What Is Cardamom?
Fun fact: cardamom comes from a plant in the ginger family. Here’s what it tastes like and how to cook with it.
By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen
Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.
Cardamom is known as the Queen of Spices, and it's no wonder: it's used globally in many different dishes. Cardamom made its way around the world over the past thousand years thanks to the spice trade and the Moors, a Muslim population from the Arab world with Spanish and Berber roots. From its beginnings in India and Indonesia, cardamom is now such an important crop in Guatemala that its economic impact rivals that of coffee. In addition, cardamom is a very important spice in Scandinavia; Norway, for example, now uses 30 times as much cardamom per capita than the world average. Read on to learn more about the spice including what it tastes like and how to use it.
What Is Cardamom?
Cardamom is a spice native to India and Indonesia with a strong aroma and flavor, used in meat and vegetable curries desserts, and all manner of recipes. In Sweden and most Scandinavian countries it is very common in baked goods, the intoxicating aroma filling the house when they’re in the oven. Cardamom plants are a relative of ginger and can grow to be five to ten feet tall. Harvesting cardamom is done entirely by hand, hence the hefty price tag.
What Does Cardamom Taste Like?
Cardamom has an amazing aroma, so an amazing flavor is built in. The flavor of green or white cardamom is the same, as they are from the same plant. It’s a flavor rich with notes of ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove mixed together. Black cardamom has a similar profile with an added layer of smokiness because it is dried over a smoky fire.
What Are Cardamom Pods? And What Does Cardamom Look Like?
Cardamom pods are the seed pods from cardamom plants. Cardamom pods can be green, white or black - and all can be used in cooking.
Green pods and black pods come from plants that are the same family but different species, and they have different flavors. White cardamom pods are simply green pods that have been bleached.
Green and white cardamom pods have paper-thin shells that encase the dark brown seeds inside, with each pod holding about a dozen seeds. When their shells are ground, either at the spice house or by you at home, the pods themselves don’t present much of a problem because they become an innocuous dust.
Black cardamom has a wrinkled, thicker shell and a smoky flavor. The seeds inside the shell look very similar to those in the green and white pods.
What Is Cardamom Used For?
Green and white cardamom pods can be used interchangeably in most recipes when flavor is the only consideration. They are the go-to cardamom for most Indian, Indonesian, Southeast Asian and South Asian recipes. The spice is used to flavor the curries popular in all these cultures and can also be used in dry rubs for grilled meats. Whole pods are often used in fragrant rice pilafs and then just avoided when eating the rice.
During the long, cold very dark winters in Scandinavia, hot mulled red or white wine called glogg is served. For glogg and all recipes where you are extracting the flavor of cardamom by steeping it in tea or mulled wine, you can put the pods along with your other spices in a heavy plastic bag and give them a good smash with a meat mallet to crack them open. Then put them in a tea ball or tie them up in a piece of cheesecloth or muslin so you can pull them out when your wine has mulled enough. This also keeps chunks of spice from ending up in a mug of your hot drink.
Ground cardamom is used in baking, and some are advertised as being ground seeds only, no pod shell. When looking for just seeds, you may see packages labeled "decorticated cardamom": that means just seeds.
Black cardamom is not typically used in baking. Instead, it’s a great addition to braised meats and soups. In addition, it’s used in Chinese and Vietnamese cooking (in pho, for example).
What Is a Substitute for Cardamom?
Because the flavor of green cardamom skews towards ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove mixed together, a combination of those spices would definitely be your best bet if you don’t have any. An easy alternative is an equal measure of pumpkin pie spice with an extra pinch of cloves to add intensity to the flavor.
If you’re looking for a substitute for black cardamom, the pumpkin pie spice with extra clove can be augmented with a tiny amount of dry chipotle chili powder to give you the hint of smoke that black cardamom would bring to the dish.
Recipes Using Cardamom
The very best curries are made with individual spices as opposed to an off-the-shelf curry powder, and this is no exception. All the warm spices make this curry really homestyle.
If this recipe looks familiar, it’s because it’s a riff on Russian tea cookies, also called Mexican wedding cookies. The cardamom is a Scandinavian twist.
We all love a great sheet pan dinner, and this Middle Eastern shawarma is just that. The cardamom and other spices really bring the flavor.
Buy frozen mango cubes, freeze some yogurt and put all of it in the food processor and the end result is ice cream.
Pears can be poached in red or white wine, and in this case it’s a Reisling Spatlese. The cardamom comes in at the end when you add a dollop of the cream to each pear.