What is Caraway? How to Use Caraway

FR: Carvi, Cumin des pres

GER: Kummel, Mattenkummel, Wiesenkummel

IT: Carvi, or Comino dei prati

SP: Alcaravea, Carvi Kummel

BOT: Carum carvi

FAM: Umbelliferae

ILL: Plate 11, No. 3

This biennial grows over two feet high with typically umbelliferous creamy-white flowers and feathery leaves. It prefers a semi-shaded position and a moderately heavy soil, but there is not much difficulty in growing it, and it will self-sow if the seed is not collected. For leaf, it can be sown almost any time during the summer, but germination is rather slow.

Caraway grows wild in Europe and temperate Asia (Persia, India, Turkey and North Africa) but is not native to Britain. It has naturalized itself in North America. The wild seed is smaller than the cultivated seed but has a stronger flavour. Caraway has been used since ancient times. It was used by the Romans and is well established in most European cooking. It is grown commercially in Holland and over most of Europe, Russia, the Balkans and North Africa. A little is grown in England and the United States.

What is Caraway? How to Use Caraway Photo Gallery

The young green leaves of caraway have a mild flavour, something between parsley and dill and quite unlike the pungent taste of the seed, though the flavour changes as the plant gets older. In the Middle Ages (and to some extent today [e.g. Norwegian Karvekal-suppe]), caraway leaves were used chopped in soups and salads exactly as we use chopped parsley or chervil. The spindly tap roots are also eaten cooked as a vegetable in some countries and are excellent.

Caraway seed was important in English cooking in Elizabethan times, but its use has declined. It was used with fruit, in cakes and bread, much as it is used in southern Germany and Austria to this day. Roast apples were always served with caraway and Falstaff was invited to ‘A pippin and a dish of caraways’ by Master Shallow (Henry IVpt. 2).

Children may have traumatic memories of ‘seed cake’ and many adults dislike it. In Austria, where they seem to use it in everything, constant vigilance is necessary. I can well remember sitting on the edge of my bunk in a mountain hut at two in the morning and trying to pick the caraway seeds out of the bread by the light of a candle. This impossible task was a prelude to almost every ascent I made in the Austrian Alps during my apprenticeship as a mountaineer. Perhaps it is due to old associations that I now enjoy the flavour.

Whether one likes caraway or not it is a useful spice when used in unrecognizable amounts in savoury dishes. Caraway is a very German taste, and Germany and Austria are the world’s biggest users. Of course, they use it in cakes and bread. It is used in cheese and with sauerkraut, and also goes into fresh cabbage dishes and salads. It is used in meat dishes (sprinkled over roast pork) and in goulash. While, to my mind, it is the ruination of the fine flavour of paprika, it undoubtedly gives that special taste to the crude alpine goulash one will eat hungrily on skiing holidays, even as far afield as the mountain huts in the Czech Republic.

Caraway was sometimes coated with sugar to make ‘sugar plums’, a digestive. It is also, with cumin (and there is often confusion) the flavouring of the liqueur, kummel, and some kinds of schnapps. Commercially, a caraway flavouring is made in the form of the essential oil obtained by steam distillation of the dry ripe seed. This oil is used in bakery, sweets, candy and other preparations. The most important constituent in this oil is carvone, which makes up over half of the total.

As a final word, a warning: many blogs on Eastern cookery give caraway as an ingredient in curry. This is nearly always a mistranslation and the ingredient should be cumin (q.v.), which tends to be used more than caraway in the East and tastes quite different.

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