Easy Cardamom Substitutes for Your Basmati Rice or Spiced Chai Tea

Chris Starks
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All About Cardamom

Cardamom, a spice made from the seeds of an herbal plant, is popular in Indonesian, Indian, Thai, and Middle Eastern cuisines, and is used throughout history for both its therapeutic and pleasant tasting qualities. Although it’s widely known as an Indian spice, the plant is native to both southeast and south Asia, where it is still primarily grown.

Cardamom has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. It was once believed to have cleaning properties and was used as a deodorizer, preventer of hemorrhages, and other health benefits by ancient Egyptians and Greeks. In modern times, it’s now known for its ability to reduce inflammation, aid digestion, and treat bad breath, but it still holds slight air of mystery.

Cardamom is a favored spice in both sweet and savory dishes. It lends a unique flavor to meats, chutneys, desserts, curries, breads, and beverages. In fact, you can often find it paired with black pepper and cinnamon, two other popular spices used in curries.

Whole and Ground Cardamom

Cardamom is one of those ingredients that every home chef should have on hand. It enhances the flavor of savory, spicy and sweet dishes.

If you don’t have significant Indian roots, you may be wondering how to use cardamom in your cooking.

The easiest way to use cardamom is to simply buy it in its pod form.

Remove the seeds from the pods, and then use the seeds as needed. You can gently smash the seeds with a pestle and mortar, or bruise them with the back of your knife blade, to release the essence.

If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, you can use another blunt tool like a coffee grinder, a potato masher or even a rolling pin to grind the seeds. Just make sure you don’t pulverize the stems, which remain in the pods when you buy the whole spice.

When the seeds are cracked, the aroma is immediately released throughout the room.

Whether you buy your cardamon seeds whole or pre-ground, you should store it in an airtight glass jar and keep it in the spice drawer of your kitchen cabinet or pantry.

Below is the substitution table for ground cardamom vs. whole cardamom.

To substitute ground cardamom:

Health Benefits of Cardamom

Cardamom is a large herb with flowers on the surface and seeds inside. The seeds have a distinct smell and flavor that is both sweet and spicy, and it is used as a spice in many recipes. This aromatic herb is popular across the globe from Northern India, to Europe, to Indonesia. It is prized for its health and beauty benefits, and is even used as incense in sacred rituals.

Cardamom is traditionally used for many conditions from treating mouth pain from sores, to reliving skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis, to soothing digestion issues. In Ayurveda, cardamom is used to treat conditions such as flatulence, heartburn, and even bad breath. Cardamom also boasts antioxidants including beta-carotene, thiamine, riboflavin and vitamin C.

Cardamom has been used since the days of the Egyptian Pharoah’s, and Nobel Prize winner, Albert Einstein. It had many uses then, and it has many uses in the modern world of today. From cardamom tea to sprinkled on your dessert, cardamom provides a sweet and spicy kick.

Substituting Cardamom in Recipes

Cardamom is a wonderful spice, with a very distinctive flavor. The way to tone down this flavor is to pair cardamom with other, milder spices and/or use it in a recipe that already has other flavors already.

It's not possible to swap cardamom with other spices in recipes because it has such a unique flavor. It's the dominant flavor in cardamom, so if cardamom is in the recipe, it will dominate the other spices. However, it is possible to use it as a stand-alone spice if you're looking for that classic cardamom taste.

When you're experimenting with cardamom, start small and keep tasting until you find the right level for you. Also, when you're using it in a recipe, use what the recipe calls for. Don't try to substitute cardamom in recipes because it brings a different taste to a dish than other strong spices. And if you're using cardamom pods, you’ll only get the most flavor out of it when you crack them into open shells, remove seeds, and grind them yourself.

For a great way to use up cardamom when you have too much, try it in Indian chai tea.

Cloves and Cinnamon

Cardamom, a unique spice found in South Asia that adds a distinctive dimension to many cooked and processed foods is the dried fruit of a plant in the ginger family. For centuries it has been used as a prized and expensive commodity in cooking. In spite of its high price, it has become an increasingly popular ingredient in beverages, ice cream, chocolates and cakes among other foods.

Rhizomes or roots of the plant are used in the preparation of the spice. In India, most of the cardamom that is used in cooking is grown in Kerala. Green cardamom is more popular than the black variety, and it has a gentle, floral aroma with a quite soothing flavor.

The spice is great with meat dishes, desserts, rice and with a variety of fruits such as pears, plums, mangoes, peaches and apricots. It is also popularly used in vegetarian dishes such as kormas, masala curries, biryanis (culinary rice preparations) and sautéed vegetables.

Nutmeg and Cinnamon

Cardamom might be one of the most fragrant spices out there but did you know cardamom isn’t actually a spice at all? While nutmeg and cinnamon both come from trees, cardamom actually comes from a perennial herb plant. It’s an essential ingredient in several Indian, Middle Eastern and Scandinavian dishes, but is also becoming more and more popular in European and American cuisine.

While it’s great for cooking, cardamom can also increase alertness and concentration, and is a remedy for upset stomach and indigestion. In fact, the secret ingredient in spiced chai tea (a comforting drink with chai spices including cardamom) is cardamom.

So what do you do when you run out of cardamom?

Try substituting with nutmeg or cinnamon!

Both of these spices have that true Indian flavor that really can’t be replicated. If you are using Nutmeg in a recipe that calls for cardamom, you will want to use a little less because nutmeg is about a third less intense flavor-wise.

Make sure you’re using whole nutmeg though – its flavor is very different than ground nutmeg.

Allspice and Peppercorns

For a spicy or floral flavor similar to cardamom, you can use allspice and peppercorns. The seeds of allspice berries are similar in size and flavor to the cardamom pods themselves so they make for a great substitute.

But, if you’re unable to use allspice, you can grind peppercorns that have the cardamom flavor you’re after. And the ground cardamom won’t be affected as much by the oxidation that occurs when it’s stored too long. But peppercorns just don’t have the same fragrant beauty of the true cardamom pods. So, if you want to go with a pepper substitute, go whole and use the ground versions sparingly.

Cardamom Substitutes: a Toasted Seed and a Natural Intoxicant

Cardamom plays a significant part in Indian cooking, and it can definitely enhance and elevate the flavor of your favorite Indian dishes.

Cardamom is often found on the ingredient list of many recipes, so if you don’t cultivate your own, you might not have access to a fresh supply. Also, it loses its aromatic quality quickly and it’s extremely difficult to find fresh cardamom in the stores.

When I want to make a recipe that calls for cardamom, I look for alternatives, using seeds that I can easily find. Here are the substitutes I usually reach for:

1. Cardamom Substitutes: Toasted Black Pepper Seeds

Black pepper is commonly found in the kitchen and it’s used for adding spicy flavor to dishes like any other type of pepper. However, it’s actually a fruit seed that comes from a tropical vine. While the commonly used black pepper bears the name “pepper”, it’s the dried berry in the peppercorn.

Cinnamon and Ginger

If you are looking to add a dash of flavor to your dish or tea, you can always turn to common and well-known spices like cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, and ginger. But the pungency of these spices is offset by their strong flavor, and you may find the aroma a bit overwhelming. Cardamom is a common, well-known, but lesser-used spice that lends a similar flavor but has a milder aroma. Because cardamom is a commonly used ingredient, you may end up running out of it by chance and you will not want to miss its aroma and flavor in your cooking or tea. So what can you do? You always have the option of getting it on its own … or you can choose an alternative that gives you most of the same effects but with less of an aroma.

So what can you do if you run out of cardamom? Let’s take a look at some of the best alternatives you can use to make up for your missing cardamom.

Possible alternatives:

Cinnamon – Cinnamon has a pungent, warm, resinous flavor that pairs brilliantly with dessert-type dishes. Cinnamon, however, also has quite a strongly a distinct aroma and flavor that may not work well with the aroma of your dish.

Nutmeg, Ground Coriander and Peppercorns

In Indian curries, cardamom is often used in lieu of nutmeg but these two spices actually have different flavors. Cardamom is a bit stronger with a more pungent and almost citric–lemony flavor while nutmeg is sweeter with a mace-like flavor similar to allspice.

Here are some reasonable substitutes for cardamom that you can use in your Indian curry. Ground coriander or ground cumin is used often in foods that need to be cooked, since they have a very warm and inviting flavor. The best substitute is pod cardamom or green cardamom. In recipes that call for the ground kind, you can use the ground nutmeg. Other good substitutes are peppercorns, ginger, allspice, cinnamon, star anise, or cloves.

Coriander is also used sometimes in stews and curries but it’s often used as a garnish. The best substitute in this case is a little lemon zest or a pinch of powdered lemon rind, freshly ground black pepper, or finely grated ginger.

Other Cardamom Substitutes

The flavor of cardamom is widely known for its unique taste, and it lends delicious flavor to a variety of dishes. Traditionally, cardamom was used in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking to flavor dishes like rice, meats and curries. Cardamom is also a main ingredient in flavored teas – the most popular types, like chai tea, are flavored with cardamom.

Final Verdict

As you can see, I've done my best to be as thorough as I could be in order to give you the confidence and information you need to successfully and safely perform cool cardamom substitution for your basmati rice and spiced chai tea. So how do you go about actually doing it?

You can follow these instructions.

Soak your basmati rice in warm, not hot, water for about 30 minutes. >Rinse the rice in a colander and drain the water. >Warm the same amount of water in a sauce pot. >Add your cardamom pods and the bay leaf. >Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat and allow to simmer for about 15 minutes. >When the cardamom pods have softened, remove them and discard. >Rinse the rice off again and combine with your spiced and salted water. >Cook until the rice is done and fluff before serving.

Your best bet is to start with less cardamom and add more when it comes time to add the spice mixture at the end of the cooking process. You don't want the cardamom flavor to overwhelm the rice … it should be subtle, but noticeable. Just follow the rule of thumb and use half as much cardamom as you would usually.