Have you ever tried to use nigella seeds in your cooking? These tiny, dark seeds, often called black cumin, have a potent savory flavor used in many cuisines across the globe.
If you’re about to prepare a delicious curry or chicken tagine and discover that you’re missing the nigella seeds, check one of these 7 nigella seed alternatives so you won’t be left hanging.
The best alternatives to nigella seeds include sesame seeds, caraway seeds, oregano, and other small seeds. These replacements are primarily dried spices that are likely already found in your pantry. Keep reading to learn more about these slightly bitter little black seeds, how to use them, and what to use if you don’t have nigella seeds.
What Are Nigella Seeds?
Nigella seeds, also known as black cumin or black caraway, are the small black seeds of the Nigella sativa plant, an annual plant from the ranunculus family. This spice grows in South-Western Asia such as India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, as well as other parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean region.
It has a long history of use in cooking, religious traditions, and ancient medicine. It was said to be found in King Tut’s tomb to protect him in the afterlife. It features heavily in Ayurvedic medicine, along with other traditional home remedies to treat cough, cold, digestive issues, inflammation, and skin disease.
Nigella seeds have been employed in traditional medicine for many years, and now modern science is beginning to support many of these claims. Research spans chemotherapy, improved circulation, and immune system, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, respiratory, and digestive support.
The tiny black seeds have a strong, slightly bitter taste and savory aroma. To aptly describe it - it's a combination of the pungency of onions though not the sharpness, an herbaceous flavor profile, and an oregano-like scent with peppery notes.
There may also be a slight sweetness, smokiness, or nuttiness depending on the origin. Somewhat similar to nutmeg and fennel, though not related to either, these seeds are versatile in Middle Eastern, Indian, and Asian cuisines.
Nigella seeds may give food a distinctive depth of flavor. Also known as Nigella spice, or simply nigella, here are several other names for this spice:
- Nigella sativa black seed
- Black onion seed
- Black caraway seed
- Nutmeg flower
- Fennel flower
- Black fennel seed
- Roman coriander
- Charnushka (Russian)
- Chernishke (Yiddish)
- Kalonji seed or Calonji, Kaloojeere, Kalo jeera (Hindi and Urdu)
- Schwarzkummel (German)
Nigella seeds are sold in dried form and may be enjoyed raw or toasted. They’re not typically found in regular grocery stores in the US, so if you can’t find them at specialty food stores near you, you can search for them online.
Since nigella seeds are so small, they’re generally only sprinkled on food or otherwise used in small amounts. Still, good fats are found in nuts and seeds, and nigella seeds offer a whole host of benefits, including heart-healthy fats, and potent anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
Naturally gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegan, nigella seeds are an excellent choice if you're looking to flavor your food without the extra calories.
How to Use Nigella Seeds
Nigella offers a grassy, herbaceous flavor to many dishes. The seeds are commonly roasted and ground before being used to season stews, curries, rice, bread, and sweets. The popular Indian spice blend, Panch Phoron, is made up of nigella seeds, mustard seeds, cumin, fennel, and fenugreek.
The most common use of nigella seeds is to flavor breads, like Persian flatbreads and Indian naans. They’re also used on Middle Eastern ka’aks (ancient Arabic ring bread similar to bagels), Georgian khachapuri adjaruli (cheese bread boat topped with an egg), and certain North African white breads.
Nigella seeds can be used whole or crushed. Use nigella to top other savory dishes from Indian cuisines, such as dals, curries, and stews. These seeds can also lend a crunchy texture to salads and soups; for a more profound flavor, dry roast the seeds before using them.
Even though nigella seeds are one of the oldest spices known to have been used, they weren’t always popular. Many people aren’t familiar with this spice and may not know how to use it; here are some ways to use it in your cooking.
- Sprinkle them on top of grilled vegetables or a vegetable salad
- Various curries like Kalonji Aloo or this Squash & Chicken dish
- Sprinkle over rice, egg, and low histamine cheese dishes
- On a whole host of low histamine breads
- Use it plain as a chicken rub
- Use in salad dressings, rice dishes, and as a topping for scones
- Top your favorite soups with toasted black cumin
- Homemade qizha paste
5 Best Nigella Seed Substitutes
Nigella seeds are a relatively unusual spice worth adding to your pantry. The seeds are extremely fragrant, with a flavorful impact. While we may have piqued your interest in nigella, finding the seeds in stores can be challenging.
If you can’t find them or are looking for a nigella seed substitute, keep on reading to learn more about suitable replacements. Depending on the recipe and desired flavor profile, you may need to substitute a combination of these swaps for the nigella seeds.
Celery seed is a spice made up of dried wild celery seeds. They’re available whole and ground in most supermarkets. The small brown seeds have a strong flavor, and their taste is more potent than that of fresh celery. Use this mildly bitter seed as a direct substitute for nigella seeds.
Black Sesame Seeds
Nigella seeds look very similar to black sesame seeds, so the latter makes a good visual and textural substitute for nigella seeds. Common in Asian cuisine, black sesame seeds are the tiny unhulled seeds of the sesame plant. They have a nutty flavor and crunchy texture.
They’re said to be rich in nutrients such as calcium, iron, fiber, and antioxidants, to aid in lowering the risk of stroke and heart disease, and to reduce cholesterol and promote good circulation.
While they are seeds from two different plants, black sesame seeds may be used as a substitute for nigella seeds in a 1:1 ratio. If your recipe calls for sprinkling nigella on top of bread or the like, use black sesame seeds as you would toasted nigella seeds.
White Sesame Seeds
White sesame seeds are small, white seeds that can be used to add flavor and texture to a variety of foods. White sesame seeds have a more triangular shape than black sesame seeds and are less pointed than nigella seeds. They are a delicious way to add nutrition and flavor to your favorite recipes, whether you use them whole, ground, or in oil form.
Sesame seeds contain phytochemicals that have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. They also contain significant amounts of calcium, manganese, and copper. When used in cooking, white sesame seeds add a nutty flavor to stir-fries, salads, ramen, and other cooked foods. White sesame seeds can be used to flavor bread, such as rolls, brioche, and hamburger buns. If your recipe calls for a sprinkling of nigella, use this as well.
White sesame seeds and nigella seeds have very similar flavors - nutty and somewhat pungent. In place of nigella seeds, you can think about using white sesame seeds in a 1:1 ratio.
Generally, when substituting nigella seeds you’d naturally turn to other seeds. Several can be used as a nigella seed substitute in your recipe, but we think oregano is the better substitute when it comes to cooking with nigella seeds.
Oregano is a widely accessible herb from the mint family, native to the Mediterranean region. It has a strong aromatic scent, with a slightly bitter, earthy, green taste. Oregano is the best nigella seed alternative for flavor and aroma in cooked foods; itse fresh or dried oregano as a 1:1 swap for nigella seeds. For foods like naan, swap nigella seeds for dried oregano. It's the best substitute in these scenarios because it captures the mildly earthy, herbal undertones of nigella.
The strong, earthy flavor of caraway seeds also boasts hints of citrus and spice. The flavor profile of caraway seeds is somewhat close to nigella, as well, making it a good replacement for the latter in cooking. Use the same quantity of nigella seeds as is recommended in the recipe.
Caraway seeds can be a particularly great swap when used to add flavor to bread and baked goods, or pair the flavor with meats and root vegetables. Try it in tomato stews,focaccia, and baked potatoes.
In addition to their culinary uses, caraway seeds have long been used as an ancient remedy for indigestion and other digestive problems. The seeds are thought to help stimulate appetite and aid in the digestion of fats.