Everything You Need to Know About Cardamom

From what it tastes like to where to buy it, here's an introduction to cooking with this distinct and deliciously fragrant spice.

Close-Up Of Cardamom In Container On Table
Photo: Michelle Arnold / EyeEm

From the highly perfumed and deeply flavored dishes of India, to the sweet buns and breads of the Nordic countries, to sweet and savory dishes (as well as flavored teas and coffees) in the Middle East, cardamom has made its presence felt around the world. Its strong and distinct flavor plays equally well in both the sweet and the savory.

What Is Cardamom?

The spice we call cardamom ( Elettaria/ Amomum) is the tiny seed, encased in a small pod, from the family Zingiberaceae. It grows in tropical, and subtropical Asia, as well as Guatemala. There are basically two types: green (white cardamom is just green cardamom that has been bleached) and black. The white/green cardamom is the most frequently used. Black cardamom is less common and the taste is much stronger, with a smoky and camphor-like profile. Cardamom has been used for centuries as a spice in cooking, as well as a medicine. Whole pods can be simmered in dishes with liquid components (and removed/not eaten, though no harm should come to you if you accidentally swallow a pod!). The ground seeds can be used in simmered dishes and consumed. Powdered cardamom seeds are most often called for in baked goods.

What Does Cardamom Taste Like?

Though hard to describe, most cooks agree that cardamom has a very distinct, strong taste. The predominant flavor is piney and resinous, with a hint of mint.

What Is Cardamom Used For?

For many, cardamom is synonymous with Indian food. Many Indian spice blends contain it, and, at the end of an Indian meal, it's not uncommon to have amassed a pile of cardamom pods at the edge of the plate. The pods have given their flavor to the dish, and while harmless, the spent pods are not pleasant to eat. In Scandinavian countries, the whole or powdered seeds are a predominant flavor in many baked goods. And in the Middle East, teas and coffees are often flavored with a bit of cardamom. Many other Middle eastern dishes, both sweet and savory, benefit from cardamom's perfume and strong flavor.

Purchasing Cardamom

If you have access to an Indian market, that is my go-to place for purchasing cardamom. I recommend buying whole pods unless you're baking. In that case, buy small amounts of the powdered spice. (Or, if you don't mind a bit of crunch, you can crush the seeds yourself.) The whole pods will stay potent and fragrant much longer than either seeds or powder. You can also purchase cardamom online or at the grocery store.

What's a Good Substitute for Cardamom?

In truth, there are no perfect substitutes for this distinctive spice. But you can at least hint at some of the component flavors with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Your own taste buds must dictate the blend of those spices. Additionally, I think a tiny pinch of galangal can also move it in the right direction. However, that is my own personal addition, and I've yet to find anyone else who agrees with me; all taste is intensely personal, after all.

Cardamom is an assertive flavor, and it's well worth experimenting with, if you aren't familiar with it. As always, start with a tiny pinch — you can always add more.

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