Cardamom isn’t just one spice, it’s at least two. Green cardamom perfumes sweet and savory foods alike with its complex aroma. Its lesser-known relative, black cardamom, is an equal powerhouse of fragrance and flavor but with a different kind of boldness. We call for both in our recipe for Keema (Garam Masala–Spiced Ground Beef). Here’s the lowdown on each (and on less commonly used white cardamom).
Cardamom (aka Green/Yellow/True Cardamom)
Tasting Notes: Potent fragrance; high notes of citrus and mint
What It Is: These greenish-yellow pods of the Elettaria cardamomum plant are the most expensive spice after saffron and vanilla. The edible shells contain seeds that hold the bulk of the essential oils and give the spice its intense menthol fragrance; minty, citrusy bite; and whisper of sweetness. Greener pods mean an earlier harvest date and cost more; riper yellow pods may taste sweeter (and are sometimes preferred for that reason). Both can contribute potent flavor and fragrance to food.
How to Shop for It: Green cardamom is sold as whole pods, ground, and as seeds alone. To preserve more volatile flavor compounds, buy whole pods and grind them as needed. Look for intact pods, which offer more protection to the seeds inside.
How to Cook with It: Steep whole pods (lightly crush them to release more flavor) in liquid where flavor can be slowly extracted over time. For greater potency, grind whole pods, and for even more potent flavor, extract the seeds and grind them on their own (the seeds can also be used whole or crushed).
Traditional Uses: Spice blends, baked goods, Turkish and Arabic coffee
Black Cardamom (aka Large Cardamom, Nepal Cardamom, Hill Cardamom)
Tasting Notes: Rich, smoky aroma and earthy, resinous flavors
What It Is: Like green cardamom, this spice is part of the Zingiberaceae family but a different genus. The varietal Amomum subulatum is widely used on the Indian subcontinent, mainly in savory applications. Traditionally dried over an open flame, the pods have a rich, smoky aroma and a bold, eucalyptus-like flavor. Another varietal, Amomum tsao-ko, is used in Chinese and Vietnamese cooking.
How to Shop for It: Black cardamom is sold mainly as whole pods in South Asian markets and specialty spice shops.
How to Cook with It: Treat black cardamom like green cardamom, but with one exception: To capitalize on smoky flavor (found mostly in the husk), cook with or grind the whole pod.
Traditional Uses: Spice blends, rice and vegetable dishes, meaty stews and braises, pho
Tasting notes: Faded flavors due to bleaching
What It Is: The spice referred to as white cardamom is simply green cardamom that’s been bleached, which supposedly makes it sweeter. (Our tests found that bleaching mutes the flavor overall.) Some sources suggest that the practice began centuries ago in Scandinavia, when cardamom arrived by sea from Asia sun‑bleached and with an altered flavor that Scandinavians came to like.
How to Shop for It: White cardamom is sold mainly as whole pods in specialty spice shops.
How to Cook With It: Treat white cardamom similarly to green cardamom.
Traditional Uses: Scandinavian and northern European baked goods