What Is Cardamom and How Should I Use It?

Updated: Dec. 14, 2023

Here's everything you need to know about spicy-sweet cardamom, including how the flavor varies by the color of the seed, how to use it in recipes and how to substitute.

Whether used in an Indian curry or a Scandinavian pastry, cardamom is an intense, slightly sweet spice that instantly brings warmth to any recipe. A favorite spice in Middle Eastern, North African and Scandinavian cuisines, cardamom is one of the most expensive in the world, but its strong flavor can’t be beat. There are several types of the spice that can flavor dishes quite differently, so it’s important to know which types to stock in your spice rack depending on the type of cooking and baking you usually do.

Grab a cup of warm spiced chai, and let’s dive in to our guide on cardamom.

What is cardamom?

Part of the ginger family, cardamom is a perennial plant that produces a fruit that contains seed pods. The seeds from the triangular shaped pods can be whole or ground. The plants grows mostly in India, but it’s also cultivated in Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Guatemala.

Cardamom-infused recipes vary from sweet to savory. This is because the intense spice has flavors that range from peppery and smoky to minty and herbal. The flavor can also vary by the different colors of cardamom, which is why it’s versatile enough to season curries and meat dishes but also desserts and chai tea.

Types of Cardamom

Green cardamom

Green pods of cardamom are the most common variety. Ground or whole, green cardamom provides herbal, citrusy, slightly sweet flavor and you can use it in sweet and savory dishes alike. Cakes, cobblers, chai tea and chicken and beef dishes get their warmth from this spice.

Black cardamom

Because black cardamom gives off a stronger, menthol-like flavor, you’ll want to save this variation for savory dishes. The whole pods give off enough fragrance and spicy notes that they’re used more commonly than ground black cardamom. This is similar to using whole cloves to season stew rather than ground cloves.

White cardamom

White cardamom actually comes from green pods that have been bleached. It tends to have a milder flavor that complements spiced desserts around the holidays or homemade drinks like mulled wine and hot cider.

What is cardamom used for?

The ground form of green cardamom leans more mild and would be perfect for a peach and berry cobbler or lingonberry cardamom cake. It’s also wonderful when added to slow-cooker chai tea. For a more distinct flavor, buy whole pods and grind the seeds yourself to use in dishes like mughali chicken or cardamom braid bread.

Because white cardamom derives from green cardamom but lacks the pungent strength, opt for this variety in desserts like apple cider doughnutscardamom pumpkin pudding cake and even cinnamon chip chai-spiced snickerdoodles. Of course, it doesn’t have to flavor foods alone; use whole white cardamom in spiced hot apple cider or Finnish mulled wine.

Black cardamom might not be specifically called for in recipes, but if you want the spicier flavor, try it in beef curry with rice and coconut-bourbon sweet potatoes. Fish dishes also benefit from the peppery aroma of black cardamom. Try ground black cardamom on fish tacos and whole black cardamom pods in a salt-free seafood seasoning.

How do I cook with cardamom?

You can purchase cardamom as pods, seeds or powder. For the boldest flavor, always start with whole pods since ground cardamom is more mild. If your recipe calls for whole pods, lightly toast them in a pan over medium heat until they’re aromatic, and remember to take them out before serving.

Other recipes will call for the seeds—break open the pods and grind them up yourself for the best flavor. You can do so with an electric spice grinder or the old-fashioned way, with a mortar and pestle. Be careful when adding freshly ground cardamom to a dish: A little goes a long way. Cardamom can quickly overpower other ingredients, so gradually add it in.

Does cardamom have any health benefits?

Yes! Cardamom is a great source of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron and potassium. Cardamom is in the same family as ginger and turmeric, which are all great at balancing digestion, combating nausea and fighting motion sickness. Some people even chew on the pods like gum because of their minty flavor.

What can I substitute for cardamom?

Cardamom is hard to replace, but if you’re in a pinch, allspice could offer the same peppery notes you’re searching for or a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves can work in sweet recipes. For savory recipes, try swapping cardamom for coriander.

Keep in mind that black cardamom isn’t a substitute for green or white cardamom, but green can substitute for black. The strong, smoky black cardamom would overpower any recipe that called for green or white.