Earthy, aromatic and versatile to boot, cumin is an essential spice in any good cook’s pantry. What other spice is as crucial to curry, hummus or a big bubbling pot of chili? So when you find yourself halfway through a recipe and realize you’re fresh out of cumin, we understand the initial panic. Don’t worry, friend. We have seven spices you can substitute for cumin in a pinch and they’re likely already hiding in your spice rack.
But First, What Is Cumin?
Cumin is a spice that comes from the dried seed of the cumin plant, a member of the parsley family (Cuminum cyminum, if you want to get scientific). The plant is native to southwestern Asia and the Middle East, so it makes sense that the spice is widely used in the cuisines of those regions (like Indian and North African dishes). It is also grown in Latin America and is common in those cuisines too. Stateside, you probably think of Tex-Mex and Southwestern cooking when you think of cumin.
Available in whole seed and ground forms at any grocery store, cumin is a light yellowish brown and tastes earthy, smoky, nutty, sweet and bitter. (Yum.) It pairs particularly well with other warm, earthy spices like cinnamon, coriander and chiles. It’s also a frequent inclusion in store-bought spice blends like chili powder, curry powder, baharat and garam masala.
If you’ve found your spice rack devoid of cumin, don’t run out to the store just yet. Here are seven spices you can substitute for cumin.
Seven Ingredients You Can Substitute for Cumin
1. Whole coriander or ground coriander. Coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant, which is also in the parsley family. It has a similar bright, lemony and earthy flavor profile, but coriander is milder than cumin when it comes to smokiness and heat. As a substitute for cumin, use half as much whole or ground coriander.
2. Caraway seeds. Caraway and cumin seeds look almost identical, probably because caraway is yet another member of the parsley family. It tastes close to cumin but isn’t as strong. Use half the amount of caraway seeds when substituting for cumin.
3. Fennel seeds. Yep, another member of the parsley family. Fennel seeds can replace cumin if you’re in desperate need. They do have a licorice flavor that cumin lacks, so keep that in mind if that’s not something you want in your dish. Fennel seeds aren’t as earthy or smoky as cumin, so consider doubling up with another substitute listed here.
4. Garam masala. This spice blend is found in Indian and South African cooking, and while the exact spices vary from blend to blend, cumin is usually included. When swapping garam masala for cumin, start with half the amount of cumin that’s called for, then adjust to taste. (It also helps to add it at the end of cooking for maximum flavor.)
5. Curry powder. Like garam masala, curry powder typically contains cumin, so it’s a good substitute for the spice. However, it also contains other flavors you might not want in your recipe, so consider what you’re cooking before substituting. It’s great in Southeast Asian recipes, but don’t forget it will give your dish a vibrant yellow hue if it contains turmeric.
6. Chili powder. Chili powder also features cumin, among other spices like garlic powder and oregano. Keep in mind that it can bring intense spiciness to what you’re cooking, so start with half as much chili powder as cumin and adjust from there. (This one is best in Southwestern recipes like chili or tacos.)
7. Paprika. Like cumin, paprika is smoky and earthy. But it’s not as citrusy or bright, so start with a small amount and season as you go. Like curry powder, it will color your food if you use large quantities—but this time red instead of yellow.
Six Ways to Use Cumin (or a Cumin Substitute)
Use it in a savory rub for a spicy whole roasted cauliflower. Kick your whole roasted carrots up a notch for a non-boring side dish. Toast whole cumin seeds and toss them with some roasted Indian-spiced vegetables and lime-cilantro butter, or whip up some mini chicken shawarma for the cutest lunch ever. Craving something green? This Indian salad bowl with crunchy chickpeas features a cumin-spiced mango chutney that’s obsession worthy. Or make the easiest dinner ever, sheet-pan Persian lemon chicken.
A Final Note About Cooking with a Substitute for Cumin
While none of these spices will lend the exact flavor profile as cumin to a dish, coriander and caraway come the closest (whether whole or ground). Chili powder and curry powder contain cumin already, but double check that they’re the best fit for your recipe based on the other spices they contain. A good rule is to substitute ground for ground or whole for whole.