I know, I know, last week I gave you cumin and lamb, and this week I'm tossing you celery seed? All I ask is that you hear me out and let me try and convince you that this spice deserves a couple ounces of your cabinet space. Celery seed isn't a flavor powerhouse by any means, but it's a surprisingly versatile spice and is one of the most convenient ways to deliver a recognizable flavor to a dish.
Many spices taste like complex blends of flavors, especially when used in combination. Celery seed, on the other hand, tastes exactly like celery. Which means that your tasters won't be musing on "hints of licorice," but will know full well what's there. And there are many times when that's just what you want. After all, celery is grassy, a little sweet, slightly bitter, and adds a pleasant chlorophyll taste to whatever it touches.
Celery has been used in aromatic blends for centuries, such as in French mirepoix, a 2:1:1 ratio of onion, carrot, and celery that instantly smells like the best chicken soup ever when it hits hot olive oil. It also rounds out the Cajun aromatic trinity with onion and bell pepper, where the slightly bitter celery and bell pepper transform a dish. While celery and celery seed on their own can be a little harsh, leaving the mouth feel somewhat soapy, they're in several classic flavor combinations worth acknowledging and exploring, and wherever you'd use celery, you can use celery seed instead.
While tasting very similar, celery seed has some distinct advantages over celery stalks. How many times have you bought a bunch of celery to use a few stalks and have the rest rot in your fridge? Or not bought it at all to avoid the inevitable waste? Whole celery seed lasts years and can be used only a tiny pinch at a time. It's not a perfect substitute for the stalk, but it's certainly better than no celery at all.
Celery seed also imparts flavor without any of the accompanying fibrous chunks that many find unpleasant. Celery stalks retain their stringy quality when cooked, which can detract from delicate dishes like soups. Celery seed, on the other hand, marches on without these problems. If you're running short on celery or just don't want to buy it in the first place, add a pinch or two of celery seed and you're set to go. A note on use: in anything but a pickle brine, be sure to grind it. The seeds are so small they feel like sandy grit if left whole. But as you'll probably only be using a little at a time, it's worth buying the whole seeds and grinding as needed for the longevity of flavor.
If you're into making your own pickles, celery seed is your natural friend. It adds a distinctive heady flavor and aroma to salty, sour brines, and works best with cucumber pickles. With barbecue season fast approaching, do keep celery seed in mind: it's a common addition to potato salad (again, it's the grassy compliment to pickles), barbecue sauce, and spice rubs for grilled or smoked meat.
The humble celery seed is just waiting to be used in countless sophisticated flavor combinations. When used in small amounts with considered flavor combinations, it adds refreshing vegetal sweetness that easily cuts the otherwise overpowering richness of some dishes, without all the fuss of the actual vegetable. Now isn't that worth exploring?