What is Caraway?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

An herb is a plant whose leaves, seeds, or flowers are used for flavoring food or in medicine. Other uses of herbs include cosmetics, dyes, and perfumes. The name derives from the Latin herba, meaning "green crops."

Sauerkraut flavored with caraway.
Sauerkraut flavored with caraway.

Caraway (Carum carvi) is used as a vegetable, as well as an herb, and comes from the same family, Apiaceae, as dill, anise, and cumin. Some of the names of caraway, like the German kümmel, tend to create confusion because they derive from a root word that refers to the similar herb, cumin. Both the English and the Dutch refer to caraway as Wild cumin/Wilde komijn. In Icelandic, cumin is Kummin, while caraway is Kúmen.

History. With reports that its use has spanned 5,000 years, caraway was certainly used by 1552 B.C. in Thebes, as reported in a medical record on papyrus. It is also reportedly one of the first condiments used in Europe.

Description. Like the other members of its family, caraway is a tall plant, with feathery green leaflets. It grows to a height of 1½ to 4 feet (.46 to 1.22 meters). The flowers are white, and the fruit, which looks like ribbed seeds and is often incorrectly referred to as seed, is grey-green or greenish-brown when ripe.

Gardening. The fruit of the caraway plant, a biennial, usually ripens in the second year, occasionally the third, after the plant flowers white or pink, often in May. Caraway prefers a sunny, dry location.

Food and other uses. Caraway is used to flavor breads and cakes, particularly rye bread and Irish soda bread, sauerkraut and other cabbage dishes, and stews. It is the primary flavor in Kummel liqueur and in Aquavit, sometimes described as a type of flavored vodka.

Preservation. The flower heads should be gathered after they have died, but trim some stem so you can tie and hang them. Some seeds may fall during the drying process, so it's a good idea to place a container or paper underneath the plant to catch them. Shaking the flower heads will loosen the remaining seeds when drying is complete.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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