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April/May 2018

Ground Cumin

This earthy, warm spice has been used around the world for centuries. Which product should you add to your spice cabinet?  

How We Tested

Cumin has held a notable place both in and out of the kitchen throughout history. The ancient Greeks used it as medicine, and ancient Romans kept it on their dining tables the way modern Americans do pepper, according to The Grammar of Spice by Caz Hildebrand (2017). Today, cumin’s earthy flavor and pungent aroma add depth and warmth to dishes from around the world, such as those in Tex-Mex, Latin, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, and Asian cuisines. In the test kitchen, we add it to spice rubs for pork, steak, chicken, and shrimp; stir it into chili, hummus, and tacos; and sprinkle it on potatoes, pasta, and more.

Cumin seeds are harvested from the annual plant Cuminum cyminum, which is a member of the parsley family. India is the main producer of cumin, but other sources include Turkey and Iran. When the seeds are ready to be harvested, about four months after planting, the entire plant is pulled from the ground and repeatedly thrashed to release the seeds. The seeds are then dried in the sun. In the case of ground cumin, they are processed into a powder.

But does it matter which cumin you cook with? To find out, we sampled five supermarket products, ranging in price from $0.85 to $5.32 per ounce. We focused on ground cumin since we use it more often than whole cumin seeds in our recipes. First, we tasted the cumin raw in a carrot and chickpea salad. Then, we heated the cumin in olive oil before tossing it with white rice. Finally, we tasted it in a spice rub applied to pan-seared chicken breasts.

How Heat Affects Flavor

We quickly noticed that how the cumins were prepared mattered. In the salad, where the cumin wasn’t heated, all the products tasted similar. But once we cooked with them—in the oil and on the chicken—their differences became much more pronounced.

In cooked dishes, tasters preferred cumins that were potent but not bitter. Heating spices in fat is known as blooming. This process enhances spices’ flavor, so we weren’t surprised when the flavors of the cumins we tasted were intensified by heating. But all flavor compounds get exaggerated by heat, and some of the cumins became slightly too bitter for tasters once they were cooked. Bitterness can be the result of natural factors (such as the weather, the soil, or the strain of cumin used) and/or differences in processing methods. Our top‑rated cumins were robust and flavorful without being bitter, both when heated and when raw; tasters called them “earthy,” “warm,” “bright,” “sweet,” and “floral.”

Differences in Texture

We think of ground cumin as a fine powder; however, tasters picked up on textural differences, calling some products “gritty.” We examined samples of each cumin side by side on a sheet of parchment and looked at them under a microscope. While all the samples had some variation in particle size, our two top-ranked products had more uniform grinds and noticeably fine and soft textures. The bottom-ranked products were more fibrous and coarse, with more variation in particle size. Tasters preferred a smoother texture, and we learned that grind size can also affect flavor; our science editor explained that smaller, finer particles expose more of the aroma compounds, which may make the spice more flavorful.

The Best Ground Cumin

Although we recommend all the cumins in our lineup, our winner, Simply Organic Ground Cumin, stood out. It’s finely ground and was “flavorful” and “robust” without ever becoming bitter, even when heated. At $3.72 per ounce, it was one of the more expensive products in our lineup, but its complex sweet, floral, and earthy flavor makes it a worthwhile investment.

Methodology

We tasted five nationally available ground cumins priced from $0.85 to $5.32 per ounce. Panels of 21 tasters evaluated them in three blind tastings: in carrot and chickpea salad, bloomed in oil and served over white rice, and as a rub on chicken breasts. Scores were averaged, and products appear in order of preference. Source information was provided by manufacturers. Prices were paid in Boston-area supermarkets and online.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.