Some spices, like cumin and cinnamon, have strong, bold flavors that are relatively easy to place. However, there are many spices that are more subtle, serve to enhance other flavors, or add that special something everyone can taste, but perhaps not put a finger on.
Nutmeg is one of these special spices. While there’s a clear line between the perfect amount of nutmeg and way too much (it can be overpowering if used in excess), when done right, nutmeg makes whatever food it’s in taste warm and almost woody, sort of like the scent your clothes carry after a bonfire.
Chances are you already have this spice in your cabinet, but may only break it out here and there, so here’s everything you need to know about nutmeg and how to cook with it.
Origin: Comes from the Myristica fragrans tree, a tropical evergreen indigenous to Indonesia, but grown widely in many tropical regions
Flavor: Slightly nutty, sweet, woody flavors
Substitutes: Ideally mace, which comes from the same tree and has a similar flavor profile, but you could also try allspice in any type of recipe; garam masala or ground ginger in savory recipes; or cinnamon
What is Nutmeg?
Nutmeg is the seed of the Myristica fragrans tree that’s dried, ground, and used as a spice in many dishes, from baked goods to sausage seasonings, pots of braised leafy greens to jugs of eggnog. The Myristica fragrans tree is a tropical evergreen indigenous to Indonesia, but it’s grown widely across many tropical regions including but not limited to Grenada in the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, and Kerala in southern India.
Nutmeg is a versatile spice that can be, and often is, used in both sweet and savory recipes. It can be bought as whole seeds which can be grated finely with a microplane or special nutmeg grater (also called a nutmeg rasp) into dishes, or ground for a more accessible, quick pinch.
While “nut” is in the name of the spice, nutmeg is safe for those with tree nut or peanut allergies.
Nutmeg vs. Mace
The Myristica fragrans tree offers more than just one aromatic spice. Before the nutmeg seed is ready for culinary use, it has a red-orange aril (or seed covering) encasing it. This is removed, pressed flat, dried, and becomes mace—a spice similar in flavor to nutmeg but usually described as being more pungent and spicier, like cinnamon or black pepper. Like nutmeg, it can be bought whole or ground.
Mace is not as commonly used or as easy to find as nutmeg, but if you happen to have it, you can swap it out for nutmeg in most recipes, just use half the amount called for in the recipe, as mace is typically stronger in flavor.
Whole Nutmeg vs. Ground Nutmeg
Whole or ground, nutmeg tastes nutty, warm, and slightly sweet. It’s reminiscent of clove and tobacco and can even have subtle citrusy notes. As with most spices, you’ll get the best, most intense flavor if you buy the seeds whole and grate them fresh for the recipe; however, you’ll need a fine grater, nutmeg rasp, or pepper mill in order to do so.
To grate whole nutmeg, simply grasp the seed firmly and rub it across the grater or rasp, like you would zest a lemon or Parmesan cheese.
What Does Nutmeg Taste Like?
Nutmeg is a warm spice with slightly nutty, sweet, woody flavors. It’s quite aromatic and can is generally best used in small amounts—usually no more than one teaspoon. If you use too much nutmeg, the dish, drink, or baked good may taste soapy or bitter.
Where to Buy
Whole and ground nutmeg can be found in the spice aisle of any major grocery store. As with most spices, it’s often best to buy the whole seeds, grating them right before you use them for the best, most intense flavor.
How to Store
Just like you would other spices, ground or whole nutmeg needs to be stored in an airtight container away from heat and light, like in your pantry, cabinet, or spice drawer. Properly stored, whole nutmeg seeds will last longer than ground nutmeg, up to four years.
Ground nutmeg will last around up to 2 years, but can lose its potency and flavor well before this. It’s best practice to label your spices with the date, so you can easily go through and discard and replace old spices.
The best substitute for nutmeg is, unsurprisingly, mace. They come from the same tree and since they have similar flavor profiles, that would be your best bet in case you don’t have nutmeg.
If you don’t have mace or nutmeg, try replacing it measure for measure with allspice or pumpkin pie spice in any type of recipe, or with garam masala or ground ginger in savory recipes. You could also use cinnamon, just use half as much as called for in the recipe.
Recipes That Use Nutmeg
Nutmeg plays both sweet and savory and shouldn’t be relegated just to the classic winter recipes (think eggnog or mulled wine) for which it's most known. Here are some of our favorite recipes with nutmeg!