Many of the organic compounds that give spices their flavor are volatile, and quickly evaporate once the spice is ground. That's why many cooks prefer to buy their spices whole whenever possible, and grind them only as needed. It's also possible to use some whole spices without grinding. For example, if you're making chili you could substitute whole cumin seeds for all or part of the ground cumin.
Cumin is part of a large and loosely connected family that includes many culinary plants, including parsley, carrots and caraway. Its seeds are thin and slightly curved, and have been used as a spice for thousands of years. Cumin's aroma and flavor are powerful and distinctive, mostly earthy but with complex floral, pine and citrus notes. Toasting the seeds in a dry skillet brightens and deepens their flavors, and has the added benefit of making the seeds both more absorbent and easier to chew. The seeds are used both whole and ground in many cuisines, most notably Indian and Mexican.
Whole Cumin in Chili
Ground cumin is one of the major components of both commercial and homemade chili seasoning mixtures, providing a base of flavor that the other spices build on. Whole cumin is best suited to chili recipes that call for long, slow cooking. The whole seeds release their flavors much more slowly than ground cumin, and slow cooking gives them the time they need to fully flavor the chili. It also provides time for the seeds to soften, making them easier to chew and less obvious to diners.
Adjusting Your Recipe
Whole cumin seeds aren't a direct substitution for ground cumin. Even after slow cooking the whole seeds don't release all of their flavor into the chili, as ground cumin does. That means you'll need to use more. On the other hand, whole cumin tastes stronger because it retains its flavor better in storage. That reduces the amount you need, countering some of the difference between whole and ground. The usual rule of thumb is to increase the cumin by about 25 percent. If your recipe calls for a tablespoon of ground cumin, use 1 1/4 tablespoons of whole cumin seeds.
A Few Tips
Using whole cumin seeds gives the chili a pleasantly mellow, rounded cumin flavor and the seeds themselves provide a textural contrast. You can emphasize that element by garnishing bowls of chili with a light sprinkling of toasted seeds. It's an Indian technique rather than a Mexican one, but still effective. You can also combine whole and ground cumin, adding the whole seeds at the beginning of your cooking time and ground cumin midway. If whole seeds are all you've got, you can easily grind them in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle. They can also be easily crushed with a rolling pin or the bottom of a saucepan, if necessary.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- The New Food Lover's Companion; Sharon Tyler Herbst, Ron Herbst
- The Epicentre: Cumin
- Photo Credit Eising/Photodisc/Getty Images