Cardamom is a spice made from the seed pods of various plants in the ginger family. It is grown and cultivated in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Tanzania, Guatemala and India. Cardamom originated in India but is available worldwide today and used in both sweet and savory recipes. It has an intense, slightly sweet flavor that some people compare to mint.
Cardamom pods are spindle-shaped and have a triangular cross-section. The pods contain a number of seeds, but the entire cardamom pod can be used whole or ground. The seeds are small and black, while the pods differ in color and size by species. According to The Spruce Eats, the color and size of cardamom pods may differ depending on the species. Its two main types are green and black.
The green variety, also known as “true” cardamom, is most common and is used in Nordic and Middle Eastern dishes. It is commonly found in garam masala mixtures and added into curry blends. You can also use it to make beverages like cardamom tea or Arabic coffee. Cardamom adds a unique flavor to Scandinavian pastries.
The seeds, oils and extracts of cardamom have medicinal properties and have been used in traditional medicine for centuries.
Different parts of cardamom were traditionally used for digestive-related disorders like diarrhea, indigestion and constipation. It is often mixed with other medicinal spices to relieve nausea and vomiting. The most researched property of cardamom, as it pertains to relieving stomach issues, is its possible ability to heal ulcers. Cardamom has been shown to reduce the number and size of stomach ulcers in rats.
Test-tube research also suggests that cardamom may protect against Helicobacter pylori, a bacteria linked to the development of most stomach ulcer issues.
Cardamom may be helpful for people with high blood pressure. In one study, researchers gave three grams of cardamom powder a day to 20 adults who were newly diagnosed with high blood pressure. Blood pressure was initially taken at four-week intervals for three months. Results showed that cardamom powder helped lower systolic, diastolic and mean blood pressure and increased fibrinolytic (blood clot-inhibiting) activity. After 12 weeks, blood pressure levels had significantly decreased to the normal range. The promising results of this study may be related to the high levels of antioxidants in cardamom. In fact, the participants’ antioxidant status had increased by 90% by the end of the study.
Researchers also suspect that the spice may lower blood pressure due to its diuretic effect, meaning it can promote urination to remove water that builds up in your body.
The compounds in cardamom may help fight cancer cells. Studies in mice have shown that cardamom powder can increase the activity of certain enzymes that help fight cancer by enhancing the ability of natural killer cells to attack tumors. One study showed that a certain compound in the spice stopped oral cancer cells in test tubes from multiplying.
Cardamom also has antibacterial effects outside of the mouth and may treat infections. Research shows that cardamom extracts and essential oils have compounds that fight several common strains of bacteria. Additional test-tube research found that essential oils and extracts of cardamom were just as, and sometimes more, effective than standard drugs against E. coli and Staphylococcus, bacteria that can cause food poisoning. Test-tube studies have also shown that cardamom essential oils fight the bacteria Salmonella that leads to food poisoning and Campylobacter that contributes to stomach inflammation
One test-tube study examined the impact of these extracts on drug-resistant strains of Candida, a yeast that can cause fungal infections. The extracts were able to inhibit the growth of some strains by 0.39–0.59 inches.
Nutritionally, cardamom is rich in dietary fiber. It’s also a good source of vitamin C, magnesium, calcium, potassium and zinc. One tablespoon of ground cardamom has 18 calories, .62 g of protein, 1.62 mg manganese, 22 mg calcium, 1.2 mg vitamin C, and .81 mg of iron.
The use of cardamom to treat bad breath and improve oral health is an ancient remedy. In some cultures, it’s common to freshen your breath by eating entire cardamom pods after a meal. The chewing gum manufacturer Wrigley uses the spice in one of its products.
Cardamom can fight common mouth bacteria. One study found that cardamom extracts were effective in fighting five bacteria that can cause dental cavities. Additional research shows that cardamom extract can reduce the number of bacteria in saliva samples by 54%.
Compounds in cardamom may help increase airflow to your lungs and improve breathing. When used in aromatherapy, cardamom can provide an invigorating odor that enhances your body’s ability to use oxygen during exercise. One study asked a group of participants to inhale cardamom essential oil for one minute before walking on a treadmill for 15-minute intervals. This group had a significantly higher oxygen uptake compared to the control group.
Another way that cardamom may improve breathing and oxygen use is by relaxing your airway. This may be particularly helpful for treating asthma.
A limited number of studies suggests that cardamom supplements may decrease waist circumference and prevent anxious behaviors and fatty liver. The reasons behind these effects are unclear but may have to do with the spice’s high antioxidant content.
How to Buy
To maximize the shelf life of cardamom seed purchased in bulk. Rub or crush a small amount in your hand. If the aroma is weak and the flavor is not obvious, the cardamom seed is old.
You can find green cardamom sold as ground cardamom and whole cardamom pods in the spice section of the grocery store. You will probably have to look for black cardamom at an international specialty grocer, and you will find green cardamom in those markets at a much better price than the usual supermarket.
How to Store
Keep cardamom in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dark place. Whole pods will last about a year this way and will begin to lose their flavor thereafter. Ground cardamom seeds have a shelf life of only a few months because the essential oils begin to dissipate as soon as the seeds are ground.
How to Cook
True cardamom has a sweet and pungent flavor, with hints of lemon and mint. You can add whole pods of it into dishes. These pods contain aromatic seeds that can be ground to release a potent flavor. Be sure to keep in mind that ground cardamom seeds lose their flavor and aroma quickly, so it’s best to grind them just before cooking
Recipes using black cardamom often call for using the whole pod, with the seeds intact. The pods are then discarded after cooking is done as chomping into the whole pod is unpleasant.
If you’re using green cardamom in a recipe, ideally you’d start with whole cardamom pods. If you buy ground cardamom from the spice section, it won’t be as flavorful since the essential oils of the cardamom seed will lose their flavor relatively quickly after the seeds are ground
You can use powdered cardamom added directly to recipes that call for ground cardamom, but you will get more flavor by starting with the pods. Toast green cardamom pods in a dry skillet for a few minutes. Let them cool for a minute and then remove the seeds from the pods. Save the pods to use for adding to coffee or tea for flavor. Grind the seeds in a mortar and pestle for best results, or you can use a motorized grinder (I have a small coffee grinder dedicated to spices.).
If you are using green cardamom for hot drinks such as coffee, grind three to four cardamom seeds along with your coffee beans and pour your hot water over as usual. Some traditions grind the whole pod, but it’s fine to use the seeds only.
Cardamom matches well with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.