Cumin, or DIY ground spices

Posted at November 8, 2011 by 0 Comment

Okay, seriously, who grinds their own spices? I mean, who that isn’t a famous chef with lots of spare time and a super picky palette? Not me — usually.

But it just so happened that this past week we made a lot of hummus, and one of the key ingredients in our hummus is cumin. (To quote Rob: I’d rather make hummus without the chickpeas than without the cumin). And on Saturday night, as we were making a new batch to take to a party, we realized that SOMEONE used up most of our cumin for a previous batch, and forgot to pick up more on the chickpea run. (Confession: It was me.)

So then we had this sort of frantic what-do-we-do-now moment — we were already running a little late, so a store run was going to put us even further behind. In searching for any hidden stores of cumin, I found that we had a jar of whole cumin seed. I believe we bought it for some fancy special curry recipe that called for toasting your own cumin and coriander seeds (because I found whole coriander seed, too). And while we don’t have a spice grinder, we do happen to have a mortar and pestle. It’s probably one of the most beloved and least used kitchen tools we have. I put it on our wedding registry because it makes me feel all old-time-apothecary, and it gets used mostly for making a coarse guacamole. But here! The perfect opportunity to use it for spices. Yay.

And so, I ground cumin seed in our mortar while Rob roasted garlic, and our chipotle-red pepper hummus was saved. Huzzah.

And that lead me to wonder whether maybe it’s actually worthwhile to hand-grind some of your spices?

Challenge: Ground Spices

Pre-ground and home-ground cumin both contain cumin and nothing else.

mortar and pestle

To grind cumin with a mortar and pestle, add a single layer to the mortar and start by gently crushing the seeds with the pestle. Use little taps, not big great smashes to break things up. When everything’s a little crushed, grind the seeds between the mortar and pestle by using a stirring motion with the pestle. Stop when the seeds are ground to your desired texture. You cannot overgrind.

(You can also just toss the seeds into a spice grinder, in which case I hear you can overgrind, so watch the texture. But we don’t have a spice grinder. So, work with what ya got.)


 Time and Cost Comparison

Pre-ground cumin (we use Tones, because the factory is just outside DeMo and it’s everywhere) costs $0.99 for 17 grams of ground spice. That works out to $0.06 per gram. It’s sitting pretty in the spice aisle at the grocery store, and is easy to find if you can figure out the alphabetical organization system. One teaspoon contains about 2 grams.

awesome cumin

My whole cumin seed came from Penzey’s Spices, and cost $2.75 for a 25 gram jar.  That works out to $0.11 per gram. To grind it myself, I spent about 15 seconds gently crushing the seeds and another 60 seconds grinding ’em. It took 4 grams of home-ground cumin to fill a teaspoon.

Taste Test

In this case, it’s actually a scent test, because most of what you taste when it comes to spices is actually what you smell.

The store bought cumin smells like… well, cumin. It’s bright and a little citrusy and a little bit earthy. Yum.

The home-ground cumin smells like magic. It’s like the pre-ground cumin on steroids: Bright, citrusy, spicy-hot and like a walk in the forest in autumn. It’s a richer, more layered scent, and much stronger than the store-bought. Rob though it almost had a minty undertone. In prepared meals, it would be totally kick-ass.

PITA Factor

5. Once you have the cumin seed, the PITA factor is lower. I don’t live close to a Penzey’s, so going to get it was a definite 5-to-6 on my scale (it was something like 15 minutes out of my way. I must have really wanted to try that curry). And while I totally had a blast playing with my mortar and pestle, if I had to grind spices for every dish I made, I’d go nuts.

DIY or Buy?

Oh, foodies, I’m sorry but this is a total Buy. It’s not that grinding the spices is hard; it’s more the extra hassle of finding whole spices to grind, and the cost of said whole spices. For special meals, I’m for it. But for everyday life, the flavor boost doesn’t outweigh the PITAs.

Category : Food
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