Cumin is a very important spice in many cuisines, but sometimes it is unavailable. What makes a perfect substitute for cumin?
When you’ve run out of cumin as you’re just about to cook, and stopping by the grocery store to get some might be some form of torture, a cumin substitute will certainly come in handy. The good news is, there are a lot of spices similar to cumin that can serve as good substitutes.
There are times when we just need a cumin substitute in our dish and we don’t know the right choice to make.
Cumin has an incredibly distinctive flavor, so it can be a total deal-breaker when you run out of it. A quick trip to the store to get a replacement might solve the problem, but that’s not the only solution. Though the smell and taste of cumin are hard to replace, that’s not to say there’s nothing that can compare to it.
There are a few great options that can be used to replace cumin, and the wonderful thing is you probably already have one of these ingredients that can serve as a cumin substitute.
These substitutes often come close to what you can get from cumin. Though they might not be exactly the same, they will add that unique taste to your meal that could seemingly only be achieved from cumin itself. Replacement for cumin is not far away, in fact, it may be in your very own pantry. Before we go further, let’s take a look at what cumin really is.
What is Cumin?
Considered by many to be the second most popular spice after black pepper, cumin is made from the dried seeds of a certain plant, Cuminum cyminum, which is a member of the parsley family. Its dried seeds are used in the cuisines of many cultures in whole seed or ground form. These cultures include the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, and many others. Cumin also plays a major part in Indian cuisine.
Cumin has a warm, earthy flavor and aroma, and this makes it (in its ground form) a complementary spice to barbecue sauce, marinade, and baked beans. The flavor is described by some as “smoky.” This distinctive flavor of cumin comes from its essential oil content.
Cumin is a typical ingredient in several spice blends, like curry powder, chili powder, garam masala, achiote blends, bahaarat, adobos, and berbere. Cumin powder comes in different varieties, with the most common being the one of brownish-yellow color. Others include black cumin, green cumin, and white cumin.
While the white and yellow-colored cumin cannot be used in the place of black cumin, black cumin can serve as a substitute for both of the others. The flavor of black cumin is more floral and less bitter compared to the other varieties, and it’s found in most Indian food stores.
Cumin seeds are oftentimes mistaken for caraway seeds, as they are similar in shape and also have a yellow-brown color. They both have a boat shape and are longitudinally ridged.
Whole cumin seeds can be used in dishes as well. For example, when preparing an Indian dish, these seeds are added to hot oil at the start so that their flavor becomes infused into the oil and therefore the rest of the ingredients.
The flavor is teased out when the seed is slightly roasted. This can be done at home using a dry pan over medium heat. These seeds are often chewed as a digestive aid in India, and oftentimes they’reoffered at Indian restaurants after the completion of a meal for this purpose. So just how long has this spice been around?
A Brief History
Grown in Egypt and the Middle East, cumin as a spice has been in existence for thousands of years now. In ancient Egypt, cumin was used as a spice and also as a preservative in mummification.
Interesting, huh? I thought so too.
From ancient times, It has also been used heavily in India as well as by the Greeks and Romans. In India, it is a traditional ingredient that forms the base of many spice blends.
There are also mentions of cumin in the bible, both old and new testaments. Yes, the tithes of priests in that time were even paid with cumin. So, you can see, cumin has been around for a long time now. This spice eventually made its way into Mexican and South American cuisine after European colonization, brought about mostly by the Spanish and Portuguese.
Cumin Replacement – The 9 best substitutes
When it comes to seeking a replacement for cumin, this is a task that is not easy, as cumin has a very distinct flavor. However, if you are in a pinch and don’t happen to have any cumin, there are a couple of spices you can integrate into your dish to get a somewhat-similar taste to that which can only be gotten with cumin.
Caraway, coriander, and chili powder are good substitutes for cumin powder, but they all have vastly different flavors to cumin, meaning you will probably notice a slight difference in the final outcome of your dish.
There are six more spices I have listed out as substitutes for cumin. Remember that all of what I’ll be listing should be located right in your spice cabinet. Spices like cumin that can be used as substitutes include:
Looking for a cumin substitute?
The most popular replacement for cumin is coriander, and there’s a good reason for that. Whether you seek a cumin seed substitute or powdered cumin alternative, coriander is the perfect choice, as both spices come from the same parsley family.
Though their tastes might be slightly different, they are similar enough and can be used as substitutes for each other without much work. The leaves of coriander (sometimes referred to as cilantro) are a common ingredient in Mexican food, sometimes serving as a garnish.
Note, however, that coriander has a stronger flavor than cumin. To make a perfect cumin substitute out of coriander, the first step is to check the quantity of ground cumin or cumin seed your recipe calls for and use half of the amount of coriander powder or seed. With this, you will achieve the result you desire. If you find that the dish could use more flavor, you can always increase this amount in small increments until you get the perfect flavor.
2. Caraway seeds
A very good cumin seed substitute is caraway seeds. Like coriander and cumin, caraway also belongs to the parsley family, so they all have some level of similarities. Because they have similar appearances, using caraway seeds as a substitute for cumin will not change the expected color of your dish like other substitutions may.
However, cumin seeds have a hotter and spicier taste compared to caraway seeds, so when substituting your recipe with these, you should start by using half the amount of caraway seeds and then increase this amount until it fits your desired flavor profile.
So for example, if your recipe requires 1 teaspoon of cumin, you will need to use ½ a teaspoon of caraway. Some experts recommend that anise seeds should be added to the Caraway seeds to make them more like cumin. However, this should be carried out with care since the flavor of anise seeds is sweeter and more like licorice. Their flavor can easily overpower other flavors.
3. Chili powder
Yes, chili powder can do the trick! This is one popular spice a lot of people have in their spice cabinet. It can also be found in the spice aisles of almost all grocery stores. Take care not to use “Cayenne Chili Pepper”, as this is 100% chili powder. Conventional bottles of chili powder actually contain mix of spices, and these make a fantastic substitute for cumin.
A bottle of chili powder might be a mix of straight chili powder along with other spices such as oregano or cumin, so this makes a good cumin alternative as well, so long as it contains cumin.
Note that different chili powders contain different amounts of cumin, so this will be one of those cases where you have to adjust to taste. Also be aware that there are special chili powders that are heavy on garlic, lemon, or other spices. Stick to standard chili powder and make sure there is cumin in it.
Chili powder should be used carefully, as too much of it can give you a too-spicy dish. To use as a substitute, start with half the amount called for and increase gradually to make sure you don’t add too much.
4. Curry Powder
Curry powder is used in preparing chicken, several types of soups, and sauces. It makes dishes taste very rich. It is also a good substitute for ground cumin as it comes in different forms, most of which have cumin as a main ingredient.
Don’t forget the fact that the key to a great cumin substitute is to use a mix that has cumin as one of its top ingredients. So before you use the curry powder you have in your pantry, look through the ingredients list and see if it happens to have cumin.
One thing to take note of is that curry powder could alter the appearance of a dish, as it contains turmeric, which is bright yellow in color. So be careful while adding it to your dish. Because of the blend of flavors in curry powder, it might add too much spice to the dish also, if you don’t regulate how much you add. When adding curry powder to a dish, you’ll need to add half the amount called for in the recipe.
5. Taco seasoning mix
Here’s another pre-mixed seasoning in your pantry that can be used as a substitute for cumin spice—taco seasoning.
Surprised much? Well, don’t be.
Taco seasoning is a bit similar to chili powder because of what’s inside it. You’re likely going to have cumin in it, alongside the ingredients traditional chili powder contains. The ingredients in most taco seasoning mixes include chili pepper, cumin, paprika, oregano, and onion.
Measure out the exact amount called for, and that’s all. One thing you should know is that taco seasoning can be very spicy and salty too. All you need to do is to reduce the salt added to your dish to balance the salt level. This is also part of the reason why it is stressed that you start off with less of the seasoning, slowly adding more and more.
Make sure to use a mild taco seasoning unless you want to add some serious kick to your food, because if you add too much seasoning, you might end up causing the entire recipe to go bad.
6. Garam Masala
This is an aromatic mixture of spices that is used as a base in many Indian cuisines to bring flavor and warmth. All the ingredients combine to give garam masala an earthy, sweet, and spicy flavor. This is different from cumin itself, as it is a subtle blend of different spices, but it’s possible to use it as a cumin alternative.
Garam masala has a lot of cumin in it alongside coriander, cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, and cloves, among other spices. Just like with the spices already mentioned, you should start with half the amount of garam masala as cumin called for when using it as a cumin substitute.
Paprika has its own distinctive flavor, and smoked paprika has a smokiness that makes it a great substitute for ground cumin. It can be used in place of cumin since they both have the same smoky quality.
For those who would prefer to have less spice in the dish, smoked paprika is a great choice, as it carries very little heat. Some people intentionally leave out the cumin to get rid of the heat. If that’s the case, adding smoked paprika to retain some extra flavor is a great choice.
If you would like to retain the smoke and heat of cumin, then substitute two parts of smoked paprika to 1 part straight chili powder. The purpose of the chili powder is to add a touch of heat that will make up for the lack of cumin, rather than using only straight paprika.
8. Chipotle Seasoning
If you’re looking for a cumin substitute that combines smokiness and a little touch of heat, then chipotle seasoning is the right call. A seasoning that is easily found in every home which enjoys Mexican cuisine, it is one spice blend that can even be made at home.
A typical composition of chipotle seasoning is sweet chipotle, smoked paprika, thyme, oregano, cumin, and several other spices blended together to give a unique, earthy flavor. Though the flavor will not be identical to that of cumin, it will be a good substitute in southwestern dishes that can benefit from this flavor profile.
To substitute chipotle seasoning, the rule of thumb is to add a small amount at first to taste. Add more and repeat. Every chipotle seasoning is a bit different, so this is the best way to get a flavor that is noticeable without it being too overpowering.
9. Oregano and Coriander
This is the last option on the list. It is another available spice that can serve as a substitute for cumin. Oregano, when used straight, is usually associated with Italian or Mediterranean dishes, but it is also present in many spice-mixes used in global cuisines.
If you have oregano at home and desire to use it in place of cumin, try this: for every teaspoon of cumin, mix in 1 teaspoon of oregano and 1 teaspoon of coriander. This blend of spices will make for a nice flavor that replicates that of cumin and does not taste out of place in your dish.
Summary – Using a Cumin substitute
Cumin—which is one of the most popular species in the world—should not be difficult to find anywhere. If for any reason you don’t have cumin around, these above-mentioned spices similar to cumin can all serve as good substitutes. You may have to modify the recipes a bit, but that should not be much of a problem.
One good rule of thumb to remember is that when it comes to these spices, you need to start with less and add more until you get your desired flavor. If you don’t do so, you might end up adding too much to your dish, which will either cause you to start all over again or to suck it up and eat something that has a flavor you were not looking for at all.
One thing about cumin substitutes is that cumin is not so difficult to find as it’s in so many spice mixes that are just lying around in the kitchen. Check your cupboards and I’m sure you’ll find the perfect cumin substitute for your dish!