Ground Cumin

Published April 2018

How we tested

Cumin has held a notable place both in and out of the kitchen throughout history. The ancient Greeks used it as medicine, and ancient Romans kept it on their dining tables the way modern Americans do pepper, according to The Grammar of Spice by Caz Hildebrand (2017). Today, cumin’s earthy flavor and pungent aroma add depth and warmth to dishes from around the world, such as those in Tex-Mex, Latin, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, and Asian cuisines. In the test kitchen, we add it to spice rubs for pork, steak, chicken, and shrimp; stir it into chili, hummus, and tacos; and sprinkle it on potatoes, pasta, and more.

Cumin seeds are harvested from the annual plant Cuminum cyminum, which is a member of the parsley family. India is the main producer of cumin, but other sources include Turkey and Iran. When the seeds are ready to be harvested, about four months after planting, the entire plant is pulled from the ground and repeatedly thrashed to release the seeds. The seeds are then dried in the sun. In the case of ground cumin, they are processed into a powder.

But does it matter which cumin you cook with? To find out, we sampled five supermarket products, ranging in price from $0.85 to $5.32 per ounce. We focused on ground cumin since we use it more often than whole cumin seeds in our recipes. First, we tasted the cumin raw in a carrot and chickpea salad. Then, we heated the cumin in olive oil before tossing it with white rice. Finally, we tasted it in a spice rub applied to pan-seared chicken breasts.

How Heat Affects Flavor

We quickly noticed that how the cumins were prepared mattered. In the salad, where the cumin wasn’t heated, all the products tasted similar. But once we cooked with them—in the oil and on the chicken—their differences became much more pronounced.

In cooked dishes, tasters preferred cumins that were potent but not bitter. Heating spices in fat is known as blooming. This process enhances spices’ flavor, so we weren’t surprised when the flavors of the cumins we tasted were intensified by heating. But all flavor compounds get exaggerated by heat, and some of the cumins became slightly too bitter for tasters once they were cooked. Bitterness can be the result of natural factors (such as the weather, the soil, or the strain of cumin used) and/or differences in processing methods. Our top‑rated cumins were robust and flavorful without being bitter, both when heated and when raw; tasters called them “earthy,” “warm,” “bright,” “sweet,” and “floral.”

Differences in Texture

We think of ground cumin as a fine powder; however, tasters picked up on textural differences, calling some products “gritty.” We examined samples of each cumin side by side on a sheet of parchment and looked at them under a microscope. While all the samples had some variation in particle size, our two top-ranked products had more uniform grinds and noticeably fine and soft textures. The bottom-ranked products were more fibrous and coarse, with more variation in particle size. Tasters preferred a smoother texture, and we learned that grind size can also affect flavor; our science editor explained that smaller, finer particles expose more of the aroma compounds, which may make the spice more flavorful.

The Best Ground Cumin

Although we recommend all the cumins in our lineup, our winner, Simply Organic Ground Cumin, stood out. It’s finely ground and was “flavorful” and “robust” without ever becoming bitter, even when heated. At $3.72 per ounce, it was one of the more expensive products in our lineup, but its complex sweet, floral, and earthy flavor makes it a worthwhile investment.


We tasted five nationally available ground cumins priced from $0.85 to $5.32 per ounce. Panels of 21 tasters evaluated them in three blind tastings: in carrot and chickpea salad, bloomed in oil and served over white rice, and as a rub on chicken breasts. Scores were averaged, and products appear in order of preference. Source information was provided by manufacturers. Prices were paid in Boston-area supermarkets and online.

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The Results


Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*