Nigella Seeds Substitutes: Alternative Options Explained

A rather uncommon spice that nonetheless imparts a rather impactful flavor of pepperiness accented by notes of smokiness and sweetness, nigella seeds are used in a variety of cuisines for the very same flavor profile that it is characteristic of.

Due to a lack of availability in one’s geographical area or for a multitude of other reasons, however, nigella seeds may require substitution with another ingredient capable of replicating whatever attribute the recipe requires of nigella seeds themselves.

The best flavor substitutes for nigella seeds are cumin seeds, caraway seeds, or celery seed. The best appearance substitutes for nigella seeds are black sesame seeds, sesame seeds, or poppy seeds. The best seasoning substitutes for nigella seeds are coriander spice, celery salt, oregano, or cumin.

What Other Names are Nigella Seeds Known as?

Nigella seeds are known by a variety of alternative names, such as Charnushka in Russian or Kalonji in Japanese, black caraway by another name or even the term fennel flowers when referring to the entire plant itself and not simply its seeds.

nigella seeds

Are Onion Seeds and Nigella Seeds the Same?

Despite the fact that nigella seeds are occasionally referred to as black onion seeds, they are not in fact related in any way to onions or seeds from which onion plants are grown from, and as such do not even possess a similar flavor profile in any way save for the level of pungency they may impart by way of their taste profiles.

It is important to keep in mind that despite the fact that onions and nigella seeds are entirely unrelated, nigella seeds may still be referred to as onion seeds or as black onion seeds, a rather confusing distinction that nonetheless must be remembered so as to prevent one from purchasing the wrong ingredient for their recipe.

Are Nigella Seeds the Same as Black Cumin?

Unlike the term onion seed, nigella seeds are in fact the exact same sort of seasoning as black cumin, of which is simply yet another alternative name for the fennel flower derived seed food product.

This is not to say that nigella seeds possess the same flavor profile or plant source as the spice known as cumin, however, and the term black cumin is simply a colloquialism not meant to denote any similarity between said nigella seeds and cumin itself.

As such, any sort of recipe that lists black cumin in its ingredient list should not have it substituted with cumin or cumin seeds themselves, as the flavor profile and appearance of these two distinctly different seasonings can be quite far apart when used in the incorrect recipe or in unsuitable volumes.

What Flavors are Found in Nigella Seeds?

Nigella seeds are rather flavorful, and are best described as peppery with a strong undercurrent of nuttiness and smokiness, all of which is understated by notes of sweetness and bitterness.

With such a complex flavor profile, it should be no surprise to find that nigella seeds also possess a similarly intense and complex aroma, of which is usually compared to thyme with a note of sweetness beneath the otherwise strong smell.

In terms of finding potential substitutions, this equates to whatever alternative ingredient to nigella seeds also requiring a similarly intense aroma or flavor profile, so as to not be underwhelmed or otherwise  overwhelm the entire recipe as a whole.

Flavor Substitutes for Nigella Seeds

With an intense body of flavor usually found to be peppery and nutty, substituting nigella seeds with an alternative ingredient capable of replicating these particular flavor characteristics may be rather difficult, especially in more simplistic dishes that do not offer the benefit of multiple other ingredients to cover up the differences in taste.

Fortunately, however, several alternative ingredients do exist that fulfill these particular requirements, the majority of which are likely far easier to acquire or purchase than nigella seeds themselves, especially in parts of the Western hemisphere where Nigella seeds are not native to.

Cumin Seeds

Usually purchased in its ground and powdered form instead of as whole seeds, cumin seeds are nonetheless one of the most accessible flavor substitutes for nigella seeds in the creation of such dishes like baked goods or Asian cuisine wherein its sweet, ever so slightly nutty and quite earthy flavor is quite similar to the main body of taste also found in nigella seeds.

cumin seeds

If making recipes like stews or soups and subsequently substituting the presence of nigella seeds with cumin seeds, it is important to remove the cumin seeds after completing the cooking process so as to improve the recipe’s textural consistency without directly removing the flavor imparted by said cumin seeds.

Caraway Seeds

Slightly different in flavor in comparison to nigella seeds due to the presence of a distinctly citrus-y taste, caraway seeds are yet another excellent flavor substitute for the latter seed due to their otherwise quite similar flavor profile, with comparable notes of earthiness and pepperiness that make caraway excellent in particularly savory dishes such as meat or fish recipes.

When using caraway seeds as potential nigella seed substitutes, it is best to err on the lower end of its usage, as too much caraway being added to an otherwise savory recipe may begin to take on flavors of anise, potentially ruining the total flavor profile of the entire dish.

Celery Seed

Somewhat less common than the previous two flavor substitutes on this list, celery seed is best used as a substitute for nigella seeds in the sort of recipes that incorporate a sort of acidity into their total flavor profile – such as certain sauces or tomato based dishes.

This is due to the fact that celery seed, unlike nigella seeds, possesses a rather mellowed flavor, of which is primarily characterized by an earthiness that is quite similar to the undercurrent of taste found in nigella seeds, though with none of the sweetness or peppery sharpness that accompanies said earthiness.

Appearance Substitutes for Nigella Seeds

As can be deduced from their multitude of names, nigella seeds possess a rather dark appearance with a rough texture and a conical shape, all of which are condensed in a seed approximately the size of a sesame seed, making nigella seeds quite popular for use in such things like burger buns or other baked breads.

Though usually considered a secondary usage for nigella seeds, their use for the purposes of aesthetics is a substitutable one, with certain other kinds of seeds with extremely similar appearances being able to fulfill such a capacity with practically no difference in the appearance of the end product.

Black Sesame Seeds

The most similar in appearance and size to nigella seeds, black sesame seeds may replace nigella seeds for the purposes of aesthetic appearance in practically any recipe that normally uses nigella seeds for such a purpose.

black sesame seeds

A benefit to substituting nigella seeds with black sesame seeds in the partial similarity, not only in their appearance but also in their flavors, with black sesame seeds also possessing a slightly smoky and distinctly nutty body of taste, especially if subjected to direct heat such as what is seen in baking or roasting.

Sesame Seeds

Though the opposite in color, sesame seeds of the non-dark variety may also act in both an aesthetic and flavor substitutional capacity for nigella seeds, especially when roasted or toasted prior to being incorporated into whatever recipe was meant to originally contain the nigella seeds.

This is due to the fact that sesame seeds may take on a dark brown to caramel color when heated appropriately, as well as develop a distinctly nutty and slightly earthy aroma and flavor profile that may partially recreate the characteristics of nigella seeds.

Poppy Seeds

Far smaller in size and more circular in shape, poppy seeds are nonetheless yet another excellent appearance substitute for nigella seeds in whatever recipe requires a multitude of small and dark seeds to coat its exterior, such as in bread or bagels.

An added benefit to using poppy seeds as nigella seed substitutes in the fact that they also share several key notes of flavor between the two taste profiles, with the particular flavor profile of poppy seeds being best described as “nutty” or even fruity when ground or creamed sufficiently enough, allowing poppy seeds to recreate some of the flavors found in nigella seeds while still acting as an appearance substitute.

Seasoning Substitutes for Nigella Seeds

In the event that the required substitute for nigella seeds need only take the form of a seasoning as opposed to that of a seed or similar ingredient, there are several possible alternative seasoning ingredients that may be used in order to recreate the rather complex flavor profile found in nigella seeds themselves.

Coriander Spice

Produced from the ground and dried seeds of the coriander herb plant, coriander as a spice imparts what is usually recognized as a sweet and somewhat citrus-y flavor, quite unlike that of nigella seeds and as such apparently a poor substitute in terms of flavor.

However, this is not entirely true, as combining coriander spice alongside other ingredients of a recipe that would normally include nigella seeds such as curry powder or cumin spice can actually enhance the flavors of these adjacent ingredients, not only improving their taste but also helping recreate the flavors of nigella seeds without the actual presence of said seeds.

Celery Salt

celery salt

Much like celery seeds themselves, celery salt possesses a flavor profile described as peppery and sharp with notes of bitterness and a slightly herbal aroma that brings it quite close in terms of taste to nigella seeds, especially when combined with certain other spices of the more earthy flavor.

When choosing to substitute nigella seeds for celery salt, it is best to use a lower volume of the spice and to taste test the dish intermittently so as to ensure that it is not overpowered by the celery flavor of celery salt, as too much of the seasoning can easily cover up the finer notes of flavor that may be found in certain recipes, unlike nigella seeds.


Quite similar in odor as well as intensity of flavor to nigella seeds, oregano is often used as a flavor substitute for the latter seed in such cuisines like Mediterranean and certain North African cultures, wherein its rather strong and earthy flavor profile accented by a minor bitterness is found to be quite similar to the flavors found in nigella seeds as well.

Oregano is best used as a nigella seed substitute in the sort of recipe that can fully take advantage of its herbal and aromatic nature, such as in moist baked goods or casseroles that subject the oregano to direct heat and moisture so as to fully extract as much flavor and aroma as possible from the spice, creating a comparable level of intensity to nigella seeds.


ground cumin

The ground and roasted form of cumin seeds (which were already mentioned previously in this article), cumin in its spice form is somewhat more suitable as a flavor substitute to nigella seeds than cumin seeds themselves.

This is due to the fact that, as a powder, cumin’s rather intense and earthy flavor may more readily distribute itself throughout a recipe, unlike that of its seed form.

Additionally, the fact that cumin spice undergoes toasting or roasting during its manufacturing process helps bring out the more heady and mature flavors otherwise hidden in its flavor profile, not only creating a more aromatic spice but also bringing its taste closer to that of nigella seeds.


1. “Nigella sativa”. Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN). Agricultural Research Service (ARS), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

2. Raghavan, Susheela (2006). Handbook of spices, seasonings, and flavorings. CRC Press. p. 158. ISBN 978-0-8493-2842-8.

3. McGee, Harold (2004). On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Simon and Schuster. p. 513. ISBN 978-0-684-80001-1.

4. Khan, M.A. Chemical composition and medicinal pro perties of Nigella sativa Linn.. Inflamm opharmacol 7, 15–35 (1999).

Dominic Peterson
Hey there! My name is Dominic but everyone calls me “Dom.” Food is a huge part of my life and allows me to share my foodie experiences with the world.