Getting to Know Nutmeg and Mace is part of a monthly series here on FBC called The Spice Box. Primarily written by Michelle Peters Jones, these articles create a spice primer for new and experienced home cooks alike!
Latin Name: Myristica fragrans
With the holiday season upon us, I am reaching for some of my favourite fragrant spices: nutmeg and it’s companion spice, mace. For me, nutmeg is probably the spice of the season, followed closely by cinnamon, star anise and cloves (it may or may not be a co-incidence that these spices are usually used in boozy eggnog and mulled wine.) The fragrance of nutmeg, for me, is indelibly associated with my home in India, and my mom’s famous flan. We also used to have a nutmeg tree in the garden, and we spent hours dangerously balanced on rickety ladders, harvesting these fruits for their precious kernels.
Once the fruits are harvested, the pulp is discarded to reveal the bright red covering of mace that surrounds the nutmeg. The mace gently slides off the kernel, and is carefully dried, at which point the colour changes to the amber/ orange we know it by. The nutmeg is dried whole, and once dried the hard outer covering can be cracked off to reveal the nut that we grate for culinary uses.
Nutmeg and mace were originally from the Molucca Islands in Indonesia, but are currently grown all over the tropics. The major source for these spices is Indonesia, with Grenada following closely.
Flavour Profile of Nutmeg & Mace
Both nutmeg and mace have a very characteristic warm, woody fragrance. The flavour of mace is lighter and more delicate and is usually used as a complement to nutmeg or when the flavour of nutmeg is too strong to be used by itself. Nutmeg, on the other hand, is an assertive spice that holds it’s own in a lot of dishes. It has a strong, warm, woody aroma, and has slightly bitter tones that add character to many dishes.
Using Nutmeg and Mace
Both mace and nutmeg are used in a wide variety of cuisines. Mace, in particular, is an important component of several spice mixes, the most popular being Indian garam masala. It is best kept in its whole, dried form, and ground as and when required. A few blades of mace can make a big difference. Unlike nutmeg, mace should be lightly dry roasted before blending, to activate its essential oils and intensify its fragrance.
Nutmeg, on the other hand, does not need to be toasted before using. Always use whole nutmeg and grate as required. Nutmeg is a spice that has a very short shelf life when ground, and while it is still fragrant, it loses a lot of its flavour. Freshly grated nutmeg is far superior to the ground versions, and a little goes a long way.
Nutmeg has been used both in sweet and savoury cuisines all over the world, for a long time. In Asian cuisines, it is used in spice mixes and to add a spicy, woody, flavour to sweet dishes. In the West, it is a very common spice, and is used in everything from béchamel sauces to mulled wines and eggnog to cakes and cookies to the quintessential Scottish haggis. It pairs well with both fruits, vegetables and meats and is a staple in holiday baking, including pumpkin and fruit pies.
Along with culinary uses, nutmeg is also used as an essential oil in pharmaceuticals and as a flavouring in the food industry. Once the oil has been extracted from the nutmeg, the resulting seed is added to commercially ground nutmeg. This is because whole nutmeg has too much oil and it makes it difficult to grind – one of the reasons fresh ground nutmeg is preferred in most cuisines.
Nutmeg & Mace Trivia
And finally, did you know that the compound that gives nutmeg its flavour – myristicin – is also a narcotic? In large quantities, it has been known to cause hallucinations and trigger epilepsy. However, it is perfectly safe to use in the quantities we use for cooking.
Have a spice you’d like to see profiled? Let us know in the comments.