Caraway: origin, varieties & benefits


Having worked as a journalist for many years I studied horticulture and now work as a professional gardener. I work as a specialist kitchen gardener, growing a wide range of vegetables, fruit and herbs for chefs in the north of England. I am passionate about gardening and writing, and love growing edibles and trying to inspire others to get outside and grow their own.

Favourite fruit: Apples and Raspberries
Favourite vegetables: Beetroot, celeriac, parsnip and broad beans

Caraway has a long and cherished history as a culinary and baking ingredient as well as a medicinal plant. Learn all about the herb’s highly versatile and popular caraway seeds.

Caraway seeds on the plant
As a biennial plant, caraway seeds appear in the second year after it blooms [Photo: Dajra/]

Caraway (Carum carvi) is an ancient herb and spice that has been used for 5,000 years. Even today, caraway seeds are a popular ingredient in many dishes around the globe. Caraway adds a distinctive flavour to recipes, courtesy of its edible seeds, roots, and leaves.

Caraway: origin and description

Caraway is a plant with a long history that is native to western Asia, Europe and North Africa. It is said to have been used in cooking for centuries. Indeed, the caraway plant was mentioned by the ancient Greeks, and caraway seeds were used in recipes during Roman times. Caraway is known by many names, including karauya, Persian cumin, field cumin, meadow cumin, and meridian fennel. It is best known for its spicy and pungent caraway seeds; however, the caraway plant’s foliage and taproot can also be used in cooking.

Caraway belongs to the umbellifer family (Apiaceae), and its relatives include dill (Anethum graveolens) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). It is a biennial plant with deep taproots and foliage that looks like carrots (Daucus carota) with feathery multi-pinnate leaves up to 15cm long. The main stems grow up to 60cm tall and bear delicate white-to-pink umbels of flowers between May and July. As a biennial, the taproot and rosette of leaves grow in the first year, with the flowers appearing in the second. Caraway is an excellent plant for attracting beneficial insects like bees to your garden. It is best known for its fruits, known as caraway seeds, which are brown, smooth, and crescent-shaped. Only around 3mm long, caraway seeds contain essential oils, including carvone, which contribute to their distinctive smell and taste.

White caraway flowers on the plant
The delicate caraway flowers appear in umbels and are edible [Photo: Dajra/]

Using caraway seeds

Caraway is a versatile spice, and caraway seeds are used to add flavour to lots of dishes. Caraway spice is commonly used in baked goods, such as rye and soda bread. Caraway seeds are commonly used to season potatoes, sausages, and cabbage as well as in soups and curries. Caraway roots can be boiled and eaten as a vegetable, whereas caraway leaves can be chopped and used in soups or salads. In addition to culinary uses, caraway seeds are also commonly used to make essential oils due their cleansing properties.

Caraway vs cumin: what is the difference?

Caraway is often confused with cumin (Cuminum cyminum). They look very similar and belong to the same family, but there are some big differences between cumin and caraway. On closer inspection, they actually look different: cumin seeds are less curved, larger and have a lighter colour than caraway seeds. They really taste different: caraway has citrus and liquorice notes and is commonly used whole in European dishes. On the other hand, cumin has a strong and distinctive flavour that is hotter, warmer, and more earthy. Cumin is used either whole or ground in Indian, Asian, and Mexican cuisines.

Black caraway seeds
The black Nigella sativa seeds are triangular [Photo: Tatevosian Yana/]

Are there different types of caraway?

Caraway and cumin are both used to add flavour to a wide variety of dishes. There are also several types of caraway and cumin that are commonly used in recipes around the globe.

  • Black caraway (Nigella sativa): the black seeds of Nigella sativa have a triangular shape and a bitter, nutty, and spicy flavour. Other names include black seed, nigella seeds and kalonji)
  • Black cumin (Bunium persicum): has a very earthy and heavy taste that is popular in vegetable dishes. Often confused with Nigella sativa.
  • Ajwain (Trachyspermum ammi): also known as ajowan caraway, is reminiscent of thyme and offers a bitter taste. Its caraway seeds are commonly dry-roasted or turned into tea to be inhaled with steam.

Is caraway winter hardy?

Caraway is an exceptionally hardy plant that can withstand temperatures below -15 °C. It does not require winter protection; however, in extreme temperatures, it can be protected with fleece or covered with a light mounding of compost or leaves.

brown, curved, caraway seeds
Caraway seeds are more curved than cumin seeds [Photo: Alexandra_F/]

Caraway: benefits and toxicity

Caraway is well tolerated and can help with digestive problems such as indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, and constipation. However, if taken in large doses for an extended period of time, it is thought to be harmful to the kidneys or liver. Caraway oil sometimes causes skin irritation in some people, such as pregnant women, children, and the elderly. Caraway has been linked with lowering blood sugar levels and can increase iron absorption in the body. Caraway seeds are often used to aid digestion in dogs and cats.

Caraway has health-promoting properties, which is why it is such a popular spice plant. Learn how to grow caraway at home in our other article.