What Is Nutmeg?

The spice that puts the 'je ne sais quoi' in creamed spinach and other foods

What Is... Nutmeg?
flickr/yumievriwan

A little nutmeg goes a long way. Try telling that, though, to the inhabitants of Western Europe in the late 1700’s who couldn’t get enough of the spice rumored to be an aphrodisiac — the Dutch fought a war in the East Indies just to maintain their monopoly over production and intentionally destroyed stockpiles to inflate prices back home. While it’s hard to imagine anyone today getting into such a fuss over a spice, it’s still a fairly expensive commodity — a two-ounce jar of whole nutmeg can easily cost $10.

What is it about nutmeg that makes it so valuable? Its unique flavor and aroma — spicy, pungent, and slightly sweet — pairs well with creamy dishes and drinks, such as béchamel sauce, eggnog, and creamed spinach. It is also often found in baked fruit-based desserts such as apple crumb pie, as well as curry blends. Best when freshly grated from the whole seed, nutmeg is a versatile spice used in many cuisines around the world. (Photo courtesy of Alberto Peroli)

Most nutmeg harvested today comes either from Indonesia or Grenada, a small island nation located in the Caribbean where the spice was so important, it was incorporated into the country’s flag. When the fruit is harvested from the tropical tree, the nutmeg seed is separated, protected by a colorful membrane which pops open at maturity. That colorful membrane is also processed into a valuable spice — mace. (Photo courtesy of flickr/smithysteads)

Extending the shelf life of nutmeg is fairly simple and straightforward. Store it in a dark container away from heat and humidity, and avoid freezing it; the condensation that forms when thawing can actually shorten shelf life. (Click here to see 8 Genius Ways to Store Canned Goods and Spices.) When cooking with nutmeg, it’s best to grate it in off the heat, to maintain flavor. Once nutmeg is grated, it begins to lose its essential oils, which give it the characteristic aroma and flavor, so avoid purchasing ground nutmeg; it may be cheaper, but it won’t be worth it.

So next time you’re having trouble pinpointing that extra special something in a dish, you might not know exactly what it is, but you can take a pretty good guess: It might just be nutmeg.


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