There’s often a lot of confusion surrounding nigella seeds. Some may call them black cumin, onion seeds, fennel flower, or black caraway, while others know it simply as nigella or kalonji.
No matter what you decide to call them, nigella seeds are a delicious, aromatic addition to your salads, soups, and sauces. However, these Mediterranean seeds aren’t as popular as some of their alternatives, so you may have a hard time finding them.
Whether you haven’t been successful in shopping for nigella seeds, or you just need a quick replacement, we’ve got you covered with the best nigella seeds replacements.
The best substitutes for nigella seeds
Nigella seeds originate from the Mediterranean region, but they’re now cultivated and found wild all over the world.
Nigella is an annual plant that has a large seed capsule containing white seeds that turn black in contact with air. When harvested in September, the nigella fruits are then dried and crushed to reveal pear-shaped seeds.
Many records indicate that nigella seeds have been around for quite a while – in fact, they were even discovered in King Tut’s tomb.
Aside from being used as a spice, they’re also a preservative and they’re believed to have numerous health benefits. In Asia, nigella seeds are often crushed into a powder, but many prefer to use them whole due to their crunchy texture.
In terms of aroma, nigella seeds resemble oregano. They’re herbaceous, slightly bitter, yet warm, and many agree that they taste just like a toasted onion (hence the name onion seeds).
Both their aroma and flavor are layered and extremely deep, so they have multiple applications in cooking. In fact, nigella seeds complement a number of dishes, including vegetable dishes, curry, pilaf, savory pastries, and all kinds of pickles.
If you don’t want to add them to your cooking, you can simply sprinkle some on top of baked goods for more texture and crunchiness. But is there an adequate nigella seeds substitute for all of these dishes? Let’s find out.
1. Black sesame seeds
Black sesame seeds are not only a great replacement for nigella seeds in terms of flavor and aroma, but they also have a very similar appearance.
When slightly toasted, black sesame seeds reveal a more nutty, earthy flavor. They are a great choice for encrusting your meat and fish or sprinkled on top of all kinds of pastry, salads, and other savory dishes.
As opposed to nigella seeds, sesame seeds do have a distinct slightly savory taste.
The possibilities with black sesame seeds are endless. You can add them to dipping sauces, tofu dishes, or desserts, biscuits, ice creams, and cakes. In addition to being used for their flavor, they’re also a great option for decorating your plate.
2. White sesame seeds
If you don’t care about the color and all you’re looking for is a substitute for nigella seeds to achieve that crunchy texture, white sesame seeds can do the trick.
White sesame seeds are hulled seeds of the sesame plant, and they’re flat, pear-shaped, with an off-white color. When toasted, they will turn to golden, slightly brownish color, and their flavor and aroma will intensify.
They’re mostly used in baking on top of pastries such as hamburger buns, but they’re also great in spreads, dips, dressings, and marinades.
3. Cumin seeds
Cumin seeds come from an annual plant, and they’re usually boat-shaped, small, and of brownish-yellow color. However, cumin seeds are available in many varieties, including white cumin, black cumin, and green cumin.
If you wanted to use nigella seeds in your bread but you’re out of them, cumin seeds can come to the rescue as they’re a great choice for baked goods.
These seeds are often used in Indian cuisine where they’re known as jeera. In other cuisines, including Middle Eastern and Mexican, cumin is usually used ground, especially in spice blends such as garam masala, curry powder, adobos, and berbere.
Just like nigella seeds, cumin seeds have a warm, earthy aroma, combining both bitterness and sweetness into one complex flavor.
4. Caraway seeds
You’ll love this nigella seeds alternative for its strong aroma, mild anise flavor, and a slightly earthy mix of citrusy and peppery notes.
You can use caraway seeds on top of your baked goods for some extra texture, but they’re also incredible in soups, curries, sausages, and even liquor.
Caraway is also available in the form of a powder spice, and it is a bit more potent than the seeds. If you’re replacing caraway seeds for caraway powder, only ¾ of a teaspoon of the powder will suffice for an entire spoon of the whole caraway.
5. Celery seeds
These dark brown seeds are very small, resembling poppy seeds in their size and shape. They’re actually not seeds of the celery we know and use in cooking, but of wild celery that is related to the “regular” kind.
As expected, celery seeds do resemble celery in flavor, but they have a more earthy, savory taste, and when used in larger quantities, they can also be hot and pungent.
You can also use them for dry rubs, marinades, dressings, and pickling spice blends. If you happen to come across ground celery seeds, keep in mind that the powdered form is stronger and more dominant in flavor.
In case you’re using nigella seeds strictly as a spice, and your goal isn’t to add more texture or crunchiness to your dish, oregano is the way to go.
Oregano is a highly aromatic, widely used herb, available both in fresh and dry forms. It is an absolute staple in Mediterranean and Mexican cuisine, often mixed into different spice blends, but also used on its own.
If you want to take advantage of its full potential, opt for fresh oregano, as it is far more aromatic. Dried oregano, on the other hand, is a more convenient option for many people, and it is subtle enough not to take over the entire dish, while still elevating it.
7. Fenugreek seeds
You’ll hardly find an Indian cuisine specialty without even a trace of fenugreek seeds. Contrary to the alternatives we’ve mentioned so far, fenugreek seeds are more on the sweet side, but they also offer that distinct nutty aroma.
Many would agree that they taste like burnt sugar and maple syrup, and it is precisely this complexity of flavor that makes this spice so unique.
While they’re slightly bitter, this note won’t take over the entire dish, but the sweetness is quite dominant. However, if cooked for too long, fenugreek seeds can become extremely bitter, so you want to avoid using them as an alternative to nigella seeds in slow-cooked meals.
8. Fennel seeds
Fennel seeds are usually oval and pale green dried seeds from the fennel plant. They’re also a great choice if you enjoy a bit of sweetness in your dish, with an earthy, licorice-like flavor.
While many confuse fennel seeds and anise since they both belong to the parsley family, they’re quite different. Anise is grown solely for the purpose of collecting seeds, while the bulb of the fennel plant can be used.
Since they have a dominant herbaceous flavor, you can use fennel seeds to add dimension to your soups, salad dressings, and marinades.
9. Onion flakes
Since many people describe the flavor of nigella seeds to be very similar to a toasted onion, onion flakes can do the trick – especially if you find a fresh onion to be overbearing and hard to work with.
Onion flakes are basically dehydrated chopped onions, which makes them extremely convenient and easy to add to any dish. They can replace onions in soups, marinades, dips, stews, and they’re a more subtle, yet aromatic and flavorful alternative.
10. Cumin powder
Often, when using powder alternatives of their favorite seeds, people are worried that these forms won’t have the expected intensity of flavor. However, when it comes to cumin powder, if you choose a quality product, you will get even more flavor and aroma.
If you’re using cumin as a spice and not as a dry rub or any other type of texture, cumin powder may be an even more convenient nigella seeds substitute than cumin seeds.
You can easily make cumin powder from scratch if you have some cumin seeds and a processor. All you need to do is slightly roast the seeds, then add them into a processor and grind them until you get a fine powder.
How to choose a nigella seeds substitute
With so many delicious, aromatic nigella seeds replacements to choose from, it may be hard making the right call. The best piece of advice we can give you is to decide what kind of result you want to achieve with your spice.
If you’re looking for that crunchy texture, especially on your baked goods, you can’t go wrong with sesame seeds (either black or white), cumin seeds, or caraway seeds.
Celery seeds, fenugreek seeds, and fennel seeds can also provide texture, but they’re mostly added to sauces, dippings, soups, curries, and similar dishes.
Oregano, onion flakes, and cumin powder, on the other hand, are more on the “conventional” spice side – they’re full of flavor, versatile, and extremely easy to use.