. Whole cumin seeds should be roasted in a dry skillet on the stovetop over medium heat until toasted and fragrant or heated in oil to pull out their flavor before cooking with them.

You can also grind roasted whole cumin seeds to make powder or grind them with other spices to make spice blends.

The number of recipes that call for cumin are near endless. It’s prominent in Indian rice and curry dishes, Middle Eastern falafel and hummus, marinades for meat, and more. While it’s traditionally most common in Indian, Middle Eastern, North African, and Latin American dishes, today you’ll find it used in a wide range of cuisines.