How to Use Nigella Seeds

Often confused with other flavorings, nigella seeds have a distinctive flavor all their own.

Judging by their many colloquial names, tiny black nigella seeds are one of the most-confused flavorings on the spice rack, referred to variously as “black cumin,” “black caraway,” “onion seed,” and “black sesame.” Though they share some flavor and aroma notes with these other spices, they're not closely related to any of them. Instead, the seeds, which are used throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, are harvested from Nigella sativa, a plant native to the Mediterranean. Besides the aforementioned flavors, they feature piney, menthol notes, along with an underlying bitterness that helps explain why they're almost always left whole. (When they're ground, their bitterness predominates.)

In the Middle East, nigella seeds are added to breads and baked goods to give them a savory boost. In India (where they're called kalonji), they're often added to naan. In Armenian cuisine, the spice is used to flavor string cheese. And in eastern India (Bengal), Bangladesh, and Nepal, nigella is one element in the five-spice mixture panch phoran (along with equal parts fenugreek, cumin, black mustard seeds, and fennel seeds) and is often used to flavor stews.

But don't stop there. Nigella seeds can add an herby-oniony flavor to all sorts of dishes. Try sprinkling them over salad, vegetables (potato dishes especially), or fish or adding them to rice pilaf, lentils, and chicken or lamb braises.


Add these oniony, aromatic seeds to everything from baked goods to potatoes, pilaf, and braises.

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