If you've decided to finally take the plunge and cook your own curries, you've undoubtedly seen that Cumin features heavily in a lot of curry recipes. It's something that you don't want to be without! However, we all run out of ingredients now and again, so you may be wondering what to use instead of Cumin? Well, in this article, I'm going to give you 9 cumin alternatives to try out.
Stuck for Time? | What to use Instead of Cumin? Quick Answer!
The closest you are going to get to Cumin is Caraway. This seed comes from the same plant family as Cumin and has a very similar flavour profile. It isn't identical and tastes a little more of aniseed, but when combined with other spices in a curry will give you a very similar taste.
But you might not have Caraway either… Jump to my list and see the other suggestions.
What is Cumin?
Cumin is a highly fragrant spice. It is derived from using the dried and pulverized seeds of the herb Cuminum Cyminum. It is thought that the plant originates in the Indian subcontinent. Still, its use has spread all the way across to North Africa and central Europe… And beyond! It also features heavily in South and Central American Dishes!
Cumin seeds look a little like wild brown rice, but they are a little skinnier and a little darker. They can be used as whole seeds. You'll often find it marked in Asian supermarkets as Jeera seeds.
To get the best flavour from jeera seeds, they have to be lightly toasted before grinding. This is an easy process. Just add a small quantity to a dry frying pan and warm over medium heat until they darken slightly and become fragrant.
What does Cumin Taste Like?
Cumin has a warm and earthy aroma. It is also ever so slightly spicy and peppery. There is also a minor anise note to Cumin. Cumin, both the seeds and the powder, has a slight citrusy note and is slightly bitter too. Some people have also said that it has a hint of sweetness.
It's actually easier to detect Cumin in South American dishes as it is a dominant spice. In Indian cooking, it features alongside other ingredients, so its flavour might be slightly masked.
Is Cumin and Curry Powder the Same Thing?
Cumin and Curry powder are not the same thing.
Cumin powder is a single ingredient derived entirely from crushed seeds of one plant species. Curry powder is a blend of spices. It's easy to see how people can become confused.
Cumin does feature as an ingredient in many types of curry powder, so it does contain an element of Cumin, but it is not the sole ingredient.
Which Recipes Use Cumin?
If you are looking at curry recipes that contain Cumin, the answer is a lot of them… Here's a quick list of some of the curries that require Cumin to be used as an ingredient…
And many more…
The truth is that any Indian recipe that uses either a curry powder or a basaar mix powder will contain an element of Cumin.
Cumin is also used in other cuisines globally. The most famous I can think of is chilli con Carne and chipotle based Central and South American dishes. That little seed has travelled far and wide!
What to Use Instead of Cumin | 9 Alternatives
So you need to get some cumin into the taste of your dish, but there doesn't seem to be any readily at hand?
Fear not. Here is a list of 9 alternatives that you can use instead. Some are more effective than others and will have varying results. It all depends on what you have on hand…
The coriander plant is another that is in the Apiaceae family. Like the cumin plant, it is in the parsley family, so it will share a similar flavour profile.
Fresh Coriander (or Cilantro) has a zesty fresh taste, but it isn't the leaves we are interested in.
We want the seeds.
If you have coriander seeds, you can gently toast them and ground them to make coriander powder. Just like Cumin, coriander seeds have elements of citrus, pepper and a really earthy taste.
You'll often find curry dishes that feature both cumin and coriander powders. This is because the flavours are not too dissimilar and complement each other really well.
Here's another from the Apiaceae family. You'll often hear Caraway referred to as 'fennel', but here is an interesting fact… Its Greek name is Karon… Can you guess what this translates to?
That's right… cumin!
Names aside, caraway seeds also contain an earthy flavour with elements of citrus. The predominant taste is of delicate anise, so use sparingly; otherwise, you'll have a curry that tastes of Caraway and little else.
Contrary to popular belief, fennel is not the same as Caraway! It is a separate plant species related to the carrot. The bulb of the fennel plant can be eaten as a vegetable.
In this instance, we are interested in the seeds.
Fennel seeds look like a lighter and fatter version of cumin seeds. They are also pretty strong with a really rich aniseed taste. You can toast the seeds and grind them up. Like Cumin, they taste slightly bitter with a hint of sweetness. Use really sparingly if you go for this option.
Chilli Con Carne Powder
Remember how I said that Cumin is used in Mexican cooking?
If you like a good chilli con Carne, you'll already be familiar with the smell of Cumin wafting from the kitchen as this is one of the main ingredients…
Now, this one is a little bit experimental but will definitely add the flavour of Cumin to your curry. I wouldn't advise using a whole sachet of chilli con carne poweder. Still, a teaspoon or so should make an ideal cumin substitute and give you the flavour you seek.
Some curry powders feature Cumin as one of the main ingredients, so if you add enough, you will get the required amount of Cumin into your dish. The only downside is that you also get all of the other curry powder ingredients as well!
Try and see what other ingredients are included in the curry powder. You might get lucky and find that the spices used are already similar to what you were going to add individually anyway!
Garam masala actually translates from Urdu as 'hot spice blend'. One of the predominant ingredients is Cumin. Suppose you have any garam masala in your pantry. In that case, you'll probably notice that it is made up of quite a few spiced that have a similar flavour profile to Cumin.
Garam masala normally includes coriander powder, along with ground up cloves and cinnamon. Use the same quantity of garam masala as you would Cumin. I find this to be one of the best alternatives when I'm wondering what to use instead of Cumin.
Ok, this is a bit of a cheat option, as this is supposed to be a list of what to use instead of Cumin. But for a long time, I was completely unaware that jeera and Cumin were exactly the same things.
And I used to work in an Indian restaurant… Duh.
To save you the embarrassment of adding a cumin substitute when you've actually got a whole jar of jeera seeds on the shelf, I thought I'd better mention it.
This is one that you definitely want to use sparingly, and for the love of God, don't use Kashmiri chilli powder as this is super fiery!
If you can stand the heat, Chilli powder is also a little citrusy and can add depth of flavour to your dish. Use about ¼ of the amount of Cumin required in the recipe. If your dish already contains chilli, then give it a miss; otherwise, you might end up regretting it…
I gave this one a whirl once… I suspect the reason it worked is that I couldn't taste anything by the end! Luckily I've got a few tips to cool down a hot curry.
Last on my list of what to use instead of Cumin is paprika. Paprika is made from ground and dried red peppers. It shares many similarities with Cumin. It is a little bit sweet, very earthy and also has a citrus note.
And here is the best bit…
It won't burn like chilli powder and will give you a lovely red colour to your dish. Simply use the same amount of paprika as you would Cumin.
Cumin Alternatives | Final Thoughts…
While Cumin features heavily in Indian dishes, it is rarely used in isolation, so don't worry too much if you don't have any. The flavour of your dish isn't going to be drastically different. Knowing what to use instead of Cumin is about picking herbs or spices that are similar in profile. Obviously, they aren't going to be identical. Have you got any other alternatives to Cumin? Why not drop me a message, and I'll add it to the list!