Nutmeg is a delightful warm spice often found in baking and classic French, Indian, and Italian dishes. Typically used in its ground form, you’ll often see it alongside other spices, such as cinnamon and cloves. No doubt you know the smell, but do you know what nutmeg really is?
Nutmeg is a spice that comes from the genus of trees in the Myristicaceae family, commonly found in Asia and the western Pacific. Despite its name, nutmeg isn’t a nut, but rather a seed, known for its pungent fragrance, mildly sweet and nutty taste, antioxidant properties, and health benefits.
This article will cover everything you need to know about nutmeg, from what it is and where it’s grown, to how it’s used and why it can be so expensive. We’ll also discuss its ban in certain areas, and if there are any substitutes.
As mentioned above, despite its name and appearance, nutmeg isn’t a nut; it’s a seed.
Nutmeg comes from Myristica fragrans, a tree with dark leaves that produces spices like nutmeg (from the seed) and mace (from the seed covering).
Nutmeg and mace are quite similar and are used in food for their unique nuttiness. But in terms of flavor, mace isn’t as sweet and intense as nutmeg, nor is it used as often.
While nutmeg is sold whole and ground, you’ll more often come across it ground at your local market. When it’s called for in recipes, the ground variety is usually needed as it’s typically measured in teaspoons.
Since nutmeg isn’t a nut, almost anyone can safely consume the spice, including people with nut allergies. Some people are allergic to nutmeg, although it’s very rare. However, you should never consume nutmeg in high amounts as it can be toxic to the body.
You’ll get more flavor from whole nutmeg rather than its ground counterpart, though for some people, it can be quite overwhelming. Since ground nutmeg loses its flavor quite quickly, it’s preferred when you’re looking for a milder taste.
In terms of longevity, whole, fresh nutmeg is more storage-friendly than ground nutmeg as it can last longer when kept correctly.
To store whole, fresh nutmeg properly, keep it in an airtight container, away from heat, moisture, and direct sunlight. The same rules apply to ground nutmeg as well, which needs to be kept in a sealed container.
When appropriately maintained, ground nutmeg can stay fresh for about six months.
Nutmeg is oval, like the shape of an egg, and is grayish brown in color with a wrinkled surface. A single seed typically weighs between 0.17 and 0.67 ounce (5 and 10 grams) when dry and is usually about 0.81–1.18 inch (20.5–30 mms) in length and 0.59–0.71 inch (15–18 mms) in width.
What you don’t typically get to see around the nutmeg seed is a reddish aril, or seed covering, which is used for making mace. This is removed and flattened out before drying it, leaving the nutmeg seed to be dried out in the sun.
During the drying process, nutmeg must be turned twice daily for up to eight weeks. Eventually, it will shrink, and the seed will rattle inside the shell when shaken. A wooden stick is used to break the nutmeg out of its shell, which is then shipped off for sale.
Dishes from all over the world use nutmeg, but the spice is more prominent in Indian cuisine. With that in mind, you might think that most of the world’s nutmeg comes from India, but the biggest exporter is, in fact, Indonesia.
Nutmeg comes from Indonesia, with the country producing more than 50 percent of the world’s supply. Most of Indonesia’s nutmeg is produced by farmers, at a rate of about 30–35 thousand tons a year. In 2016, Indonesia was named the biggest nutmeg producer in the world, followed by Guatemala and India.
In ancient times, spices were associated with status symbols, pleasures, and rituals. Civilizations worldwide, such as the Romans, used spices, including nutmeg, supplied by Middle Eastern traders at the time. However, the traders kept the origins of the spices a secret for their benefit.
In the 1500s, the Portuguese started their exploration to find spices, such as nutmeg, traveling to Goa, Malacca, and the Moluccas. Under the commanders António de Abreu and Francisco Serrão, Portuguese ships reached the Banda and Penyu Islands.
Since then, other foreign powers started jumping into their missions in finding spices. The Dutch made their way during the late 1599 and reached Maluku, a land where pepper was abundant.
Banda Islands were the only islands with nutmeg and mace until the mid-19th Century.
In the 16th Century, nutmeg became a valuable commodity, and European traders would sell the spice at a 6,000 percent markup. Nutmeg was used for flavoring and as a hallucinogen and some people also claimed that it was used as an aphrodisiac.
At the time, the Dutch wanted to have all control over the Moluccas and the nutmeg trade. However, the British had control over one of the islands, the Run Island.
Nutmeg grows in tropical climates, such as those found on the Banda Islands, in Southeast Asia. Sitting close to the equator, this allows for optimal growth in temperatures about 77–95 degrees Fahrenheit (25–35 degrees Celsius). They receive a lot of rain, wind, and thunderstorms, but the volcanic ground is ideal for drainage.
Growing nutmeg can be challenging due to the cultivation location. Banda Islands, for example, face threats not only from pests and diseases but also the weather.
Nutmeg trees are at high risk of damage caused by strong winds and typhoons.
Seventy percent of the countries producing nutmeg live in high-level poverty and face climate threats that can heavily affect their agricultural lands.
Typhoons and strong winds can quickly destroy nutmeg trees and in the first four to six years of their lives, they’re at high risk of getting their shallow roots pulled from the ground by strong winds.
Floods are also a big problem as they can cause the nutmeg trees to get overwhelmed by water – as mentioned above, these trees require adequate drainage to thrive.
Indonesia produces the most nutmeg, with more than 43,000 tons being processed in 2019 alone. Most countries around the world obtain the majority of their nutmeg supplies from Indonesia due to the high quality, unique aroma, and rich oils it offers. This is followed by India and Sri Lanka.
Today, nutmeg is produced in several top locations in Indonesia, including:
- North Maluku
- West Papua
- North Sulawesi
Some of the world’s largest nutmeg buyers are Vietnam, the Netherlands, the U.S., Germany, and Italy. However, the demands for Indonesia’s nutmeg have recently declined in these countries, resulting in a 9.5 percent decrease in exports annually.
Nutmeg trees can grow from a height of 30 feet (9 meters) to 65 feet (20 meters). However, stunted growth can happen if the trees don’t get what they need to thrive, such as adequate sun exposure. These trees grow best when exposed to at least seven hours of sunlight per day.
When mature, they’ll have multiple stems and leaves, and the trees can produce two-inch (5-cm) long oval-shaped husk fruits with a peach-like appearance.
The trees will start producing fruits within eight years of sowing and can continue for as long as 60 years (or even longer), but they reach their prime years at around 25 years.
Nutmeg trees can yield fruits for several decades if healthy, but their growth can be stunted if they don’t get the nutrients they need.
The nutmeg trees in Indonesia thrive thanks to the region’s soil which have a high organic matter content. However, nutmeg trees can also grow in the less nutrient-rich soils of Papua New Guinea.
Proper watering is vital to the growth of nutmeg trees, which will die when water is allowed to remain stagnant. This results in rotting roots, poor growth, and is irreversible in most instances.
Nutmeg is cultivated in seed form using soils of volcanic origin in Indonesia. These seeds are collected from trees with abundant yields and the outer flesh is removed before they can be sown by farmers. Typically harvested by hand, nutmeg trees are usually planted on slopes to avoid soggy soils.
Though these trees require hot, humid weather and lots of sunlight, farmers usually place the seedlings among shaded trees to ensure their survival in the early days of growth.
Along with temperatures ranging from 77–95 degrees Fahrenheit (25–35 degrees Celsius), nutmeg trees like soils such as sandy loam, clay loam, and red laterite.
The trees, however, can face several challenges while growing, such as:
- Insect attacks
- Fungal infections
- Natural disasters
- Root rotting
Watch out for shield-scale insects as they can negatively impact the leaves of your nutmeg trees.
Typically, farmers use fresh nutmeg seeds with their testa, or seed coat, still intact to cultivate nutmeg. Using the dried-out seeds won’t result in germination.
For best results, they usually choose seeds from plants that have high monthly yields and will sow them no later than three days after harvest to ensure that germination will be successful.
Farmers sow the seed between 0.98 and 1.97 inch (2.5 and 5 cms) deep and place them 12 inches (30 cms) apart. The nurseries must be set under shade to protect the seeds, and the ground must be moist.
It may take about a month for the seeds to germinate.
Once the seeds have reached the height of at least 5.91 inches (15 cms), the young nutmeg trees will then be transferred to a field where they’ll grow among shaded plants for the next one to two years. Shaded plants help to prevent the nutmeg from getting too much direct sunlight that can scorch their leaves.
Nutmeg is banned in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait because it’s known to have psychoactive effects when consumed in large quantities. Nutmeg contains myristicin, which can give hallucinogenic effects similar to that of LSD. Because of this, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have classified nutmeg as a drug.
Nutmeg is perfectly safe when consumed in moderation. In most cases, you won’t see more than a gram or two in a recipe.
A large amount of nutmeg (10 grams or more) can lead to severe toxicity.
Nutmeg is expensive because it takes a lot of time to grow. It was even more expensive during the 17th and 18th centuries due to its scarcity and the fact that many traders refused to share their sources. The supplies for nutmeg have also slowed down recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It wasn’t easy for nutmeg to be exported back in the day due to the lack of proper and convenient transportation.
Now, nutmeg is considerably expensive because natural disasters such as typhoons can quickly destroy crops. The price of nutmeg is also determined by supply and demand and the level of quality they offer.
Nutmeg is used mainly for cooking and baking, with India and Indonesia being two of the biggest nutmeg and mace users in the world. Western countries incorporate nutmeg into their food and beverages, such as eggnog, and it’s also used for its antioxidants and health benefits, including pain relief.
People also add nutmeg to their cappuccino to give their drink a sweet and spicy flavor. In many Fall-flavored recipes, like Pumpkin Pie, you’ll see a combination of warm spices, including cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg.
Nutmeg is also used for the health benefits that it offers. There are plenty of antioxidants in nutmeg. Some health benefits found in nutmeg include:
- Pain relief
- Relieving indigestion
- Improves skin health
- Can help with oral pain
- Boosts the immune system
- Helps with blood circulation
Some people also believe that nutmeg can increase libido.
Not everyone has access to nutmeg, like those who live in Saudi Arabia or individuals living in areas where nutmeg isn’t always available.
Some people don’t use nutmeg simply because they don’t like the taste. So, what can you use instead?
Mace is a substitute for nutmeg with many of the same flavor notes and is available in most stores as a powder. However, if nutmeg and mace are banned in your area, look to other warm spices, such as cinnamon. Though it doesn’t have the same nutty flavors, it’ll provide warmth to your recipe.
If you live outside of Saudi Arabia, mace will be your best option for a nutmeg substitute since it also originates from the Myristica fragrans trees. You can use a 1:1 ratio of mace if your recipe calls for nutmeg.
Like nutmeg, mace can also cause hallucination when consumed in high doses, so you also want to be careful with your mace intake.
Pregnant women or women who are breastfeeding should avoid taking mace in higher doses as this might cause miscarriage or birth abnormalities. People who have weakened immune systems are also advised to avoid high amounts of mace as it can worsen their condition.
Mace isn’t as flavorful as nutmeg, but it’s always best to avoid higher doses for safety reasons.
Another common substitute for nutmeg is powdered cinnamon. Cinnamon is known for its pungency, so you don’t want to use it excessively if your recipe calls for nutmeg.
Opt for Ceylon cinnamon instead of Cassia as it makes a better substitute for nutmeg since it’s less pungent. If your recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of nutmeg, use half of the amount when using cinnamon.
Nutmeg and mace may come from the same tree, but they’re different in many ways.
Nutmeg is the seed you find in the center of the nutmeg fruit. On top of the seed, you’ll find a lacy red membrane known as the aril used to make mace when removed and dried.
Let’s look at some of the similarities and differences between these spices that come from the same tree:
- Cost. Since nutmeg is more flavorful than mace, nutmeg typically is more expensive. The production cost of mace is lower since nutmeg’s demands are often higher. Even so, many people find mace, like nutmeg, to be on the high price.
- Flavor. Nutmeg has more flavor than mace. However, mace will be your best option if you run out of nutmeg. To avoid your food from becoming too spicy, you should use nutmeg at a minimum.
- Shelf life. Mace loses its flavor quicker when it’s ground. If you’re using mace as a substitute for nutmeg, you should always go for fresh mace instead of ground to get the best flavor possible. When kept correctly, whole, fresh mace can last much longer than ground mace.
Nutmeg comes from the Myristica fragrans tree that originates from the Banda Islands in Indonesia. For centuries, nutmeg was valued as an essential commodity which was so valuable that foreign powers traveled the world on a mission to gain a monopoly of the spice.
During extraction, farmers will use the seed of the nutmeg fruit to produce nutmeg and the red aril to make mace. Despite its name and appearance, nutmeg is a spice, not a nut. While nutmeg is excellent for its flavor and health benefits, you must never take it in large doses because of its hallucinogenic properties.