What Can You Substitute for Cumin: Here’re Some Spices to Try

by Rosemarie Hardison
substitute for cumin

We’ve all been there. You’re trying out a new curry recipe, and you suddenly realize you’re out of cumin. Instead of rushing to the store, you might find yourself wondering if there is a substitute for cumin you can use. Well, look no further.

Any fan of Asian and Latin cuisine knows the holy grail that is cumin. This aromatic spice serves as the base of many soups, curries, daals, and dips. It has a very potent earthy taste and gives each dish a special kick.

Because of this very specific flavor, you might think it’s quite hard to substitute it. However, there are a plethora of spices you can use as a replacement, and still get an equally tasty dish.

So, if your pantry currently isn’t stocking this spice, keep reading to find out what spices you can use as a substitute for cumin.

Cumin: A Brief History


Apart from being delicious, cumin also has a long and storied history. This nifty spice is produced from the dried seeds of the Cuminum cyminum plant.

The plant originated in South Asia and belongs to the parsley family. The seeds were used in a variety of cuisines for thousands of years. Some archeologists have even uncovered remnants of cumin seeds in the submerged ruins of Atlit-Yam.

This ancient ruin is a Neolithic settlement that is approximately 8900-8300 years old! You know a spice is something special when even your early ancestors had it in stock.

Cumin continued to be popular in the following years as well. Ancient Egyptians used it both in cooking, as well as an ingredient in the embalming oils used to preserve mummies.

Ancient Greeks kept it in separate containers and used it like we use pepper today. Furthermore, cooks in India used it as a staple in most meals, as well as a base for many of their iconic spice blends.

The cumin craze even engulfed the Americas. Spanish and Portuguese colonists introduced this spice to the continent, where it was quickly adopted as a key ingredient in many spreads, sauces, marinades, and soups. Cumin was so popular that it appeared in both the Old and New Testaments!

Nowadays, cumin is a staple across a variety of cuisines such as African, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Latin. It has a warm, slightly earthy taste that goes especially well with foods that are on the spicier side. The largest producers of cumin are China, India, and Mexico, and the fragrant spice is widely available in grocery stores all over the world.

Types of Cumin

types of cumin

Cumin can come in two forms:

  • Whole cumin seeds
  • Ground cumin

Both varieties pop up in many dishes, but certain cuisines prefer one over the other. For example, whole cumin is much more common in Indian dishes. Whole seeds are added to the hot oil at the start of the cooking process as a base.

The oil helps the seeds release their natural flavor and the heat infuses it into the oil. Roasting the seeds a bit longer helps bring out the flavor even further, and gives Indian dishes their signature fragrant aroma.

In contrast, ground cumin is more common in Latin cuisine. It’s made by grinding dry roasted cumin seeds. The ground variety is a very convenient flavor booster because you don’t need to roast it for it to add that special fragrant kick to a dish.

The downside is that grinding the seeds makes them lose flavor, especially if they sit in the pantry for long periods. Therefore, it’s important to regularly replace your ground cumin to ensure maximum taste.

How to Cook with Cumin

cook with cumin

Cumin is a versatile spice, and how you use it will depend on the recipe. If a recipe calls for whole cumin seeds, you’ll need to use them at the start. You’re going to add them to a hot broth, or oil and roast them so that they have time to release their flavor. That aroma will then infuse with the rest of the dish.

In contrast, ground cumin is something you’ll use in homemade spice blends, salads, or marinades and rubs. You can combine it with other spices and oils, and massage the mixture into cuts of meat, or drizzle it over some veggies or pulses you want to roast.

If you want to maximize the flavor and grind up whole seeds yourself, then you’re going to have to adjust the amounts, and use less. Ground cumin has a much more concentrated taste than whole cumin seeds. Therefore, if you’re using ground cumin in a recipe that calls for whole cumin seeds, add 1 tablespoon of ground cumin for every 1 1/14 of a tablespoon of whole seeds.

As mentioned, cumin is very versatile. Not only does it make the base of many traditional dishes like curries, daals, and dips, it also pops up as a part of other dishes. It’s a key spice in Middle Eastern falafel, Mexican fajitas, and even some hummus flavors.

You can add it to many other dishes that don’t call for it if you want to enhance the flavor. Cumin pairs well with hearty meats like beef and pork. It’s the perfect booster for oven-roasted veggies like eggplant and zucchini, or in dishes that call for a citrus flavor combination.

However, if you’re currently out of cumin, fear not. There are quite a few substitutes for cumin you can use to replace, without sacrificing the flavor.

A List of Substitutes for Cumin

There are two ways you can substitute for cumin in recipes. You can do this with specific spices or spice blends that contain cumin.

Specific Spices You Can Use as a Substitute For Cumin

1. Caraway Seeds

caraway seeds

Starting this list is a spice so similar to cumin, many often mistake it for cumin. This is not surprising, since they both come from the same family of root vegetables as carrots and parsley. The two are so similar, when translating recipes, many translate jeera, the Indian term for cumin, as caraway seeds. But don’t be fooled.

Cumin is the spice of choice in Asian dishes, while caraway seeds are fairly European, with Finland and The Netherlands being the top producers. Furthermore, while the two look similar, there are ways to tell them apart. For one, caraway seeds are a much darker brown than cumin and they have five ridges along their length.

Lastly, you can easily tell them apart by their taste. Cumin is all warm, earthy notes, with a bitter, buttery aftertaste. In contrast, caraway seeds aren’t quite as bitter, and they have a refreshing, zesty aftertaste that is very similar to anise.

However, since the spice is a cousin to cumin and it provides a similar enough flavor profile, it can serve as a good substitute.

Furthermore, caraway seeds have numerous health benefits. They can reduce inflammation and aid with menstrual cramps in women. They also encourage good gut bacteria growth, which in turn helps digestion. But, to get the most benefits out of caraway seeds, you have to make sure you’re using the right amount.

When replacing cumin with caraway seeds, keep in mind that it is milder than cumin. So when substituting, start by using half the amount of caraway for the specified amount of cumin.

If you feel like the recipe needs more, feel free to adjust the amounts from there. Also, if you want to up the smoky aftertaste, use ½ teaspoons of caraway with a pinch of paprika powder to replace a teaspoon of cumin.

2. Coriander Seeds

coriander seeds

Another cousin to cumin, coriander seeds can serve as an excellent substitute as well. Both belong to the same family of root vegetables as parsley, with coriander coming from cilantro leaves. The seeds cilantro makes are dried and ground in a powder that is used frequently in Latin and Indian cuisines.

Much like cumin, coriander has a similar, earthy flavor profile. However, coriander offers a distinctly sweet aftertaste, and lacks a lot of cumin’s bitterness. Furthermore, coriander also doesn’t have the spicy note cumin often imparts onto most dishes. But this unique blend makes it a good substitute for cumin, especially in Indian dishes.

Just like caraway seeds, coriander has a lot of health benefits. It’s a powerful antioxidant that helps support skin health. It’s also a good source of calcium and a variety of vitamins like A and C, all of which help maintain a good immune system and bone health. Similarly to caraway seeds, the amount of coriander you use is important.

When using coriander as a substitute for cumin, keep in mind that it will change the flavor of the dish more than things like caraway seeds. Coriander is much sweeter, and less spicy so the dish might turn out milder if you use coriander.

Therefore when substituting, consider adding a dash of chili powder of cayenne pepper along with ½ teaspoons of coriander for that extra bit of heat.

3. Fennel Seeds

fennel seeds

Like cumin, fennel seeds are an integral part of a lot of Indian dishes. Like caraway seeds, fennel also belongs to the same family of root plants as cumin. They look alike as well, so many people tend to mistake fennel for cumin. However, there are some key differences between them in terms of taste and how they’re used in cooking.

First, fennel seeds have a sweet flavor, with a strong lemony aftertaste akin to anise seeds. Some even say that fennel seeds infuse dishes with a taste similar to Licorice. For this reason, fennel seeds work well in both sweet and savory dishes. In contrast, since cumin has that specific bitterness, it’s mostly confined to savory dishes.

While the two seeds look very similar in shape, you can tell them apart based on their size and color. Fennel seeds are slightly larger and have a green tinge to them, while cumin seeds are smaller, harder, and have a rich brown color.

Moreover, fennel seeds have unique health benefits. They effectively lower blood pressure and help improve eyesight. They’re also an excellent spice for those who suffer from constipation since they support a healthy digestive tract. However, the amount of fennel seeds you use matters here.

Since fennel seeds have a distinctly sweet aftertaste, out of all these substitutes, they will likely affect the flavor the most. For this reason, adding half the amount of fennel for the specified amount of cumin to a dish is key. It’s also crucial to use a dash of paprika with fennel to mimic the earthy smokiness of cumin.

Spice Blends You Can Use as a Substitute for Cumin

1. Garam Masala

garam masala

Garam masala is an absolute powerhouse. Translated as ‘hot spice mix’, this spice blend is almost always a key ingredient in Indian curries. South African dishes frequently use the blend as well, to enhance the flavor of their soups and stews.

The reason why garam masala is a good cumin substitute is that it contains cumin as an ingredient. The spice blend is most commonly composed of what is known as the five c’s: cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves.

The mixture of these unique spices gives garam masala the earthy taste of cumin in conjunction with the sweetness of coriander, and the zest of cardamom pods.

Because the blend has so many different spices and herbs, it’s also incredibly healthy. It helps with digestion and can manage nausea. Furthermore, it helps boost metabolism, as well as reduce bloating. Not to mention that consuming it regularly can keep your breath fresh.

Since many curry recipes also call for garam masala along with cumin, the blend is quite the convenient substitute. However, since the spice mix also imparts notes of lemony sweetness, it’s important to watch the amount. When using it in place of cumin, start with ½ teaspoons of garam masala for every teaspoon of cumin.

2. Chili Powder

chili powder

An irreplaceable ingredient in most spicy dishes, chili powder is a staple of Latin cuisine. Many think of this spice as something derived from dried chili peppers, but this is not the case. Chili powder is actually a spice blend. Just like garam masala, it also contains cumin. Therefore it can serve as a good substitute for cumin.

Recipes for chili powder vary, but the most common ingredients found in the blend are: paprika powder, garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, oregano, and cayenne pepper. This makes it quite different from the other substitutes since it provides the bitter herbal flavor of oregano, the umami of garlic and onion, and the heat of the cayenne.

The unique traits extend to the health benefits chili powder has. Good quality chili has solid amounts of Vitamin A and C, as well as essential minerals like copper and iron. Both of these help maintain a healthy immune system and prevent anemia. Furthermore, since chili powder increases blood flow, it can minimize symptoms of dementia.

Like all the other substitutes for cumin mentioned above, the amount of chili you use is important. Since the spice blend provides such a unique flavor profile, it will change a dish’s taste significantly.

For this reason, it can substitute cumin in dishes that require a lot of heat, like chilis or baked beans. However, for Middle Eastern dishes that require that earthy aftertaste, chili powder is a no-go.

3. Curry Powder

curry powder

Curry powder is synonymous with Indian dishes. This incredible aromatic spice mix is a blend of over twenty different herbs and spices! While the ingredient list will vary, mustard seeds, coriander, cumin, ginger, and turmeric are often the base of the blend.

Once again, the presence of cumin means that curry powder imparts a warm, earthy flavor to dishes. This earthiness is undercut with some zest from the ginger as well as sweetness from the turmeric and coriander. Turmeric also gives curry powder its vibrant yellow color, so adding curry as a substitute for cumin will change the color of the dish.

Because it’s a blend of so many spices, curry powder boasts a variety of health benefits. Many claim that the vibrant spice mix combats liver toxicity. It is also praised for its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Some even claim it helps with pain relief.

When using it as a substitute for cumin keep in mind that it will add a more zesty, buttery flavor to your dish. Therefore start with 1/2 teaspoons of curry powder for every teaspoon of cumin, and adjust from there. As mentioned, curry contains turmeric. Therefore, if you don’t want your dish to turn yellow, then consider using other suggested substitutes in place of curry powder.

In Summary

Cumin is an incredibly versatile and decadent spice. It has a rich history and it was used all over the world. Though it serves as the base for many traditional dishes like curry, fried beans, or aloo matar, it is possible to use substitute for cumin.

You can use specific spices like caraway seeds, or maybe spice blends that contain cumin, such as garam masala. Keep in mind that each substitute will offer a different flavor profile so adjusting the amounts is very advisable.

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