Culinary Arts

What Is Cardamom? Benefits and Uses of Cardamom Spice

Written by MasterClass

Apr 24, 2019 • 2 min read

Few flavors in this world stack up to the aromatic complexity of cardamom. Nicknamed the “queen of spices,” it has the power to enliven a baked good, to provide a lush backbone to cup after cup of milky, sweet tea, and to temper heat with a mellow hint of something in bloom.

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What Is Cardamom?

Cardamom is a spice in the ginger family (Zingiberaceae) recognizable by its trigonal pod husks containing small black seeds. While native to subtropical Asia and a prominent ingredient in Indian cuisine, modern-day cardamom is also produced in Guatemala, Malaysia, and Tanzania. It is sold in whole pods, shelled whole seeds, or in powdered form.

2 Main Types of Cardamom

As one of the more expensive spices by weight (only saffron and vanilla rank higher) cardamom can be found in two main varieties: green cardamom and black cardamom.

  1. The green pods, elettaria cardamomum, also known as “true cardamom,” have the characteristics most recognized as cardamom flavor: an herbal warmth like a fragrant cross between eucalyptus, mint, and pepper—more citrusy than fennel and sweeter than cumin.
  2. While not as immediately pungent, black cardamom, with its duskier brown pods, mimics and dials down the flavor profile of green cardamom pods with an added hint of bark and smoke.

What's the Difference Between Cardamom Pods and Ground Cardamom?

Whole cardamom pods feature intact clumps of hard, crunchy cardamom seeds, which are typically crushed in a mortar and pestle to separate them from the outer skin. While some preparations like rice dishes or pastries call for the single seeds, the entire crushed seed pod can be added to a pot of chai to impart its full flavor before being strained out with the rest of the loose tea and other spices.

Cardamom powder is dried and ground cardamom seeds—cardamom powders that incorporate the whole pods into the grind are usually considered lesser quality. Because most of cardamom’s fragrant essential oils are contained in the seeds, they lose potency fairly quickly once ground, so it’s best to use it as close to the purchase date as possible.

Spice Blends That Use Cardamom

Because it plays nice with things like cinnamon and clove, cardamom is featured in both garam masala and masala chai—two customizable spice blends that play an invaluable day-to-day role in Indian kitchens, but it also makes appearances in Moroccan seven-spice blends, some Thai curry pastes, Lebanese baharat, and Turkish coffee.

Sweet and Savory Recipes that Use Cardamom

Both types of cardamom are used in savory and sweet dishes from Middle Eastern to Scandinavian cuisine.

  • Sweet. Know what’s great with cardamom? Apple pie, or a stone fruit galette: add a teaspoon or two of cardamom in your next spiced fruit filling to add character and cut through any heavy sweetness. Swedish sweet buns, kardemmummbullar, or Finnish pulla are both baked goods studded with cardamom seeds that crunch enjoyably undertooth and release a warm, spiced clarity onto the palate.
  • Savory. Similar to cumin, cardamom seeds are occasionally sprinkled throughout warm basmati rice for aromatic effect, and added to most curries in the form of garam masala. In Korea, cardamom is used with unripe plums and sandalwood in a tea called jeho-tang. It’s an unexpected addition to marinades, especially for meats like lamb. Find Chef Gordon Ramsay’s perfect rack of lamb recipe here.

Health Benefits of Cardamom

While colloquially known as a breath freshener and digestive aid in both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, the health benefits of cardamom have been shown to help lower blood pressure and manage blood sugar thanks to its high magnesium levels.