Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
2 Aug

Smart Spice: Cumin

What do you know about cumin? Cumin seeds are pungent, potent little things with the ability to significantly change the trajectory of a dish. They are featured prominently in Mexican, Mediterranean, Indian, Middle Eastern, and certain Chinese cuisines. Back in the Middle Ages, cumin was one of the most popular – and most accessible – condiments for the spice-crazy Europeans, and stories tell of soldiers going off to war with loaves of cumin bread in their satchels for good luck. Cumin originated in the Mediterranean, and it was used extensively by the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Persians, and just about everyone in that region. It is not to be confused with caraway, which is actually called “cumin” in multiple European languages. They are somewhat similar in taste and appearance, but cumin is spicier and, in my opinion, tastier.

As is usually the case with spices that have been in use for thousands of years, cumin appears to provide a number of potential health benefits, from anti-glycation agent to antioxidant to anti-osteoporotic, and much more. Note that many of the surnames in the following PubMed links are of Indian origin. Cumin, along with ghee and a host of other spices, played a prominent role in the Ayurvedic medicinal traditions, and I love seeing a lot of these supposedly “old wives’ tales” get preliminary scientific justification:

  • The jury is still out on whether dietary AGEs are worrisome, but it’s clear that the formation of endogenous AGEs is a much bigger concern, especially for diabetics. In diabetic rats, cumin extract was more effective at reducing blood glucose and AGE production than glibenclamide, an anti-diabetic drug.
  • Cumin’s anti-glycation properties proved useful in another study, in which diabetic rats were able to stave off cataracts after oral dosing with cumin powder.
  • Another study found that cumin extract reduced total cholesterol, triglycerides, and pancreatic inflammatory markers in diabetic rats. It also prevented excessive weight loss. Again, it beat out glibenclamide.
  • Oral doses (25, 50, 100, 200 mg/kg) of cumin on consecutive days improved the immune response of mice with compromised immune systems due to restraint-induced stress. These effects were marked by a reduction in elevated cortisol and adrenal gland size, an increase in the weight of the thymus and spleen, and replenishment of depleted T cells. There was a dose dependent response, but all doses had beneficial effects.
  • An extract of cumin had anti-osteoporotic effects on rats, similar to estradiol, but without the associated weight gain. Cumin-dosed (orally, 1 mg/kg) osteoporotic rats had increased bone density and improved bone microarchitecture.
  • Cumin protected the livers of rats from ethanol- and rancid sunflower oil-induced toxicity.
  • One study even seems to suggest a role for cumin in weaning addicts off of opiates – here – by reducing tolerance (yeah, it could increase the subjective high, but it would mean less product was required) and dependence.
  • Antioxidant content of commonly available commercial cumin in Pakistan was found to be “potent.” It’s unclear whether the same holds true for cumin in other countries, but I imagine it probably is. Go with whole seeds and grind as needed, if possible, as ground cumin (and anything, really) will be more exposed to the air and thus more liable to degrade. If you’ve got ground cumin, store it in the fridge in an airtight, sealed container. It also helps to heat the seeds before grinding to really release the flavor. I usually toast them on a cast iron skillet over low heat for a couple minutes (just wait for the smell and don’t let them burn; you’ll know it when you smell it, because it’s somewhat reminiscent of a fine body odor), but one study found that microwaving whole cumin seeds actually preserved the aromatic and antioxidant compounds better than traditional oven roasting. Go figure.

So, what can you do with the stuff besides make curries?

Curries are great and expected places to insert cumin, of course, but why not branch out and explore? Cumin used to act as a replacement for expensive black pepper for people who couldn’t afford it, so why not treat it like that yourself and add it to things you’d otherwise never think to? Cumin and scrambled eggs. Cumin and sweet potatoes. Cumin and homemade stock for a nice hot drink before bed. If you’d eat it with black pepper, try it with cumin – not for any health benefits, necessarily, but just for a nice change of pace. My latest favorite is beef (any cut will do) marinated in lime juice, wheat-free tamari, and cumin. I just did a batch of bone-in short ribs like that with homemade beef broth, as a slight alteration of Richard Nikoley’s excellent short rib recipe, and it was incredible. I highly recommend it.

How do you use cumin? Have you used it? And don’t say “in curries”; I want some new stuff to try!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Personally, I’ve noticed that when consuming a lot of spices their scent tends to permeate the skin for the next day or so. I remember Mark commenting on eating certain types of spices to potentially ward off mosquitoes so I assume it’s a similar process. To that point I would warn anyone with a hot date coming up, not to over-do-it on the cumin the night before because that “fine body odor” smell well definitely be magnified the day after a cumin-laden meal. Instead, sweet-smelling spices like cardamom, fennel (be careful of the phyto-estrogens), or even large amounts of black pepper tend to have a perfume/cologne like effects, especially if you’re going sans deodorant. Does anyone else notice this effect?

    George Morris wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  2. Make sure you don’t buy powdered cumin in the store. Buy the seeds, roast them, then squish them in a mortar and pestle. My niece taught me this and the taste is so dramatically different. I didn’t care for cumin until she taught me this way and now I have it almost every day!

    Abby wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  3. Having grown up in Texas, I use cumin in almost everything! One of my favorite easy sides is sauteed zucchini, red pepper, and onion sprinkled with cumin and chili powder in the last moments of cooking.

    I can’t imagine my kitchen without cumin!

    Erin wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  4. Cumin is an excellent addition to guacamole, hummus, or tabouli (among other things).

    Dan wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  5. So yeah, I just added cumin to the meal I’m making for dinner. Glad I had it in the cupboard!

    P.S. Cumin is *great* in guacamole.

    gilliebean wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  6. 30-second (/overnight) brisket, for the lazy meat lover who wants to cook once and eat well all week.

    1. Get a few pounds of grass-fed brisket with a nice fat cap (ask your farmer for a “point” which has more fat. If your grass-fed beef is too lean, ask your farmer to slaughter older animals — 3-4 years is good).

    2. Rub with salt to taste.

    3. Sprinkle liberally with whole cumin seeds.

    4. Roast uncovered, fat side up at 225F or so overnight (8+ hours). Any internal temp over 185-190 should soften a brisket sufficiently. Your container should have high enough sides to capture any rendered fat.

    5. Slice in the morning while warm. Save the rendered fat for other cooking purposes (it will be a bit salty and have a roasted cumin flavor) or mix it in with the sliced brisket. Reheat leftovers in the microwave.

    This works equally well with short ribs. Pull the bones out in the morning while warm and reserve for stock. For big joints like lamb/mutton shoulder, increase the temperature a bit to dissolve pesky tendons (235F works for me). Joints should reach an internal temp of 195-200F.

    Greg wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  7. When DH and I got married (almost 30 years ago) he didn’t care for (read: hated) ground cumin – he said it smelled like dirty feet! Dirty feet aside, personally I love the stuff and have used it for years in the kitchen – couldn’t live without it.

    So when I used it for cooking, I made sure to use it with other “normal, everyday” spices/herbs so DH didn’t have a clue it was in the meal. (He couldn’t stand any type of curry either.) I think it’s one of those things that you either love or hate.

    Fast forward to today: DH thinks anything cooked with cumin is wonderful and “so tasty” and he brags to everyone about what a wonderful cook I am and how good all this “Primal” food tastes!!

    I think it blends well with almost all ethnic cooking flavors (except for carb loaded, sugar loaded apple pie and as in potato,rice,wheat flour “American” cuisine).

    Hmmm – has anyone tried to make cumin-flavored ice cream? LOL

    PrimalGrandma wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  8. I make a tea of cumin,chamomile, and coriander. quite refreshing.

    rik wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  9. Mix some chickpeas with cumin, salt, pepper, and a bit of olive oil and roast for 40 minutes at 450F for an incredibly delicous result! Roasted chickpeas are a great snack or addition to any salad. They also add a great crunch to a fruit/yogurt parfait.

    Sam wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  10. Cumin in guacamole is the bomb.

    2 avocados
    2 T. lemon juice
    1/2 t. salt
    1/2 t. cumin
    garlic to taste

    Mash and mix and enjoy!

    Dawn wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  11. I love cumin! One of my favorite marinades for chicken: chopped green chiles, olive oil, raw honey, cumin, garlic powder, salt and pepper. I just cooked some bone-in skin-on chicken breasts with this marinade. Bake uncovered for crispy flavorful skin. Another great: coleslaw dressed in a honey, cumin, cayenne dressing…add in a few finely diced apples. YUM!

    Jessica K wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  12. Cumin and butter is great on baked sweet potatoes.

    Duncan wrote on August 2nd, 2011
    • Cumin, butter (KerryGold Irish butter FTW) and a major squirt of fresh lime juice is absolutely wonderful on baked sweet potatoes and yams.

      PrimalGrandma wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  13. I have always used a lot of cumin, mostly in Mexican recipes or in rubs for meat.
    Lately I have used it in a tuna salad served over ½ avocado, and also I put it in egg salad that I make with mashed avocado.

    mary b wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  14. We use cumin in a few cuban steak (grilled) recipes. They’re some of our favorite ways to flavor a grilled steak!

    Jeremy Zawodny wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  15. I love cumin – I put it in all my savoury dishes.
    Cumin seeds are great fried up with kale.

    Indiscreet wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  16. Yeah, have to try that cumin on eggs on the weekend. If it works, I’m most def going to overdose on cumin in the future.

    Let’s see how it’s cumin along. (I just had to say it!)

    Captain Obvious wrote on August 2nd, 2011
  17. Hi all, here is a fast recipe for meatballs( turkish kofte , greek koftedes ) with cumin ( and others ) , just replace the breadcrumbs with eggs, and you’ll do fine !!

    Mustafa Korkut wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  18. Bevare
    Cumin =Cuminum cyminum)
    Caraway =Carum carvi)
    lots of people confuse those.

    Caraway is callen
    Kommen in danish
    Kummin in swedish
    Echter Kümmel in german
    Karwij in dutch

    While I enjoy in cumin I don´t really like caraway

    Henriette wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  19. Cumin is also a fine replacement for chili powder in chili and other southwest dishes.

    Brahnamin wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  20. Cumin gives a whole new dimension to pumpkin soup – but you have to add it while it’s cooking!

    Primal Heart Attack wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  21. I am a black pepper fan and will have to try some cumin substitutions. My recent cayenne pepper eggs may turn into cumin eggs. Thanks for another great tip!

    Thrive Lancaster wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  22. I use cumin as one of the spices I put on meat before cooking. I’ll typically use sea salt, ground pepper, cumin, garlic powder and turmeric. These spices enhance the flavor of all meats and fish!

    Dave wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  23. There’s more to cumin than curries and middle eastern dishes. Cumin is the secret ingredient in great tacos.

    jinushaun wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  24. Great on pork chops (with garlic powder and organic spice mix from Costco) sauted in olive oil with red bell peppers and onions.

    Maxmilliana wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  25. I love, love, LOVE cumin! With garam masala, with chili powder, with chipotle, with hot curry powder – and I don’t think it smells anything like sweat…. it smells like far away, exotic lands! Delicious!

    Marcheline wrote on August 3rd, 2011
  26. We mix 2 tb toasted then ground cumin seeds with a 1 tb cumin powder with 1tb each oregano, basil, paprika, salt, pepper, and chill. We use it as a taco spice cooked with the meat! it is SOO yummy!

    Fonda LaShay wrote on August 4th, 2011
  27. Yup it’s true – cumin is awesome with eggs!

    Richard wrote on August 4th, 2011
  28. I use it in cauli rice when I make Mexican food. I shred the cauliflower and sauté it in a skillet with a tablespoon full of coconut oil. Add salt, pepper and cumin to taste. I also use it in the marinade for carne asada.

    Nonnie wrote on August 4th, 2011
  29. I had all the ingredients for primal tacos, and I’d already made the tacos. So, I added all the ingredients to my roast vegetables, with a whole lot of butter. It was surprisingly incredible, and I realized that I love cumin!

    Granuaile wrote on August 4th, 2011
  30. I love to drink “tea” made from cumin it was my favorite drink in childhood, I still drink it everynow and then just pour some water over cumin seeds and bring it to a boil then add some sugar. its yummy :-)

    Ed wrote on August 4th, 2011
  31. Alas, not one of the spices I enjoy – at all. To me it just smells like sweat. I don’t mind it in curry, since all the other spices hide it, but I hate it by itself.

    LM wrote on August 5th, 2011
  32. I used Cumin randomly to enhance the taste of grass-fed beef. My daughter (7) is on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and hates meat, but I ask that she eat a little occasionally. She WILL eat ground hamburger with cumin, italian seasonings and dripped SCD yogurt. It is easy and tastes great.

    Susan wrote on August 5th, 2011
  33. Love cumin. Toss some cubed butternut squash in oil of your choice and add cumin seed, salt and black pepper and roast in the oven. Yum! Would work with loads of other veg too.

    Catherine wrote on August 7th, 2011

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