Nutmeg’s fragrant and distinctively warm taste is versatile in the addition of sweet and savory dishes from meat and stews to confections and mulled cider.
Together with other warming flavors such as cinnamon, star anise, and clove, this is a spice synonymous with holiday comforts.
If you’re ready to whip up eggnog or spiced holiday cookies but don’t have any nutmeg, there are other spices, probably already in your pantry, that you can use as a nutmeg substitute. In this guide, we’ll uncover all the best substitutes for nutmeg and how to use them as replacements.
What is Nutmeg?
This spice comes from the large seeds of a nutmeg tree. The seeds are sun-dried over six to eight weeks during which the kernel shrinks away from the hard outer seed shell. Once the kernels of the seeds rattle on shaking they are ready, and the shell is broken and removed.
The dried seeds are brown-grey ovals with a ridged surface. They can be purchased as whole seeds or in a pre-ground spice powder. When purchased whole, use a microplane zester or very fine grater to grate the spice into your dish.
It pairs popularly with potatoes, cauliflower, sausage, vegetables, rice pudding, and spiced drinks as well as being used globally in baked goods, pudding, soups, sauces, and Gluhwein.
Nutmeg vs Mace
Although nutmeg and mace look completely different and are sold as different spices, they are actually both parts of the same seed. Mace is the lacy red exterior layer enrobing the seed. It is removed and dried for 10 days to two weeks and turns orange or pale yellow during the drying process.
The two spices have similar properties, however, mace is slightly less sweet and more delicate.
Nutmeg as a Fruit
The fruit itself, inside which the seed lives, is used in Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and India to make candy, jam, juice, chutney, and pickles. It is often prepared with a sugar coating or sugar syrup.
Best Nutmeg Substitutes
Cinnamon is a spice you very likely already have at home, which makes it a sure quick-fix. Since it comes from the bark of a cinnamon tree it can be found in long flat pieces, rolled dry sticks, or as a pre-ground powder. Although it has a sweeter taste than nutmeg, it is used in both sweet and savory dishes and brings a similar warming quality.
When ground to a powder, nutmeg, and cinnamon has a similar brown appearance. Be careful not to add cinnamon as a substitute in a recipe that already includes it in the ingredients.
For example, if you are making a recipe that requires both cinnamon and nutmeg, add only the amount of cinnamon mentioned in the recipe. Rather use another substitute for nutmeg since doubling up the cinnamon to replace nutmeg will be overpowering and unpleasant.
Substitute quantity: Replace ground nutmeg with only half the amount of cinnamon. If your recipe calls for 1 teaspoon nutmeg, add only half a teaspoon of cinnamon. Thereafter, add to taste if you feel your dish can handle a little more.
Best used in: Sweet and savory recipes including pastries, cakes, cookies, curry, squash, pumpkin, sweet potato dishes, pie, and stew.
Mace is the closest alternative to nutmeg in flavor, although it doesn’t look the same. Whole mace has a stronger flavor than the ground version with similar yet softer aromatic qualities to nutmeg.
Substitute quantity: Replace ground mace in equal amounts and add a little extra if you feel the flavor is not strong enough.
Best used in: Any recipe that requires a substitute including baked items, sauces, vegetable dishes, meat and fish recipes, and pickling.
3. Apple Pie Spice
Apple pie spice mix is a warming pre-blended mix of spices including cinnamon, cardamom, and allspice. Since it contains nutmeg in the mix already you’ll get some of the same aromatic flavor coming through.
Best used in: Sweeter vegetable dishes such as sweet potato, squash, and pumpkin, as well as a variety of pies, desserts, cookies, and cakes.
Substitute quantity: Start with half the amount of apple pie spice and add to taste thereafter.
Chef’s Tip: If your recipe calls for other spices, skip adding them if they are already part of the apple pie spice blend. Adding the spice blend as well as the individual spices of the same kind will throw off the ratio by doubling the spice quantities. The spice blend, therefore, acts as a double substitute.
Cloves have a bold earthy and aromatic flavor and can be overpowering when used liberally. However, in small quantities, cloves bring great warmth and are synonymous with holiday spice flavors.
Cloves can be used in their dark brown powdered form or whole. If you are using whole cloves, make sure to strain them out before serving your dish or drink as biting into a whole clove will overtake all other flavors leaving you with a numb and peppery palate. Ground cloves are best for baked items.
Substitute quantity: Use half the amount of cloves to replace nutmeg.
Best used for: Meat dishes, stew, mulled wine or cider, spiced cakes, and cookies.
Chef’s Tip: If your recipe includes cloves and nutmeg, choose an alternative substitute for the nutmeg.
See more: Ground cloves alternative
Ginger root has a chunky shape with light brown thin skin and a fibrous light yellow interior. It can be purchased fresh, as a paste, or in powder form. Ginger has a floral taste with underlying heat and a bit of zing.
The powder is best for baking and adding to batters while fresh chunks can be steeped to make spiced drinks, grated into a curry, or added to infuse flavor in stews and sauces. Ginger paste is mostly used in savory cooked dishes, blended with garlic.
When using ginger chunks in a stew, curry, or drinks, make sure to remove them before serving. Dried, ground ginger is generally an easy option as it blends into the rest of the ingredients, although it may not have the same fresh pop.
Substitute quantity: Since ginger has a spicy flavor, you may want to start with half the amount and add to taste.
Best used in: Savory dishes, however, small amounts could work in cookies and baked fruit desserts as an alternative.
Since allspice is generally purchased in powder form, many people mistake it for a spice blend. However, real allspice is made from the berries of an allspice tree. With a slightly sweet, warm flavor it makes a great substitute in sweet and savory applications.
Substitute quantity: Replace measure for measure.
Best used in: Almost any recipe that requires a substitute.
See more: Allspice substitute
7. Pumpkin Pie Spice
Pumpkin spice is similar to apple spice, however, it generally doesn’t include cardamom. It is a mixture of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and allspice. This delicious spice blend pairs well with sweet and savory dishes and since it already contains nutmeg you’ll get similar flavor notes.
Keep in mind that it is a blend so you may have to adjust the ratio of any other spices called for in the recipe to avoid throwing off the spice and flavor balance.
Substitute quantity: Replace measure for measure.
Best used in: Most recipes that require a substitute.
8. Garam Masala
Garam masala is a blend of spices largely used in Indian curries as well as in marinades. The mix usually contains ground cumin, cinnamon, mace, cloves, bay leaves, coriander, and cardamom. The mixture may differ slightly depending on the manufacturer.
The warm and earthy profile adds depth of flavor with some varieties containing nutmeg and star anise, adding sweetness. When using this as a replacement, avoid adding the other spices in your recipe since the blend is already a very complex mixture.
Substitute quantity: Consider all the spices mentioned in your recipe and replace them with garam masala in a slightly smaller amount. Thereafter add to taste to avoid overpowering the flavors of meat and vegetables in your dish.
Best used in: Savory dishes.
Related: Garam masala replacement
Great in sweet or savory dishes, nutmeg brings a taste of the holidays with its warm and earthy notes. Nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves often go hand in hand, and when something in the trio is missing you may want to find a suitable alternative.
It is always best to start with a small amount and add to taste as spices can quickly overtake the other flavors in your dish. The great thing with spice substitution is, however, that you can customize the flavors exactly the way you like them.
*image by Euripides/depositphotos