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April​/May 2012

Getting to Know: Seeds

You may think seeds belong in the garden, but one look around a well-stocked kitchen proves otherwise.

Pumpkin Seeds

The whole white seeds are sold for snacking; the green hulled versions (pepitas) are popular in Mexico, where they are often ground up for mole sauces. Our tasters described the seeds as having a pleasant “vegetal” taste. To roast pumpkin seeds, spread them out on a lightly oiled rimmed baking sheet, bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, and season with salt and pepper while still hot.

Coriander Seeds

These “seeds” are actually the dried fruits of the coriander plant, which also gives us the herb cilantro. Their “citrusy” flavor enhances spice crusts for meat and fish, and whole seeds are used in pickling. To bring out its flavor, toast coriander in a dry skillet over medium heat for a few minutes, until it’s fragrant. Place a splatter screen over the skillet to keep the seeds from popping out of the pan.

Sesame Seeds

Look for them on a bagel, in a stir-fry, as a crust for salmon, or ground into tahini. They came to the United States with slaves, who called them benne seeds. The seeds can be grayish ivory, brown, red, or black and are used in both savory and sweet recipes. Their “nutty,” subtle “honey” quality suits candies, granola, bread, and sweets, like the classic Southern benne wafers.

Cumin Seeds

Cumin seeds are used in cuisines from India to Asia, Mexico to North Africa, playing a role in both curry blends and chili powders. In America, we often use cumin in its ground form in chili, barbecue sauces, and rubs. Cumin seeds, which resemble caraway, can also add toastiness, crunch, and a distinctive “woodsy aroma” to vegetables like sautéed snap peas or roasted beets.


Health food nuts love these seeds because they’re rich in omega-3 fatty acids. The seeds can be toasted, sprouted, or ground; they’re most easily digested when eaten ground. Grind them (and other seeds) in a coffee grinder or in a mortar and pestle. Flaxseeds have a “wheaty,” “earthy” flavor, making them a nice addition to whole-grain breads. Store them in the refrigerator or freezer.

Poppy Seeds

While they come from the same plant that produces opium, we’re interested in poppy seeds for their “peppery,” “smoky-sweet” flavor, as our tasters described it. Eastern Europeans love them in pastries; in the U.S., we know them from baked treats that have emigrated from that same neck of the woods: bagels, challah, and pretzels. Also, try them in coleslaw, egg noodles, salad dressing, and to add crunch to lemon–poppy seed muffins.

Mustard Seeds

These small, acrid seeds put the punch into prepared mustard, be it Dijon, yellow, or whole grain. Whole mustard seeds—the smaller, hotter brown seeds—are common in Indian cuisine, flavoring vindaloo, chutneys, and samosas. In the United States, we use the yellow mustard seeds for pickling and canning. Natural foods stores, as well as some supermarkets, sell spicy mustard seed sprouts near the bean and alfalfa sprouts.

Caraway Seeds

The Greeks used caraway as a cure for an upset stomach, and it’s no coincidence that the seeds are still often paired with notoriously hard-to-digest foods like cabbage, cream sauces, and cheese. They are pungent and herbaceous (tasters picked up “mint” and even “tobacco”), with a slightly bitter finish, making them a natural with fatty meats and in rye bread.

Anise Seeds

Anise seeds flavor sweets (think biscotti) and such liqueurs as Pernod, pastis, sambuca, and ouzo. They are a close cousin to fennel seeds, which are larger and more savory. Both contain the essential oil anethol, which gives them their licorice flavor. In the test kitchen, we’ve found that one can usually be substituted for the other, although we prefer to bake with the sweeter anise seeds.

Sunflower Seeds

Native Americans cultivated these seeds, collecting them from the huge, bright yellow flowers. Our tasters found them mildly sweet, “dense,” and “creamy.” Remove the black-and-white streaked shell and then eat the light brown seed out of hand or in salads and slaws. Because of children’s peanut allergies, sunflower seed butter has become a common replacement for peanut butter.

Nigella Seeds

Nigella seeds (also called charnushka) are rarely used in this country but are common in India and the Middle East. The seeds have an “oniony” bite and a slightly astringent, “piney” taste. Get to know them sprinkled on rolls in place of poppy or sesame seeds or stirred into a spicy tomato chutney. Be careful when you’re shopping, as they’re often mislabeled as black cumin or black caraway.