This earthy, warm spice has been used around the world for centuries. Which product should you add to your spice cabinet?
Published Apr. 1, 2018. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 13: Beef Kebabs and Cheese Bread
Cumin has held a notable place both in and out of the kitchen throughout history. The ancient Greeks used it as medicine, and ancient Romans kept it on their dining tables the way modern Americans do pepper, according to The Grammar of Spice by Caz Hildebrand (2017). Today, cumin’s earthy flavor and pungent aroma add depth and warmth to dishes from around the world, such as those in Tex-Mex, Latin, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, and Asian cuisines. In the test kitchen, we add it to spice rubs for pork, steak, chicken, and shrimp; stir it into chili, hummus, and tacos; and sprinkle it on potatoes, pasta, and more.
Cumin seeds are harvested from the annual plant Cuminum cyminum, which is a member of the parsley family. India is the main producer of cumin, but other sources include Turkey and Iran. When the seeds are ready to be harvested, about four months after planting, the entire plant is pulled from the ground and repeatedly thrashed to release the seeds. The seeds are then dried in the sun. In the case of ground cumin, they are processed into a powder.
But does it matter which cumin you cook with? To find out, we sampled five supermarket products, ranging in price from $0.85 to $5.32 per ounce. We focused on ground cumin since we use it more often than whole cumin seeds in our recipes. First, we tasted the cumin raw in a carrot and chickpea salad. Then, we heated the cumin in olive oil before tossing it with white rice. Finally, we tasted it in a spice rub applied to pan-seared chicken breasts.
We quickly noticed that how the cumins were prepared mattered. In the salad, where the cumin wasn’t heated, all the products tasted similar. But once we cooked with them—in the oil and on the chicken—their differences became much more pronounced.
In cooked dishes, tasters preferred cumins that were potent but not bitter. Heating spices in fat is known as blooming. This process enhances spices’ flavor, so we weren’t surprised when the flavors of the cumins we tasted were intensified by heating. But all flavor compounds get exaggerated by heat, and some of the cumins became slightly too bitter for tasters once they were cooked. Bitterness can be the result of natural factors (such as the weather, the soil, or the strain of cumin used) and/or differences in processing methods. Our top‑rated cumins were robust and flavorful without being bitter, both when heated and when raw; tasters called them “earthy,” “warm,” “bright,” “sweet,” and “floral.”
We think of ground cumin as a fine powder; however, tasters picked up on textural differences, calling some products “gritty.” We examined samples of eac...
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Carolyn is a senior editor for ATK Reviews. She's a French-trained professional baker.