Cardamom is used to spice both sweet and savory dishes. It is widely employed in Indian, Middle Eastern, Arabic, and Swedish cuisine. It comes in two types and is used as whole pods, seeds, or ground. Cardamom is found in the garam masala spice mixture that seasons meat and vegetable dishes, and in hot beverages such as masala chai and Turkish coffee.
What Is Cardamom?
Cardamom is a spice made from the seed pods of various plants in the ginger family. Cardamom pods are spindle-shaped and have a triangular cross-section. The pods contain a number of seeds, but the entire cardamom pod can be used whole or ground. The seeds are small and black, while the pods differ in color and size by species.
Varieties of Cardamom
There are two main types of cardamom: black cardamom and green cardamom, and there is also white cardamom which is a bleached version of green cardamom. Green cardamom is the kind found most often in Nordic and Middle Eastern cuisine, while recipes in India and Asia will often specify whether green or black cardamom is used.
Green cardamom (Elettaria cardamomom) is known as true cardamom. This is the most common variety you will see sold in the spice aisle of the supermarket. It is the top choice for sweet dishes but also works well in savory dishes. The bleached version, white cardamom, has less flavor. It is grown in tropical areas including India, Malaysia, and Costa Rica.
Black cardamom (Amomum subulatum) has larger pods that are dark brown. It has a smoky element that makes it more appropriate for savory dishes, but it is used in sweet dishes as well in southern India. It is grown in the eastern Himalayas.
Cardamom is found in Indian cooking as well as Middle Eastern cuisine. In Indian recipes, whole cardamom pods are used in preparing basmati rice and various curries. In Middle Eastern recipes, ground cardamom spices certain desserts.
Whole vs. Ground
Recipes using black cardamom often call for using the whole pod, with the seeds intact. The pods are then discarded after cooking is done as chomping into the whole pod is unpleasant.
If you're using green cardamom in a recipe, ideally you'd start with whole cardamom pods. If you buy ground cardamom (i.e. cardamom powder) from the spice section, it won't be as flavorful since the essential oils of the cardamom seed will lose their flavor relatively quickly after the seeds are ground.
What Does It Taste Like?
Cardamom has a strong, sweet, pungent flavor and aroma, with hints of lemon and mint. Black cardamom has a smoky note and a cooling menthol one as well.
Cooking With Cardamom
You can use powdered cardamom added directly to recipes that call for ground cardamom, but you will get more flavor by starting with the pods. Toast green cardamom pods in a dry skillet for a few minutes. Let them cool for a minute and then remove the seeds from the pods. Save the pods to use for adding to coffee or tea for flavor. Grind the seeds in a mortar and pestle for best results, or you can use a motorized spice grinder (like a coffee grinder).
If you are using green cardamom for hot drinks such as coffee, simply grind three to four cardamom seeds along with your coffee beans and pour your hot water over as usual. Some traditions grind the whole pod, but it's fine to use the seeds only.