Nutmeg-Substitutes

The Top Nutmeg Substitutes for Sweet and Savory Dishes

Perhaps one of the more popular spices, nutmeg is common in meat dishes, sausages and soups as well as savory desserts such as puddings, pumpkin and apple and pies. It goes well with tomatoes and black beans and will often appear in Middle Eastern and Moroccan dishes. Nutmeg also makes a great topping for custard, eggnog and cream as its flavor suits creamy and cheese dishes.

If you have run out of nutmeg for your pie or discovered that the jar at the back of the pantry is well and truly past its best, then no need to panic, there are quite a few possibilities for substituting nutmeg. In this post we consider a variety of substitutes for nutmeg as well as delving into some of the interesting history of this popular spice.

Nutmeg comes from the tree Myristica fragrans which is an evergreen tree native to the Molucca (‘Spice’) Islands in Indonesia. Nutmeg is also cultivated in the West Indies and what makes this tree so special is that it is not just the source of nutmeg, it is also the source of mace.

The Myristica fragrans tree bears fruits similar to apricots. When the fruit matures, it splits in half and nutmeg is the seed kernel found inside the fruit, while mace is the scarlet colored outer membrane, or aril, of the kernel. The remnants of the fruits are eaten locally and the aril-covered seeds (or nutmegs) are collected and the aril is then removed, flattened and dried. This is then packaged as mace.

The seeds or nutmegs are left to slowly dry out in the sun and turned daily over a six to eight week period. As the nutmeg dries, it shrinks away from its hard coat and once the nutmegs rattle inside their shell, the shells are then broken open and the nutmegs retrieved. Whole nutmegs are oval in shape and around an inch in length with a dark brown and lightly wrinkled outer.

Both nutmeg and mace have similar warming and slightly nutty flavors, but nutmeg is often considered to be the spicier and warmer of the two.

Nutmeg in the Moluccas, its Monopolies and More

Traders from the Middle East first took nutmeg and mace to Southern Europe in the sixth century and its use spread to other parts of Europe. When the Portuguese discovered nutmeg trees in the Molucca Islands, they dominated trade until the early 1600s, when the Dutch took over trade.

At this time, nutmeg became an important commodity in the Western world and was subject to plots by the Dutch to keep its price high alongside counterplots by other countries to obtain seeds to plant – as at this time, whole nutmegs were dipped in lime by the Dutch to stop them from being planted. Unfortunately, birds were able to carry the fruit to other islands; allowing Myristica fragrans to grow elsewhere!

However, this did not thwart the Dutch, instead they sent out crews to hunt out seeded nutmeg trees and destroy them. They also burnt any excess nutmeg after a rich harvest in order to keep supply and demand tightly controlled. At one point, the French were able to smuggle some nutmeg out and planted the seeds on Mauritius.

In the late 1700s, the British took over the Molucca Islands and they began to cultivate nutmeg on other islands in the East Indies and then the Caribbean. Nutmeg became that successful in Grenada it became known as the Nutmeg Island and even today, its flag includes a nutmeg on the left side.

Nutmeg was often thought to protect against evil and actual nutmegs or wooden nutmegs would be worn as amulets. Nutmeg was also touted as a cure for many ills such as rheumatism, boils and even fractures.

Buying and Using Nutmeg

Nutmeg is available ground or whole. Although ground nutmeg is easier to use, it is usually sold in small amounts as it can lose its aroma and flavor faster than other ground spices. It is usually at its best for around six months.

A whole nutmeg equals around two to three teaspoons of ground nutmeg and is about the size of an apricot pit and unlike ground nutmeg, it has a long shelf life. To use whole nutmeg, you will need a nutmeg (or similar sized) grater in order to grate off small amounts of the seed. Both whole and ground nutmeg should be stored in a cool dark place.

Nutmeg does flavor easily so when adding to a dish, you may want to start with a small amount – such as an eight of a teaspoon per four servings of the dish.

Benefits of Nutmeg in Our Diet

Nutmeg is a good source of antioxidants which can help prevent the damage in our bodies that arises from oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is linked to many conditions such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Nutmeg also contains monoterpenes and other compounds which act as anti-inflammatories. One animal study showed that rats who consumed nutmeg oil had lower rates of inflammation, joint welling and inflammation-related pain.

Nutmeg was once thought to increase attractiveness, with a sixteenth century monk advising young men to carry nutmeg oil around with them and rub it into themselves to improve their virility. Tucking a whole nutmeg in the left armpit before attending a function was also supposed to improve attractiveness to the opposite sex. Nutmeg is still used in the treatment of sexual disorders in some traditional medicine and interestingly, more recent evidence from scientists suggests that nutmeg extract can significantly increase sexual activity in rats. Therefore, some of the historical uses of nutmeg may not be as far from the mark as they may have seemed at first!

Although called nutmeg, it is not a nut or a tree nut so those who are allergic to these should not suffer any ill effects from eating nutmeg. In large amounts, nutmeg can be toxic as it contains myristic, which is poisonous in large amounts (and also hallucinogenic) but the amount of nutmeg you would use in any recipe are nowhere near the amount required for adverse effects. There is more risk if a young child accidently ingests a large quantity of nutmeg.

Substituting Nutmeg

There are a number of substitutes available for nutmeg, which one you use not only will depend on whether you have some to hand, but also whether you are cooking a savory or sweet dish.

Read on to find out more about our easiest substitutions such as pumpkin pie spice and allspice, as well as few options that you may just be lucky enough to keep in your pantry.

1. Pumpkin Pie Spice

Because this contains nutmeg, along with cinnamon, ginger, cloves and allspice, substituting with pumpkin pie spice or pumpkin spice does guarantee that you will end up with some nutmeg in the recipe. Pumpkin pie spice can be used in savory dishes such as soups, stews, pastas, roast vegetables and meat dishes, as well as any sweet recipe such as apple pie, cookies, cakes and more.

If your recipe called for quarter of a teaspoon of nutmeg, then replace with quarter of a teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice.

Pumpkin pie spice or pumpkin spice has been around longer than you may think. A similar blend of spices were found in the American Cookery cookbook which was published in 1796 and pumpkin spice in its current form became popular after the Second World War when many changes were occurring in American homes as a result of post-war economizing and also the drive for convenience.

Pumpkin spice then had another increase in popularity in the early part of this century as fall-themed coffees became popular. It is estimated that pumpkin spice lattes generate around $500 million annually for the coffee giant Starbucks. The demand for pumpkin spice has continued to grow from this as many more producers introduced pumpkin spice flavor into their products.

2. Allspice

Often lurking in many kitchen cupboards, allspice can replace nutmeg in a like for like amount. Although allspice is actually a berry rather than a spice mix, it was thought to taste like nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon which is why it was named allspice.

 This means that although its flavor is not quite the same as nutmeg, it has enough hints of nutmeg to make it a good substitution in sweet or savory dishes.

3. Mace

The flavor of mace is sometimes described as being a combination of cinnamon and pepper and coming from the same tree as nutmeg, the two do share some flavors although mace is more pungent than nutmeg. Mace may sometimes be described as having a harsher flavor than nutmeg.

Mace is most commonly used in cakes, puddings, donuts and custards but it can also be used in fish, poultry and cheese dishes as well as soups and sauces.

Mace is most commonly available in ground form, or in blades – the whole pieces. The color of the mace will also identify its origins. Mace with is orange-red is usually Indonesian while orange-yellow mace is from Grenada.

The main problem with substituting mace for nutmeg is that mace is uncommon in many kitchen spice collections, and it can also be quite expensive to buy.

You can substitute nutmeg with a like amount of mace.


4. Cinnamon

Although cinnamon does have a different flavor to nutmeg, it is similar enough in sweetness and fragrance to substitute for nutmeg in sweet dishes. As cinnamon is more pungent and brighter in flavor, it is usually recommended that only half the amount of cinnamon is used in place of nutmeg. You can always taste test after adding the cinnamon and add a little more if necessary.

Cinnamon is sourced from the inner bark of a number of trees belonging to the Cinnamonium genus. An ancient spice, cinnamon is grown in various places across the globe, including the US. Historically, cinnamon was valued for its fragrance, its taste and its use in medicine.

Although some research has been carried out into cinnamon, especially around blood sugar control in diabetics, much more research is required into cinnamon and its potential health benefits.

5. Cloves

The spicy, sweet and peppery flavor of cloves pairs well with nutmeg in savory and sweet dishes and indeed, they will often appear in the same recipe. If the recipe asks for nutmeg and cloves, then do not double up on cloves to replace the nutmeg as there is a good chance that this will overwhelm the dish. If however, the recipe only requires nutmeg, then you could use ground cloves.

If you decide to do this substitution, add only half the amount of cloves that you would of nutmeg.

Cloves come from the flower buds of the clove tree (Syzygium aromaticum) where they are harvested when they are immature and then dried. Available as whole or ground cloves, you would need to grind whole cloves before using in place of nutmeg.

Mainly grown in Indonesia, Madagascar and India, cloves have an intense aroma with a warming and intense flavor. It is the eugenol in cloves that gives it its strong flavor, and this is why it should be used in smaller amounts that other spices such as nutmeg, allspice or cinnamon.

Eugenol is also an anti-inflammatory and cloves have often been a popular home remedy for the treatment of toothache, although you should buy diluted oil of cloves for treating kid’s toothache as cloves can be more dangerous for children.

6. Homemade Spice Blend

Rather than just using one of the spices detailed above, you can make a blend of some of these to replace nutmeg. Why not try a combination of allspice, cloves, mace, cinnamon and ginger? Or, you could be more precise and use one part ginger with a quarter part of allspice, cloves and cinnamon.

Although ginger is much spicier than nutmeg it tends to suit most savory recipes such as those containing meats and vegetables. You can substitute ginger like for like, but it can be safer to just add half the amount of ginger, taste, and add more if necessary.

7. Other Options for Nutmeg Substitutes

Like pumpkin pie spice, apple pie spice also contains nutmeg, along with cinnamon and allspice, which means it is also a suitable substitute for nutmeg. The main difference between the two spice blends is that apple pie spice has cinnamon as its main ingredient which means it is not as suitable to replace nutmeg in savory recipes.

If you are making a savory dish, then you could replace nutmeg with the same amount of garam masala, as this Asian spice blend usually contains nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, cumin and peppercorns.

Cardamom is a more unusual substitute, although you should start by adding half the amount of cardamom as you would nutmeg, and then tasting it before you add anymore to reduce the risk of cardamom overpowering the dish.

Final Comments 

If you have run out of nutmeg, it good to know that it is one of the easier spices to substitute. Pumpkin pie spice is a good all-round replacement for both sweet and savory dishes, if not, then other spices such as mace, allspice or even cinnamon can be used just as they are, or even blended with each other.

Do be careful when using some nutmeg substitutes though as some are more pungent and stronger flavored, so a little caution and a little less spice can ensure that your dish is not overpowered by a nutmeg substitute.

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