Cardamom is a wonderfully aromatic spice that comes from plants in the ginger family. You’ll often find it in Indian and Scandinavian cuisines, where the seeds and pods are sauteed with savory meats and vegetables, or added to mulled or infused beverages. In ground form it makes a lovely addition to baked goods, glazes, and dressings.
It’s often called the “queen of spices” because it’s one of the most expensive spices in the world.
Origin: Comes from plants in the ginger family
Varieties: Green, black, and white (which is really just green cardamom that has been bleached)
Often found in: Aromatic curries, baked goods, and mulled beverages
Substitutes: Allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove can be used in a pinch, but will not replicate the unique characteristics of cardamom.
What is Cardamom and Where Is It Grown?
Most cardamom is grown in India, Sri Lanka, and Guatemala. The spice is known for its use in Indian cuisines as whole pods and as a component of garam masala, but cardamom (particularly white cardamom) is also widely used in northern Europe in traditional Scandinavian breads and pastries like Stollen and Swedish Coffee Bread.
Varieties of Cardamom
Cardamom can be found in ground, seed, or pod form and comes in two main varieties (with a third bonus):
- Green: Green cardamom (also known as true cardamom) pods are harvested early from the Elettaria cardamomum plant on which they grow, which is why they are green. The pods are about the size of a peanut with an elongated shape and sage-green color, and while the husk is technically edible, it’s the seeds inside the pod that you want to access for cooking; that’s where the floral, minty and slightly bitter flavors of cardamom reside. (And yes, grinding these seeds is what makes ground cardamom!)
- Black: Black (or brown) cardamom pods are slightly larger than green cardamom pods, and feature a dark brown, rough exterior that resembles tree bark. Black cardamom is smoke-dried after being harvested, which results in a hard-to-describe-but-very-unique earthy and slightly smoky flavor and aroma.
- White: White cardamom is green cardamom that has been bleached. The bleaching process diffuses the flavor and mellows it out considerably. Since white cardamom is green cardamom, it’s not considered a truly varietal.
Cardamom Pods vs. Ground Cardamom
As mentioned, ground cardamom comes from grinding green cardamom seeds. Ground cardamom is usually called for when the spice is added to batters and baked goods, while it’s more common to see whole cardamom pods when the purpose is to infuse flavor by steeping the pods in liquid or sauteing in oil. After a sufficient infusing time, the pods are then discarded.
If you don’t plan to use your ground cardamom quickly (ideally within a month), buy whole cardamom instead of ground cardamom, and then grind it yourself. Cardamom’s flavor fades quickly after grinding, so freshly ground cardamom is always the first choice.
Cardamom vs. Coriander
Ground cardamom and ground coriander have a similar appearance with a brownish green color. While they are sometimes used in the same recipes, they should not be used as substitutes for each other. Both spices are a little floral, but coriander is slightly herbal, almost lemony while cardamom is earthy, fruity, and pungent.
What Does Cardamom Taste Like?
Cardamom has a very unique and complex flavor – slightly sweet yet peppery, and very recognizable. It can lean too bitter if the ground form is used in large quantities.
Where to Buy
Ground cardamom is easily found in the spice or baking aisles of most supermarkets, but international supermarkets and specialty stores are the best places to find whole green and black cardamom pods.
How to Store
Both ground and whole cardamom should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark space without constant exposure to natural light. A cupboard or drawer is ideal.
Whole cardamom will maintain its fragrant scent and flavor up to a year. Ground cardamom should be used up more quickly for the best quality and potency, ideally within three months.
Cardamom has a pungent flavor that is all its own so it's difficult to find a similar substitute. Because it is used in aromatic curries, baked goods, and mulled beverages with other spices such as allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, these are likely the best substitutes if you don’t have green cardamom on hand.
For black cardamom, a substitute like smoked paprika or smoked sea salt will add a similar smoky taste to recipes but will lack black cardamom’s distinctly pungent flavor.
How to Grind Cardamom at Home
You can make your own ground cardamom at home from whole green cardamom and whole black cardamom. Squeeze or smash the pods to remove the seeds, then add the seeds to a spice grinder and pulse until the seeds have turned to a powder.
If you aren’t making a large enough quantity to warrant a spice grinder, place the seeds on a flat surface and gently roll with a rolling pin until ground. You can also use a mortar and pestle to grind the seeds if you have one on hand.
Recipes With Cardamom
Here are a few of our favorite recipes that use cardamom:
- Pork Roast with Cardamom Mushroom Sauce
- Cardamom Honey Chicken
- Indian-Style Rice
- Swedish Meatballs
- Indian Chicken Biryani
- Lamb Korma