Nutmeg is a spice made from the seed of the nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrant), a native Indonesian evergreen tree that is the source of two popular spices: nutmeg and mace. Nutmeg is the inner seed, while mace is the red, lace-like substance that covers the seed. Nutmeg is frequently found in desserts and beverages. It can also be used in savory dishes, such as butternut squash soup.
To make nutmeg for seasoning, the nutmeg seeds are dried gradually in the sun over a period of six to eight weeks. During this time, the nutmeg shrinks away from its hard seed coat. The spice is ready when the kernels rattle in their shells when shaken. It is separated from the outer coat (the mace) and sold whole or ground up and packaged.
Nutmeg has a very interesting history, dating all the way back to the 1st century A.D. It was a treasured spice, considered high currency for trade, and was even the cause of war; the Dutch conquested the Banda Islands, which ended in a massacre, to monopolize the nutmeg trade. This resulted in the establishment of the Dutch East India Company, an amalgamation of several Dutch trading companies.
Nutmeg and mace come from the same tree but do differ from each other. The mace, which is the outer coating of the nutmeg seed, is removed first and ground into a red-colored spice, while the nutmeg pit or seed can either be kept whole or ground up. Nutmeg has a milder taste compared to mace and is sweeter and more delicate; mace is a little spicier and can be described as a combination of pepper and cinnamon. Even though they grow as one, they are rarely used together in a recipe.
Nutmeg is rich in antioxidants, including plant pigments like cyanidins. It has the essential oils phenylpropanoids and terpenes, plant pigments, and phenolic compounds, including protocatechuic, ferulic, and caffeic acids. Test-tube studies have also shown that nutmeg extract exhibits powerful antioxidant effects against free radicals.
Nutmeg is rich in anti-inflammatory compounds called monoterpenes, including sabinene, terpineol, and pinene. These may help reduce inflammation in your body. Nutmeg reduces inflammation by inhibiting enzymes that promote it.
Test-tube studies show that nutmeg has antibacterial effects against potentially harmful bacteria, including E. coli and Streptococcus mutans. A test-tube study found that nutmeg extract demonstrated powerful antibacterial effects against these and other bacteria, including Porphyromonas gingivalis. These bacteria are known to cause cavities and gum inflammation.
According to animal research, nutmeg may help boost mood, enhance blood sugar control, and reduce risk factors for heart disease.
Photo Credit: The Spruce / Anatasia Tretiak
How to Buy
Nutmeg can be purchased as the whole seed or ground in a container. Grating the seed directly into a recipe will impart a fresher, cleaner taste than using store-bought ground nutmeg. Whole nutmeg is approximately the size of an apricot pit and will last a very long time while pre-ground nutmeg has a shorter shelf life.
Ground nutmeg is easily found in the spice section of the grocery store. It has been milled into a rough powder form. It looses its aroma quickly. For this reason, ground nutmeg is generally sold in very small quantities. Whole nutmeg can be found in well-stocked supermarkets, gourmet shops, and online.
How to Store
Store ground nutmeg in an air-tight container away from heat, light, and moisture. When stored properly, ground nutmeg will retain its freshness for approximately six months.
Whole nutmeg will stay fresh indefinitely, but should always be stored away from heat and moisture. If you use nutmeg only occasionally, buying whole nutmeg is the best option because each time it is grated it will provide fresh, fragrant, and flavorful spice.
How to Cook
Nutmeg can be used whole and grated directly into a recipe or measured or shaken from a canister of pre-ground nutmeg. To use whole nutmeg, you will need a microplane or nutmeg grater to shave off a small portion of the seed.
Nutmeg is also an ingredient in different spice blends, such as pumpkin pie spice, ras el hanout, and garam masala. It is also sprinkled over a variety of hot beverages like cappuccino.