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What Are Caraway Seeds?
Caraway seeds are the dried fruit, or achenes, of the caraway plant. Caraway (Carum carvi) belongs to the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family—aromatic flowering plants commonly referred to as the celery, parsley, or carrot family. Also known as Meridian Fennel or Persian Cumin, caraway is native to Eastern and Central Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa, and Western Asia.
Humans have been harvesting and using caraway for its culinary and medicinal properties since the Neolithic period. Caraway seeds are not actually seeds: each fruit contains a single seed. Typically, people harvest and dry caraway seeds, then either use them whole or ground into a powder.
What Are the Characteristics of Caraway Seeds?
The caraway seed derives its culinary and medicinal properties from its distinct characteristics. Its flavor has a nutty, bittersweet sharpness with a hint of citrus, pepper, and anise (mild licorice).
The caraway seed’s high concentration of natural essential oils gives the spice its unique flavor profile. These volatile oils, combined with the plant’s dense supply of antioxidants, provide many of the medicinal and health benefits of caraway. Due to its essential oils—primarily carvone, limonene, and anethole—caraway has a sharp, stimulating aroma that is slightly minty or peppery.
Caraway fruits—the plant’s “seeds”—are crescent-shaped achenes with five pale ridges. The achenes measure around 0.08 inches long. People confuse caraway seeds with fennel and cumin. The caraway seed is darker colored and smoother than cumin seed and tastes more bitter. Its anise flavor is also less pronounced than it is in fennel seeds.
How Are Caraway Seeds Used in Cooking?
People use caraway seeds and other parts of the caraway plant in a variety of ways and to great effect in cooking and liquor distillation. The delicate, feathery leaves of the caraway plant can be used as an herb, either raw, dried, or cooked, similar to parsley. The plant’s root can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable similar to parsnips or carrots.
- Caraway seeds are a common savory spice in traditional European baking, due to their distinct earthy fennel and anise taste and sharp aroma. They feature prominently in rye bread, Irish soda bread, and traditional British caraway seed cake, among other baked goods. In Germany, caraway is a popular seasoning for cabbage dishes, sauerkraut, breads, onion tart, fried potatoes, and more. Hungarians and Serbians commonly sprinkle caraway over homemade salty scones.
- Caraway contributes to several liqueurs. Scandinavians make the yellowish liqueur Akvavit with a distillate of caraway. In Iceland, producers of the country’s signature clear, unsweetened schnapps Brennivín use caraway to flavor their fermented grain or potato mash. Caraway is also the key ingredient in the sweet liqueur kummel, which originated in Holland but is now distilled primarily in Russia.
- Chefs also use caraway seeds to flavor casseroles, sausages, vegetables, curries, and soups and stews like goulash. Cheesemakers use caraway to infuse flavor into many types of cheese, such as bondost, pultost, havarti, and Tilsit.
What Are the Known Health Benefits of Caraway Seeds?
Caraway seeds have been used in medicine for centuries. During the Middle Ages, people used caraway to aid digestion after a feast. Modern USDA studies show that caraway seeds are a rich source of dietary fiber. They also contain vitamins A, E, C and B-complex vitamins like thiamin, pyridoxine, riboflavin, and niacin, as well as minerals like iron, calcium, zinc, and magnesium.
What Are the Best Substitutes for Caraway Seeds?
In the absence of caraway seeds, there are several alternatives that can work in their place.
- Anise seed. Not to be confused with star-shaped tree fruit star anise. Anise seed tastes similar to caraway seeds.
- The flavor will be a bit stronger or hotter, but you can substitute ground cumin, commonly used in Indian cuisine, for ground caraway seeds. Caraway and cumin both belong to the parsley family and they are similar in taste.
- Fennel seeds, which people often confuse with caraway, along with cumin, are another good stand-in.
- Coriander seeds also work in recipes in place of caraway.
4 Tips for Incorporating Caraway Seeds into Recipes
The taste and aroma of caraway seeds are an excellent complement to many foods and recipes.
- Improve the texture of food. Caraway seeds can be hard. Cooking them will soften them up, but if you prefer to work with ground caraway, you can grind the dried fruits in a coffee grinder or food processor, or manually grind them with a mortar and pestle.
- Manage the flavor. Caraway’s earthy fennel and anise taste is mild until you cook or dry roast the seeds. To bring out the intense flavor, apply heat in your oven, pan, or skillet, either separately or with the rest of your dish. If you want to moderate your caraway flavor, you can cook your dish with the seeds and remove them before serving.
- Toast and sprinkle seeds. Toasted caraway seeds add flavor to breads, soups, stews, salads, roasted potatoes and sweet potatoes, coleslaw, baked apples, pork roasts and pork chops, cheese dips, and more. To toast them, simply add a small amount (you never need a lot of them) to a small dry skillet over medium-high heat for a couple of minutes, until fragrant. Remove the seeds and let them cool.
- Enhance vegetables. Caraway seeds can improve the taste of vegetables. Placing a teaspoon of muslin-wrapped and tied caraway seeds into your boiling water with cabbage and cauliflower will add flavor to them while cutting down on the unpleasant odor they produce when you cook them.
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