Is Cumin Spicy? Unraveling the Flavor Profile of This Ancient Spice

Last updated on March 15th, 2023 at 10:30 am

If you love spicy foods, you’ll never miss the spice aisle when shopping to pick up some ginger, curry powder, jalapenos, or red chili powder. But have you tried cumin?

We know you’ll ask, “is cumin spicy?”

Cumin is a versatile spice used in Middle Eastern, Latin American, Indian, and North African cuisines. But is it spicy?

This post delves deeper into the world of cumin. We explore its spicy level as well as some culinary uses of the spice.

What is Cumin?

Cumin is a spice from the dried seed of Cuminum cyminum, a member of the Parsley family. The spice has a warm and earthy aroma that adds depth and complexity to various dishes. It has been used in cooking since ancient Egypt—it is believed cumin was first cultivated in Egypt over 4000 years ago.

The Romans and Greeks loved and used cumin for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. This seasoning is even mentioned in the Bible in Isaiah 28:27 and Mathew 23:23.

The cumin plant (Cuminum cyminum) is native to the Mediterranean and parts of Asia.

Ground cumin Vs. Cumin seeds

Cumin spice comes in two varieties: whole seeds and ground. The latter is made by grinding cumin seeds.

Ground cumin tends to be more pungent than cumin seeds. This is because, in the process of grinding the seeds, flavor compounds are released. However, ground cumin loses its flavor more quickly than whole seeds.

Ideally, you can buy the cumin seeds and use a spice grinder to make ground cumin powder. The good thing about ground cumin is that it doesn’t need heat to disperse its flavor. This means you can add it to your dish at any point. You’ll need to add cumin seeds early in the cooking process to impart their full flavor.

What does cumin taste like?

Generally, cumin has a uniquely warm, earthy, and slightly nutty flavor. This popular spice also exhibits a hint of sweetness and citrusy freshness.

However, the taste of cumin will vary depending on how you use it in your cooking and the spices or ingredients you pair it with. 

Is cumin spicy?

Despite being associated with heavily spiced foods, cumin is only spicy by association. It hardly has any heat on its own. According to the epicenter, cumin ranks three on the hotness scale. Cayenne, ranked on the same scale, has a spicy level of 8-9, way higher than cumin.

Cumin gets its intense aroma and taste from its unique flavor profile—rich, hearty, earthy, and warm.

Black cumin vs. regular cumin

Other than the ground and cumin seeds, this seasoning comes in various forms, just like black pepper and white pepper.

Other than the cumin itself, there are four different varieties, namely, black cumin, bitter cumin, white cumin, and brown cumin.

Black cumin, also called nigella sativa, is native to the Middle Eastern Mediterranean, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, and Northern India. It is slightly sweeter with a more pronounced lemony flavor and is often used as a spice in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisines.

White cumin is warmer and stronger. It also has a higher oil content in the seeds—often confused with caraway seeds. White cumin is popular in Mediterranean, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mexican foods.

Bitter cumin, or Cuminum nigrum, is on the bitter side. It is native to Central Asia and Northern India. It is often used as a spice in Indian cooking—Moghul cooking.

How to cook with cumin

You can use ground cumin and whole cumin seeds in your cooking. However, how you cook will depend on the form of cumin you choose.

If you’re using whole grain, infuse it with hot oil when preparing food. You may roast the seed slightly over medium heat to bring out more flavor.

For ground cumin, you don’t need the heat to infuse the release of the flavor. To make ground cumin, grind roasted cumin seeds.  

You can use cumin in meat, vegetables, soup, or sauce.

Note that how (and when) you add cumin to your cooking will determine the taste of your final dish.

What are the health benefits of cumin?

Cumin is not just a spice that adds flavor to your dishes. It also packs healthy benefits, some of which have been backed by scientific research. Traditionally, this seasoning was used to treat conditions like indigestion, headaches, and diarrhea.

Here are some of the benefits of cumin;

Promotes digestion

Traditionally, cumin has been used for ingestion. Modern research has confirmed that this seasoning may expedite normal digestion.

For instance, cumin increases the activity of digestive enzymes, accelerating digestion. It also elevates the release of bile from the liver to speed up the digestion of fats and certain nutrients in the gut.

Moreover, cumin may lower symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

Helps control blood sugar

Cumin may help people with diabetes manage their condition. The spice helps increase insulin sensitivity, helping regulate blood sugar levels.

Cumin oil is a hypoglycemic agent, meaning it increases blood glucose levels.

Anti-cancer properties

Based on some experiments, cumin may stop cancer cells from multiplying. In one study, cumin and basil were the most potent anticarcinogenic plants out of nine popular herbs and spices.

Moreover, cumin contains cumin aldehyde and thymoquinone compounds which inhibit the growth of cancer cells and protect against cancer development.

Aid in weight loss

Cumin may help reduce fat and improve weight loss. It increases the body’s metabolic rate and may aid in weight loss. In one study, overweight women were given cumin powder and combined with a healthy diet—these women showed improvement in their weight.

How to properly store cumin

You need to store cumin properly to maintain its flavor and potency. Here are some tips for proper cumin storage.

  • Store in a cool, dry place: Exposure to moisture and heat may cause cumin to lose its flavor and potency.
  • Store in airtight containers: keep your cumin in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid to keep the moisture out.
  • Avoid freezing: Don’t store cumin in the freezer, as the seeds may lose flavor or become stale.
  • Keep away from strong odors: Cumin can absorb odors from foods and other spices. So, please keep it away from strong-smelling foods or spices like onions and garlic.

Is cumin spicy? Final Thoughts

Although cumin is associated with heavily spiced foods, it is not spicy on its own. However, it does have a strong, distinct flavor that can add warmth and depth to your dishes.

Cumin is a versatile and flavorful spice that can enhance the taste of many dishes without adding significant spiciness or heat.

If your heat tolerance is on the lower side, cumin might be the spice you need for your cooking.


Is cumin a strong spice?

No. Cumin is only hot by association. However, it hardly has any heat compared to other spices like chili powder and cayenne. So, if you’re starting out on spicy foods, cumin might be your ideal spice.

What flavor does cumin taste like?

Cumin has a rich and hearty, warm and earthy flavor. It is typically used to add instant depth to any dish. It can be used to flavor soups, meat, stews, and vegetables.