What Is Caraway and How Do I Use It?

You may associate caraway exclusively with rye bread, but trust us — there's so much more to this flavor-loaded spice.

Close-Up Of Caraway Seeds In Old Spoon On Wooden Table
Photo: Michelle Arnold / EyeEm / Getty Images

Caraway is one of my favorite additions to all sorts of foods. It's pungent flavor and perfume can bring a surprising depth to anything from meat dishes to baked goods. Though the spice resembles cumin, be aware that the taste is very different.

What Is Caraway?

A flowering plant in the family Apiaceae, caraway is a native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia. Its close relatives are carrots, fennel, and cumin. You'll note that I avoided calling the spice caraway seed. That's because what we commonly refer to as "caraway seed" is actually the fruit of the plant. Though we most often use the tiny fruit, the leaves and roots are also edible, and much used in many cuisines around the world.

What Does Caraway Taste Like?

Caraway has a very pungent aroma and taste. The flavor of anise or licorice is the dominant one, with hints of citrus and pepper contributing brightness and warmth. There is also a bittersweet quality that somewhat mitigates the licorice note, and keeps it from overpowering all of the other flavors.

What Is Caraway Used For?

In the U.S., we most commonly associate caraway with rye (or dark rye) breads. The rest of the world uses caraway in myriad applications. Desserts, baked goods, and liquors (such as Aquavit) are at the top of the list. Sauerkraut, harissa, stews, casseroles, and as a flavoring for beef and pork come next. Long simmering dishes can often benefit from the backbone a bit of caraway contributes.The root is often treated as other root vegetables (it's similar to parsnips), and the leaves can be used as an herb in soups, salads, and stews. The Middle East boasts many traditional cakes and pastries that count caraway as a major ingredient. Caraway is also, somewhat surprisingly, used in many perfumes, soaps, and lotions.

Where to Buy Caraway

Caraway "seeds" are easy to find in any grocery store, spice shop, and online. But if you want to try using the leaves and the roots, you'll need to grow your own. Even at farmer's markets, I have never seen the leaves or roots for sale. However, it is an easy plant to grow, even in cooler climates — if you take care to cover the plants during the coldest months.

What Can I Substitute for Caraway?

Though, as with most spices, there is no perfect substitute for caraway, a number of other spices can give you a fairly close approximation. Not surprisingly, anise seeds, fennel seeds, and star anise will get you moving in the right (licorice-like) direction. Dill and coriander seeds will give you the brightness of caraway, but without any of the strong licorice notes the others bring. So, you might consider combining some or all of the above to create a blend that you like.

I prepare a lot of vegetables for meals. And I have found, over the years, there are a few spices that, without masking the flavor of the vegetables, seem to add to and elevate them. Caraway is the one that I reach for most frequently. I find the flavor quite addictive; though I'm not a big fan of licorice, caraway brings so much flavor to the party beyond licorice, it has become an almost daily element of my cooking. As you experiment with caraway, be aware that a little goes a long way — but that little bit will surprise and delight you.


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