Is Cumin Spicy?

Cumin is native to Egypt's Nile Valley, and, according to The Epicentre, cumin seeds dating back 5,000 years have been found in Old Kingdom pyramids. Tablespoon goes on to reveal that cumin was even used as a part of the mummification process! The ancient Greeks and Romans made use of cumin for both medicinal and cosmetic purposes, and in medieval Europe, this spice was used as a cheaper substitute for black pepper.

Cumin comes from the seeds of the Cuminum cyminum plant, which is now cultivated not only in North Africa but also in the Americas, the Mediterranean region, China, and India. This last-named location is the source of over 50 percent of most of today's commercially-produced cumin (via Savory Spice).

Cumin isn't actually all that "spicy" in the sense of heat. The Epicentre rates it a 3 on the hotness scale, where cayenne comes in at around an 8 or 9 and habanero peppers are a 10. Cumin has slightly more heat than paprika, and about the same heat level as an Anaheim pepper (via The Epicentre).

What does cumin taste like?

Spice makers McCormick describe cumin as having a citrus-y edge to it, but with an overall rich and hearty flavor. The Spruce Eats says cumin is warm and earthy, containing both sweet and bitter notes. Cumin seeds must also be toasted in order to release their full flavor.

Cumin is one of the spices used to make both chili powder and taco seasoning, so it is frequently associated with Mexican cooking. It also features prominently in Middle Eastern cooking, where it pairs well with lamb and beef as well as in vegetable dishes involving lentils, chickpeas, and eggplant. Cumin also plays a role in Indian cooking, particularly in spice blends where it is combined with chiles, mustard seeds, turmeric, coriander, and peppercorns and used to make curries and chutneys.

How is cumin used in cooking?

Cumin is available in two varieties — whole seeds and ground. Whole seeds are added early on in the cooking process, sauteed in hot oil or simmered in a broth to impart their flavor. Ground cumin, however, can be added to a dish at any point, since it does not need heat to disperse its flavor. 

Ground cumin has a more intense, concentrated taste than cumin seeds, so if it is being substituted for the seeds in a recipe, you'll need to cut down the amount just a bit. The Spruce Eats suggests using 1 tablespoon of ground cumin in place of 1 1/4 tablespoons of cumin seeds (or vice-versa). Ground cumin also tends to lose its flavor more quickly than the whole seeds do, so keep that in mind when buying and storing the spice.