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Cardamom science – What is its flavour made of?
Every time we make a flavourful Indian butter chicken or spicy taco mixture, I’m surprised by the power of spices. Combining them well can create such a depth of flavour, that would have been almost impossible to achieve with an artificial can of flavour. Cardamom especially is one of those spices that adds a chunk of flavour.
Spices, just like herbs (e.g. basil), are amazing flavour bombs. They combine a lot of flavour molecules to create beautiful palettes, often a lot more complex than what we as humans can artificially make.
And all of this comes from a plant, naturally grown in nature. But the chemistry behind it is amazing. About time we honor them appropriately, starting with cardamom here.
Where cardamom comes from
Cardamom has been used in food and medicine for thousands of years. Proof of that has been found in ancient Indian writings for instance. Even nowadays, India is a major user and producer of cardamom. Interestingly enough though, nowadays Guatemala is the world’s largest cardamom producer, even though cardamom is not native to the country. Cardamom was only introduced to Guatemala in the 20th century!
Cardamom is one of the more expensive spices (by weight) in the world. A major reason for that is that harvest is still done largely by hand. The plants grow long stalks on which the cardamom pods grow. These then have to be picked by hand. Once picked, these fresh cardamom pods spoil very rapidly. They have to be cleaned and dried as quickly as possible. This makes logistics even more complicated.
Once dried though, cardamom pods can be kept for a very long time. The only further processing required at this point is sorting by size. At that point, you have the standard dried cardamom pod.
Two types of cardamom
There are two types of cardamom, generally called black (Amomum costatum and Amomum subulatum) and green (Elettaria cardamomum) or large and small cardamom. They are closely related, but differ slightly in their composition.
Chemistry of cardamom
Cardamom has a lot of flavor hidden within its seeds inside that hull. Chemists have analyzed which chemical components are actually present in the highest quantities and two jump out. However, that does not mean that those molecules themselves will smell like cardamom. It’s the mixture of components that makes cardamom ‘real’ cardamom.
The flavors of cardamom sit in its oily phase that only makes up a few percent of the cardamom. The rest is made out of starches, fibers, some proteins, moisture and some minor ingredients. Of most importance for flavor are the flavor molecules within that oily phase. This is also the reason that a lot of extracts of spices are oil-based, or alcohol-based (e.g. vanilla extract).
Which molecule is most prevalent in cardamom depends on the type of cardamom analyzed as well as its age. One of the two most common molecules (in black cardamom) is 1,8-cineole, also called eucalyptol. As you might expect, this is the main component of eucalyptus oil and is also present in a lot of other aromatic spices and leaves!
Within green cardamom another major flavour molecule is alpha-terpinyl. This molecule is commonly used in lavender oils.
A lot of spices contain similar ingredients, but in different quantities and ratios. Both cinnamon and cumin for instance contain similar components, but the slightly different mix changes the overall taste.
You can buy cardamom in three major formats:
- Pods: the natural husk of the cardamom is still around the cardamom seeds in the center. These husks aren’t suitable for eating. In most cases you’ll break the husk to remove the pods or you leave the husk with seeds to soak until removing the husk from your food/drink.
- Seeds: within the pods you’ll fine small cardamom seeds. These are the little flavour bombs.
- Powders: by grinding down the seeds you’ll get cardamom powder. The major disadvantage of grinding down the seeds, as is the case for any spice, is that the flavour will degrade more quickly over time. It has a larger surface area over which to escape.
In all these cases the flavours are still trapped within the oil. However, oxygen has more access to the oils if they’re more open to the environment. This can lead to degradation of the flavours over time.
Due to its green colour cardamom should be protected from light during storage. If not, it will lose its green colour and turn yellow. Otherwise cardamom is pretty stable since its flavours are stored within those sturdy seeds within.
Cardamom in European countries
Cardamom is used in a wide variety of cuisines. Indian and Asian cuisines especially utilizes it frequently for a wide variety for dishes, both savoury and sweet. However, did you know that in Europe, overall more moderate cardamom users, there are a few true cardamom loving countries? You might be surprised to learn which countries that are.
The Scandinavian countries such as Sweden and Finland (legend goes it came through the Vikings, although proof of that is quite scarce)! And most of that cardamom isn’t used in savoury dishes. Instead, the cardamom is used in sweet pastries and breads! Other big European countries into cardamom that you wouldn’t necessarily associate them with: Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Here the cardamom is mostly used for Christmas time baking and cookies.
So, to close off, we’ll share a Swedish recipe featuring a good dose of cardamom: kardemummabullar.
Bhandari, A.K., Bisht, V.K., Negi, J.S., Baunthiyal, M, 1, 8-Cineole: A predominant component inthe essential oil oflarge cardamom (Amomum subulatum Roxb.), Journal of medicinal plants research, Vol. 7(26), pp. 1957-1960, 10 July, 2013 DOI: 10.5897/JMPR2013.5131, link
CBI Ministry of foreign affairs, Exporting cardamom to Europe, link
Compound interest, Chemical compounds in herbs and spices, 2014, link
Falkowitz, M., Meet the Farmer Shaking Up the Guatemalan Cardamom Trade, Nov-28. 2018, Saveur, link ; an article describing the current situation in Guatemala for growing cardamom with beautiful accompanying photos
Peter, K.V., Handbook of herbs and spices, 2006, volume 3, table I-7, link
Rhen, K., Kardemumma, 12-Jul-2008, Hallands Nyheter, link