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What is Cumin?

Cumin is a little seed that packs a big flavor into a variety of dishes from several cuisines. This spice is a must-have ingredient in your kitchen! Read more below to find out why.

Cumin seeds in a bowl, with a wooden spoon also holding cumin seeds right next to the bowl.


What Exactly Is Cumin?

Cumin is a spice that belongs to the parsley family. More specifically, it comes from the dried seed of an herb called Cuminum cyminum. It is featured in many Latin American, Indian, and Middle Eastern dishes and other cuisines. Often, cumin seeds are ground into a brownish-yellow powder for cooking, but whole seeds are also used in some recipes (usually in Indian dishes). It is often included in spice blends, like chili powder or curry powder.

Wondering how to pronounce the word cumin? It is frequently pronounced “kyoo-min,” but you could also say “koo-min” if you prefer.

What Does it Taste Like?

There are different types of cumin with slightly different tastes, but overall, it is a warm, earthy, nutty spice with some bitterness to it. It’s often used in savory dishes, but it can be incorporated into sweet ones too (i.e. with sweet potatoes, fudge, cookies, etc.).

Types of Cumin

Let’s differentiate between some common types of this popular spice:

  • White (Cuminum cyminum). This is the most popular and commonly used kind of cumin – it has a milder taste than Black or Bitter cumin.
  • Black (Nigella sativa). A spicier version with hints of sweetness.
  • Bitter. As the name suggests, this is the most bitter of the three spices.

Whole vs Ground Cumin

As mentioned above, you can cook with both whole cumin seeds and ground cumin. The seeds should be roasted because this is what brings out the flavor and makes them fragrant. Ground cumin is made by taking these roasted seeds and grinding them into a powder. Keep in mind that in this powdered form, it loses its flavor faster. The best way to preserve it is to keep it in an airtight container at room temperature, but it will need to be replaced every so often.

What Are the Health Benefits of Cumin?

Cumin is known to provide a couple of important health benefits to your body. It assists your digestion, it’s a great source of iron, and it has plant compounds that can work as antioxidants to stabilize free radicals, or lone electrons. (These lone electrons can cause inflammation in the body, otherwise.)

Overhead image of ground cumin in a white bowl.

What is the Best Cumin Substitute?

Now that you’re an expert on this spice, let’s talk about what you can use if you need to replace it. These are the most straightforward substitutes:

Ground Coriander

  • Coriander is also in the parsley family, and it has a similar earthy flavor. It is a bit milder, though, and lacks the warmth/heat that cumin can bring to a dish. Thus, when subbing with coriander, use half of the amount directed (i.e. 1/2 teaspoon for every teaspoon or 1/2 tablespoon for every tablespoon) and consider adding some chili powder if you want that extra spiciness.

Caraway Seeds

  • Another member of the parsley family! You can replace cumin seeds with caraway seeds, or swap ground cumin for ground caraway. Use the same ratio as above (1:2) when making substitutions. Note that caraway seeds have a citrusy but milder flavor, just like ground coriander.

Chili Powder

  • Chili powder is a combination of spices that includes cumin, paprika, garlic powder, ground cayenne, and more. Thus, if it is used as a replacement, it will add extra flavors and a red hue to whatever you’re making. It should be substituted with the same 1:2 ratio mentioned above, and works best in Mexican/Latin American dishes.

Garam Masala

  • This is another blend of spices where cumin is a primary ingredient, but it also includes ingredients such as coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, and more. It will add warmth and citrusy flavors to your dish, and is best substituted into Indian meals with the aforementioned 1:2 ratio.

Taco Seasoning

  • Yet another blend of spices that contains cumin (usually in the chili powder), garlic powder, crushed red pepper flakes, oregano, etc. It also tends to include a lot more salt, which is something to be aware of. Taco seasoning is great for Tex-Mex and Mexican recipes, and can be substituted 1:2 or 1:1, depending on how spicy you like things to be.

Curry Powder

  • Curry powder typically includes cumin, turmeric, coriander, ginger, and cinnamon, among other ingredients. It will add a bright yellow color and some subtle sweetness to your cooking, along with those desired warm, earthy flavors. Curry powder works well as a replacement in Indian and Indonesian-style recipes. Try using the 1:2 substitution ratio, and then adjust from there if you’d like to add bolder flavor.


  • Paprika will add a bold, red color to your cooking, but it can still work well as a cumin substitute! It is more smoky than spicy, so it adds a nice, mild warmth to whatever you’re making. It’s an especially great replacement in Mexican recipes, and can be substituted 1:2 (like all of the above) to begin with, unless you’d like to add more.

What is Cumin Used For?

  • You’ll find cumin in chilis, stews, soups, and even baked goods. Of course, it’s often incorporated into marinades, spice rubs, and sauces as well. With regard to meat, it works really will with beef, pork, chicken, and fish. Basically, it doesn’t matter what you’re making for dinner – you can definitely find a way to put some of this spice in it!

13 Recipes That Use Cumin

Looking for new ways to cook with cumin in your own kitchen? Here are some of my favorite recipes that feature this special spice!

Cumin rice in a large bowl.

Jeera Rice (Cumin Rice)

Jeera rice is an easy Indian side dish that is loaded with flavor! Made with cumin seeds, fresh coriander, cinnamon, and more, this soft and fluffy rice is a little bit sweet, a little bit spicy, and 100% delicious.
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Corn Salad with Lime Cumin Vinaigrette

Tomato Avocado Corn Salad with Lime Cumin Vinaigrette

This summer salad is made with fresh cucumbers, juicy corn, creamy avocado, and a tangy lime cumin vinaigrette! This easy salad is filled with warm spice and zesty flavor – you don't want to miss it.
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Lime Cumin Chicken Salad with Tomatoes, Olives and Queso Fresco - A huge bowl of flavor-packed, colorful, healthy chicken salad with tomatoes, fiesta blend olives and Mexican cheese.

Lime Cumin Chicken Salad with Tomatoes, Olives and Queso Fresco

Juicy, tender, lime-cumin-marinated chicken, crisp lettuce, fresh tomatoes, and crumbled queso fresco come together to create this tangy, earthy, homemade chicken salad. It's perfect for a light lunch!
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Skillet burritos being stirred with a wooden spoon.

Easy Cheesy Skillet Burritos

This cheesy skillet burritos recipe is made with a homemade Mexican seasoning blend that contains smoky paprika, savory garlic powder, rich, warm cumin, spicy chili powder, and more!
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overhead shot of shredded pork pernil in a white serving dish, and garnished with lime slices plus parsley. Corn tortillas are placed to the right, near the serving dish, and a bowl of rice is placed on the opposite side.

Instant Pot Puerto Rican Pernil

Puerto Rican pernil is made with juicy shredded pork that is seasoned with spicy Serrano peppers, citrusy orange juice, and smoky ground cumin! Serve it over rice or with tortillas.
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overhead shot of a taco bowl with taco meat, sliced bell peppers, avocado slices, beans, and rice, and a fork placed inside the bowl.

Taco Bowls

These easy taco bowls are full of fluffy rice, roasted bell peppers seasoned with ground cumin and smoked paprika, juicy ground beef, creamy avocado, and any of your favorite toppings!
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overhead shot of samosa chaat on a plate, with small bowls with sauces placed around the plate.

Indian Samosa Chaat

This Indian street food snack platter is filled with samosas, curry, chutneys, and more. You'll need both ground cumin and cumin seeds to complete this sweet, spicy, and savory meal!
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Easy taco soup in a bowl with a lime wedge, jalapeño, and cilantro on top.

Chicken Taco Soup

Tex-Mex chicken taco soup is loaded with juicy chicken, bright bell peppers, tender corn, and a plethora of spices, including subtly spicy cumin! It's so comforting and filling.
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pulling out A slice of King Ranch chicken with a spatula.

King Ranch Chicken Casserole

King ranch chicken casserole is the most comforting meal! It's packed with juicy shredded chicken, creamy mushroom soup, chicken soup, diced tomatoes, and warm ground cumin.
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serving plate holding four country style pork ribs with onions and cilantro on top.

Country-Style Pork Ribs

These juicy pork ribs are smothered in barbecue sauce and a homemade spice blend containing ground cumin, spicy cayenne pepper, smoked paprika, and more! They're perfect for a cookout.
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A spoon scooping Homemade Taco Seasoning out of a mason jar.

Homemade Taco Seasoning

Making your own taco seasoning with aromatic spices and herbs is so easy! Round up ground cumin, chili powder, oregano, garlic powder, and a couple of other spices and let's get to it.
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Overhead shot of a bowl with Instant pot short ribs served over mashed potatoes and garnished with parsley.

Instant Pot Short Ribs

These instant pot short ribs are juicy, tender, and just out-of-this-world tasty! They're made with a homemade sweet-and-savory barbecue sauce containing earthy cumin, sweet brown sugar, smoky paprika, tangy ketchup, and more.
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eight Grilled Steak Skewers served on a plate and topped with chimichurri sauce

Grilled Chimichurri Beef Kebabs

Tender flank steak is rubbed with ground cumin, and then grilled with a spicy, tangy chimichurri sauce that you will adore! These beef kebabs will easily become a family favorite recipe.
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