Intensely aromatic, sweet, complex, spicy, beguiling, heady—these all describe cardamom, a spice that appears throughout classical Indian cuisine in everything from garam masala to masala chai (spiced tea) to kheer (a sweet rice dessert). Cardamom is also used extensively in the Middle East to flavor coffee, and thanks to the Vikings’ 11th century presence in Constantinople, it often appears in Scandinavian breads, cookies, and other baked goods.
What it is
Native to India, cardamom is related to ginger. But whereas ginger is valued for its rhizome (an underground part of the plant), it’s cardamom’s dried seed pods that are most commonly used in cooking.
The three basic varieties of cardamom
Green, or “true” cardamom, is considered the finest and most aromatic of the three types. It’s used in sweet and savory dishes throughout India.
White cardamom pods are green pods that have been bleached for aesthetic purposes, such as for light-colored breads and batters. The bleaching process diminishes some of the flavor, so avoid white cardamom unless a uniform light color is needed.
Black cardamom comes from a different variety of the same plant. It has a distinctly smoky aroma and a strong, somewhat medicinal flavor. The skins of the pods are wrinkly and a bit thicker than those of green cardamom. Black cardamom appears in savory dishes in India, Morocco, and China.
How to buy & store it
Many supermarkets carry ground cardamom, but whole pods are a little trickier to find. An Indian market is your best bet, or you can order them online from Adriana’s Caravan.
Keep cardamom in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dark place. Whole pods will last about a year this way and will begin to lose their flavor thereafter. Ground cardamom seeds have a shelf life of only a few months because the essential oils begin to dissipate as soon as the seeds are ground. For this reason, you may want to buy whole pods and grind the seeds as you need them.
How to use it
Whole pods are best used in recipes with some sort of liquid for the cardamom to infuse. The pods that encase cardamom seeds have little flavor on their own, but they are a handy way to keep the seeds contained. Crushing the pod slightly helps expose the aromatic seeds inside. The pods may be removed from the dish before serving, or you can just eat around them.
Ground cardamom is used in recipes where whole pods or seeds are undesirable. A little ground cardamom goes a long way, particularly if freshly ground, so use it sparingly. To grind cardamom yourself, first remove the seeds by crushing the pods with the broad side of a knife and shaking out the seeds. Pulverize the seeds in a spice grinder.