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Your guide to the world of herbs and spices—how to spot them, where to get them, and how to cook with them

Spice Hunting: Dill Seed

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

It's a quirk of edible herbs that they often taste little like their seeds. Dill is one of these, and one of the most recognizable herbs to boot. My inner Slav loves all things dill, which is why I was surprised to realize I haven't had much experience with dill seeds. Looking around, it seemed I wasn't alone in my neglect. But while it lacks the bright, lemony shot of heaven that is dill weed, it's a surprisingly versatile background player in recipes spanning cultures and diets.

Dill seeds are easily recognized by their wide, flat, tear-shaped pods with light brown borders and dark, oak-like centers. Sampled fresh, they taste an awful lot like caraway, but with a lighter flavor faintly reminiscent of dill weed. They've got a camphorous side to them, conjuring visions of musty Russian caravans with hot, earthy food on the fire and something decidedly Old Country in the air. Spices are the easiest form of travel, and the old-fashioned dill seed evokes a time and place well worth visiting, especially from a culinary standpoint.

Dill is a member of the apiaceae family, related to the likes of caraway, anise, chervil, coriander, parsley, and carrots. That's why parsley, carrot, and dill stems all taste similar—they carry similar aromatic compounds. This botanical family tree points the way to a number of flavor pairings and uses. Dill seed completes the flavor of these other plants: what grows together goes together.

How to Use Dill Seed

The varied cuisines of Eastern Europe just beg for dill seeds, which is where they originated before spreading to the Mediterranean and Asia. I love them with hearty root vegetables, both raw and cooked. The old standby of shredded carrots with coriander and lemon receives a welcome earthy kick from dill seed, which compliments the carrots' earthy sweetness. Dill seed performs equally well in soups and braised dishes, especially with meaty eggplant or cruciferous vegetables like cabbage. Its camphorous properties have made it a folk remedy to improve digestion. As the line between food and medicine is often blurred, dill seeds have been used with fatty roast meats to ease the stomach.

Like most hearty foods, dill seeds scream for some acidity. While the slightly sour dill weed is especially nice, lemon or vinegar work beautifully. Try dill seeds in pickle brines for cucumbers, beets, and carrots. Or try it with pickled fish: Along with vinegar, it helps to cut any unwelcome fishy funkiness.

But dill seeds aren't restricted to Eastern European food. Following well-worn Eurasian trade routes, they made their way into Indian cuisine, where they're cooked in dal with lentils or fried with other spices as a tadka, a last minute topping before service. In another case of folk medicine, the seeds are used to make legumes easier to digest.

Dill seeds can be toasted, fried, or cooked in broths. You don't have to grind them—their high surface area allows them to plump up and become toothsome. When you add them depends on how much flavor you want them to impart. Add them at the start for a fuller, mellower flavor, or shortly before serving to retain the seeds' pungency. I tend to use them at the beginning of a recipe and then add fresh dill weed before serving to refresh its flavor. My favorite application for them is a classic borsch (no t please; there's none in the Cyrillic spelling), a recipe not in the slightest diminished by its age, and an excuse to eat unforgivable amounts of sour cream.

As a general guide, when I want to cut something that may otherwise be overly rich, like a cream-based puréed soup, I reach for pungent dill seeds. On the flipside, they're perfect for covering up funky, undesirably flavors in gamey meats or sulfurous cabbages. This is an Old World spice just waiting for some New World applications.

Where to Find Dill Seeds

Dill seeds are increasingly easy to find—McCormick carries them in supermarkets. But for fresher seeds, check a well-stocked Eastern European market. Indian groceries, which devote more shelf space to spices, are also a good bet. You can also buy them online at The Spice House for about $1 an ounce.

About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries.

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