Allspice isn't a universal blend of multiple spices, regardless of what its name implies. It's a berry of Jamaican extraction that hints profoundly of a number of other spices. It's a versatile spice that can be used in sweet or savory dishes, and it can be a worthy addition to your spice cabinet.
Allspice is the dried berry of the pimenta dioica tree, also known as the pimento tree or the Jamaican pepper.
It's a relative of the myrtle. You might easily confuse the allspice berry with a peppercorn at first glance — the early Spanish explorers did. These green berries contain two seeds, but they're slightly larger than peppercorns and they have a rough, dark reddish-brown exterior when they're dried. They're harvested when they reach full size but before they mature, then they're sun-dried, a process that turns them brown. Allspice berries lose their flavor and aroma when they're fully ripe.
Allspice in Jamaica
Botanically known as pimenta officinalis, allspice is native to Central and South America but it's most closely associated with the West Indies island of Jamaica. Jamaica exports the majority of allspice for consumption around the world, so it's no wonder that most classic Jamaican dishes such as jerk seasoning and beef patties make generous use of this spice. There's no relation between the "pimento," as the spice is known in Jamaica, and the red "cherry pepper" pimentos sold pickled and stuffed into martini olives.
Folk medicines in Jamaica use allspice for a variety of maladies. As an infusion, it's been prescribed for infant colic and diarrhea, cholera infantum, bleeding from the lungs, and even excessive and painful menstruation.
Allspice in Cooking
Some enterprising spice companies sell a mixture of spices as allspice, so be sure to check the ingredients on the label to make sure you're getting the real thing.
Allspice holds a prominent place in Caribbean and Latin savory and sweet dishes. It's also an important ingredient in many spice mixes, pickles, chutneys, vegetables, soups — and, of course, desserts. Allspice is a favored component in holiday treats like mincemeat and eggnog.
Allspice oleoresin is a natural mixture of resin and the oils of the myrtle berry and it's often used in making sausage. Allspice is a major component of pickling spice, which is a combination of ground allspice pimenta and a dozen other spices. Allspice used for cooking can be in powdered form or a whole berry.
Substituting for Allspice
If you find yourself halfway through making a recipe and realize that it calls for allspice but you don't have any on hand, you can make a mixture of spices that resembles it, although the mixture won't have quite the same subtle taste. Use equal portions of cinnamon and ground cloves, then add a pinch of nutmeg and mix well.
You can substitute up to 1/2 teaspoon of ground allspice in recipes that call for the whole allspice berry, or an equivalent mixture of the cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg substitution.
This measurement equals about six allspice berries.