Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Cardamom – what it is & how to use it

I am about to teach a class on “Elegant Dining”. One of the desserts we will be making is an adaptation of the French Napoleon. Part of the recipe involves making an orange compote that is sweetened by honey and spiced with cardamom. Cardamom is one of those spices that probably does not have a space in many of our pantries. The subject of this Cooking Tip is to help you decide whether you need it in your pantry.

Cardamom is the seed of a fruit in the ginger family. The seeds are enclosed in an oval-shaped pod. Today, Guatemala is the world’s largest producer followed by India and Sri Lanka. It is one of the top three most expensive spices in the world along with saffron and vanilla.

There are three main varieties – green, white and black.

Green cardamom (India cardamom)

  • This is the most common variety and is what is probably called for if the recipe does not specify. It can be used in both sweet and savory dishes.
  • The whole pods can be steeped in liquid where its flavor is slowly extracted overtime.
  • For more potency, the pods can be ground although they can be difficult to grind and often leave woody shards behind.
  • The inner seeds can be used whole, crushed or ground.
  • Its flavor is intense and pungent. It is described as spicy and floral with citrus and herbal notes along with undertones of eucalyptus and camphor.

White cardamom

  • This is just a bleached version of the green. Bleaching does improve storage but also gives it a somewhat muted flavor.
  • It is mainly used in Persian and Scandinavian cuisines, especially Scandinavian breads and pastries. It is interesting that in a cookbook given to us by my husband’s brother and his Finnish wife, The Great Scandinavian Baking Book, they only mention the white version when talking about cardamom.
  • There are two theories on how white cardamom came to be such a popular spice in Scandinavia. The first claims that the Vikings took it to Scandinavia after encountering it in the bazaars of Constantinople about 1000 years ago. However, Daniel Serra, a culinary archeologist, says there is no evidence of this. He believes the Moors introduced it to Scandinavia after inhabiting the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century. It is first mentioned by a Danish monk in a 13th century cookbook.
  • It is also said that the green pods probably bleached in the sun during the long voyage from Asia. Scandinavians liked the flavor and still prefer the white pods to this day.

Black cardamom (Nepal cardamom, brown cardamon)

  • Although in the same family, the flavor profile of black cardamom is different from green and white. It is characterized by a smokiness, which comes from the practice of drying the spice over a fire.
  • Due to the flavor, it is mostly used in savory dishes. However, some chefs will add the whole pods to boiling water along with fruit and honey to make a beverage. Others find this smokiness gives an interesting taste to their chocolate truffles.
  • Besides the smokiness, black cardamon also has flavors/aromas of pine, eucalyptus, camphor and menthol.
  • It is one of the main ingredients in garam masala and is sometimes used in Chinese five-spice powder

Thai cardamom (Siam cardamom)

  • This is a type of cardamon that is rarely mentioned. According to Spiceography, the best Thai cardamon comes from the Chanthaburi province in southern Thailand.
  • It is a relative of green cardamom but looks very similar to garbanzo beans.
  • Its flavor is similar to green but has less camphor-notes and more floral and citrus notes with a mild minty fragrance.
  • It is a key ingredient in massaman curry and beef noodle soup. It is also used in Vietnamese pho broth as well as chai seasoning.

Besides what I mentioned above, cardamom is an important ingredient in Indian curry blends. It is often used in beverages such as a flavoring in coffee or Chai tea blends. It is an essential flavoring in Arab and Turkish coffees. Other uses include rice, meat, poultry and seafood dishes. It can be used to flavor punch and mulled wines.

You can easily buy green cardamom but may find it a bit harder to find white or black. Thai cardamom will take some searching. Cardamom can be purchased as whole pods, seeds or ground. As with most spices, the whole has a much longer shelf life, at least a year. Seeds that have been removed from the pods quickly start to lose flavor with exposure to air.

It will have more pungency if you grind just before you use it. As it is so expensive, only grind what you need. To grind, use a mortar/pestle rather than a spice grinder if you only need a small amount. The seeds are so small that it will be hard to grind in a spice grinder. If you want to grind it along with other spices, a spice grinder will probably work just fine.

You can use cardamom in any of its forms. If using the whole pod, it will give you a milder flavor. Some recommend to slightly split or crush the pods to expose the seeds. The pods can then be slowly cooked to extract the flavor. It might be best to put the pods into a spice bag as biting the actual cardamom can be bitter. It also allows for easy removal if you wish to do so.

If using whole seeds, bruise them with the back of a knife before adding them. The final option is to grind the seeds as mentioned above.

If you do remove the seeds from the pods, you can keep the pods and steep them in water or milk for coffee or tea.

Although black cardamon can be treated the same way, some say the best way to use is to use the whole pod.

When using cardamon, be sure to not use it in excess as it can overwhelm other spices and give a bitter note. Cooks Illustrated claims that 12 cardamom pods will yield about 1 teaspoon of whole or coarsely ground seeds or ¾ teaspoon of finely ground seeds. In my experience, I think it takes more than 12 pods to get a teaspoon of seeds but this will give you a starting point.

What if you do not have cardamom and do not want to buy it? Although nothing tastes exactly the same and leaving it out of a dish is not a good option, here are some ideas for substitutions.

Substitute for green cardamom

  • A blend of ground cloves and cinnamon – cloves give you astringency and cinnamon lends a sweet, woody note. For 1 teaspoon cardamon, use ½ teaspoon of each. This would work for meat and seafood dishes.
  • A blend of cinnamon and nutmeg – use the same measurements and use in savory dishes.
  • Cinnamon or nutmeg – You could try either of these on its own but the flavor will be different. They will, though, add the warm notes that cardamom in known for. Start with half the amount called for and adjust.
  • Other individual spices that might work are allspice, ginger and coriander.

Substitute for black cardamom

  • The best substitute will be green cardamom but it will give more citrus notes with less smokiness and astringency. Use equivalent amounts.
  • Garam masala – black cardamom is often a component of this Indian spice blend and so could be used as long as the other spices in that mixture complement your dish.
  • Allspice and galangal have been recommended along with apple pie spice.

Do you have cardamom in your pantry? I have green and white cardamom but only in the whole pod form as I do not use it very often. I have never tried black or Thai cardamon. Have you?