Here is a first in a new series of posts all about Indian spices.  There is no doubt that Indian cooking uses a large array of spices and it can be overwhelming when one is first learning to cook.  What are the spices, how do you use them?  Where do you get them and how do you store them?  All these questions will be answered for each and every spice in a recipe (an ongoing project).  Check back under the new category “The Indian Spice Cabinet” to learn everything you wanted to know…and probably much more…about the spices used in these recipes.

Cumin seeds are often the first ingredients added in a lot of the dishes I cook.  These light brown seeds have a warm flavor and just a touch of bitterness.  I use the whole seeds as a base in many of my dishes, roasting them in hot oil where they can release their nutty aroma and create a great flavor foundation.

Cumin seeds are also known as: Jeera (Hindi), sometimes spelled Zeera


Cumin Powder

Cumin powder is often called for in addition to the seeds.  To make your own cumin powder, grind them using a coffee grinder set aside specifically for grinding spices.  You can also dry roast them and then grind them for a more enhanced flavor.  Ground spices have the most amount of flavor when they are freshly ground and immediately start to lose their potency. It’s much better to grind your own spices at home rather than purchasing pre-ground spices and to only grind as much you need for about a week.  Store the ground spices in an air tight container in a dark dry place such as your cabinet.  If you would rather purchase pre-ground cumin powder it can be purchased at an Indian grocery store for the most economical cost but if you don’t have any Indian grocery store near you, it can also be found at any major grocery store.


How To Use

Cumin seeds can be used whole for frying, or ground into a fine powder to be used alongside other spices. They can also be dry roasted to bring out extra flavor and then ground into a powder for a deeper and stronger taste.


Used Whole for frying

This is usually done at the beginning of a dish where you heat the cooking oil over medium-high heat and once the oil ripples on top from the heat, drop the whole cumin seeds into the oil and let them sizzle and splutter, waiting only about 5 seconds for them to turn just a shade or two darker.  If the seeds do not immediately sizzle when they hit the oil, the oil was not hot enough.  If the seeds are dropped into oil that is too hot or they are left to fry too long they will burn and become pungent and bitter.  It is best to throw out burnt cumin seeds and start again with fresh oil.




Ground into Cumin Powder

Cumin powder is called for in many recipes.  You can buy store-bought cumin powder and keep it in an air-tight container in your cabinet or drawer.  However, freshly ground spices have the highest amount of flavor and will make a great difference in the finished product.  As soon as whole spices are ground they immediately begin to lose their flavor so it’s best to only grind as much spice as you need for the week

A coffee grinder is the best tool for quickly grinding your own spices.  Get a coffee grinder that is set aside for only grinding spices.  Do not grind spices and coffee beans in the same grinder, the resulting flavors will mix and be bad for both your cooking and your coffee!


Dry Roasting

Dry roast the seeds by putting a small pan over medium-high heat and stir or swish constantly until you smell the aroma of roasting spices (about a minute). Again, they will turn bitter if burned.

Remove from heat and let cool and grind them in a coffee grinder.


How to Store

Keep in an airtight container in a dry place like a cabinet or drawer. Whole seeds keep well seemingly forever.  Ground spices lose their freshness upon grinding.  The powder will keep just fine but the flavor becomes less and less.  Ideally, you should only grind right before cooking, however many people don’t have the time.  I like to grind my everyday spices like cumin at the beginning of the week.  However when I was first learning to cook and for many years after, I bought pre-ground cumin powder.  You might need to use a bit more powder than the recipe calls for as there is less flavor.


Where to Buy

Any Indian grocery store carries both whole and ground cumin at a wonderfully affordable price.  I have seen both whole and ground cumin at Safeway and Whole Foods so it should be available at most major grocery stores.  However, it’s at a much higher price. You probably will get only a fifth of what you would get at the Indian store.



 Check out these recipes recipes which use cumin seeds.

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