What Is Cardamom?

Flavor, uses, varieties, purchasing, and storage.

cardamom seeds with wooden scoop
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Cardamom is one of the most expensive spices in the world, second only to saffron. Not only is this spice highly prized, but its use dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. For thousands of years, humans have been enjoying the exotic flavor and aromatic scent of cardamom.


Cardamom is the seed of the Elettaria and Amomum plant. The small black seeds are surrounded by a pod with a papery thin skin that can be white, green, or dark brown/black in color.

The flavor and scent of cardamom is floral and slightly citrusy in flavor, with black cardamom being slightly on the smoky side.

Cardamom is native to India, where it is used heavily to flavor food and beverages. Cardamom has also become a popular ingredient in other nearby Southeast Asian countries, as well as distant countries like Scandinavia. Surprisingly, Guatemala, which has a similar sub-tropical climate to Southern India, has become one of the leading producers of cardamom today. Other top producing countries include Sri Lanka, China, and Tanzania.

Culinary Uses

After being removed from their pods, cardamom seeds can be used whole, bruised, or ground. They are used in a variety of Indian spice blends, including garam masala, curry, or chai tea. Cardamom is  the main ingredient in Turkish coffee, where it is ground and brewed with coffee beans in proportions sometimes up to 40%. Nordic countries have also taken a liking to the aromatic flavor of cardamom, where it is used in many baked goods, pickled dishes, and the traditional liquor, aquavit.

Purchasing and Storage

Cardamom is available for purchase in several forms, including whole pods, whole seeds without pods, and crushed or ground seeds. Cardamom still housed in the pod retains much more of its flavor and aroma than cardamom that has been removed from the pod. For the freshest flavor, remove cardamom seeds from their pods immediately before use.

Whole cardamom seeds can be crushed with a mortar and pestle, or ground using a spice grinder. Ten whole pods will yield approximately one half teaspoon of ground cardamom.

Store all cardamom, whether in or out of the pod, in an air-tight container and away from heat, sunlight, and moisture. Whole cardamom pods have an almost indefinite shelf life, although their potency will diminish over time, with the rate depending on environmental factors. The aroma of cardamom should be easily detectable when the container is opened and should become quite strong when the seeds are crushed. If you detect no scent, the cardamom has lost most of its flavor. Once ground or crushed, cardamom loses its flavor and aroma quickly.

Although cardamom can be found in most American grocery stores, it is often pre-ground and highly expensive. Whole cardamom pods can often be found at health food stores, import stores, or ethnic food stores, where you are also likely to find a much better price.