A Home Cook’s Guide to Seeds
If anything deserves the title of “small but mighty,” it’s seeds. These wee, ripened ovules are an invaluable resource that has, without a doubt, shaped the course of human history. According to food writer and historian Harold McGee, they’re the reason the nomadic lives of hunter-gatherers gave way to the world’s first agricultural settlements — the origins of civilization as we know it. Shortages of seeds and grains have even led to significant societal, political, and economic shifts. And just last year, Covid-19 caused a seed shortage that disrupted the agricultural supply chain. But more so, they’re a powerful symbol of fertility and rebirth, full of the promise that something small can transform itself into something immense.
Existential musings aside, seeds are also super tasty and, we have to say, pretty darn cute. In the test kitchen, we love to keep a variety of seeds on hand for everything from garnishes and sauce thickeners to smoothies and snacks. Plus, they’re impressively nutritious — ripe with energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
These seven seeds are, we think, worthy of a spot in the pantry for their taste, texture, and versatility. In fact, they’re so versatile, many of them can be used interchangeably. So go ahead: mix and match!
We are certainly no stranger to pepitas, or pumpkin seeds — everyone in the test kitchen just loves ‘em! If you’ve carved a jack-o’-lantern or two in your day, you might be thinking of those flat, teardrop-shaped white hulls, which, of course, you can boil and roast into a lovely autumnal snack. But what really floats our boat is not the white husks, but the green guys at their center, which are high in fatty acids and protein, and have a delicately earthy taste.
Pepitas are the heart of one of our favorite Mexican sauces, mole verde. They also make for a nice, crunchy, toasty garnish. We love them on a hearty brunch bowl of sausage and fall veggies or an endive, beet, and tangerine salad. Also a good idea: sprinkling them on tart, creamy yogurt with chopped dried apricots for a sweet yet nutritious breakfast.
Of course, pepitas are also a really great candidate for afternoon nibbles. One chef in the test kitchen likes toasting them in a pan with a little anchovy oil and salt. Need a sweet pick-me-up? They’re fantastic in our candied nut recipe.
Did you know that flax, also known as linseed, is used to make linen textiles? You could spill some ground flaxseed on the counter, and then wipe it up with a linen tea towel! The thrills of the kitchen!
Flaxseeds are glossy, teeny-tiny teardrops, usually with an earthy brown or bright, golden exterior. Don’t let their miniscule size fool you: they’re packed with protein, fiber, magnesium, vitamin B1, and linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid … but there’s a catch. Our bodies can’t properly absorb all that good stuff when the seeds are whole, so they must be chopped or ground up before eating. (A spice or coffee grinder will do the trick.)
Flaxseed meal has an earthy, nutty flavor, but it’s so mild, our kids don’t even notice it when we mix it into oatmeal, smoothies, granola bars, pancake batter, muffins, you name it. One other cool thing about ground flaxseed is that, when mixed with water, it turns into a thick gel (thanks to all the seed’s sugars). This makes it a great emulsifier in homemade, plant-based mayonnaise, and a fantastic vegan egg replacement for everything from cakes to quick breads. You can even use it to simply improve the volume of baked goods.
The fruit of the glorious, golden sunflower! Yes, it’s true: the black-and-white hulls we call a seed is in fact a cypsela — botanist-speak for the dry fruit of flowers in the aster family, like the sunflower. Only the greenish, meaty heart at the center of this hard husk can really be called a seed. (Though a botanist would probably want us to call it a kernel.)
Of course, that seed/kernel/whatever-you-want-to-call-it is the edible bit we add to seed bread, sprinkle on salads (like this creamy, crunchy chopped broccoli one), or salt and eat as a snack. Roast a few handfuls of sunflower seeds and whirl them up in the food processor, and you’ve got a rich, creamy butter worthy of toast, waffles, pancakes, and more!
Teeny, teeny ch-ch-ch-chia seeds come from a flowering plant in the sage family that’s native to central and southern Mexico. Gray with black and white spots, these adorable, oval-shaped pals are packed with B vitamins and minerals like calcium, iron, and magnesium. But perhaps more impressively, they can absorb up to 12 times their weight in liquid!
When you add liquid to chia, it thickens and creates a distinct, jelly-like texture. The most popular ways to take advantage of this texture is in puddings and juicy, fruity chia fresca drinks — but it also works well in trifles or jams. We love using chia seeds, ground or whole, for garnishing smoothie bowls or yogurt, or mixing into breakfast bars, cookies, and other baked goods. You can also whirl them into smoothies, like we did with this color-blocked mango and goji berry ditty. Or you can eschew all the culinary applications and just get yourself a chia pet!
Hemp, of course, is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant. It produces hard, brown seeds, inside of which is a soft, off-white or light green kernel — that’s the good stuff. And no, they cannot get you high. In fact, hemp seeds are kind of the goodie-two-shoes of the seed world: They’re an excellent source of protein and omega fatty acids, and they contain all nine essential amino acids. They’re also easy to cook with and even easier to eat thanks to their pleasantly nutty taste, which falls somewhere between a sunflower seed and a pine nut.
Much like its parent plant, which has an impressive amount of commercial applications, hemp seeds can be used in a variety of ways by home cooks: ground into a fine meal, whirled up into a DIY dairy-free milk, or simply eaten raw. We like baking hemp seeds into homemade granola, muffins, and breads — or scattering them on top of our morning oatmeal for some chewy texture. We’ve also added them to many a smoothie, like this hazelnut, avocado, and greens number or this nutty banana sipper, for a nutrient boost.
Poppy seeds are perhaps most famous for their role in lemon-poppy seed muffins, quick breads, and cakes. (Well, that and how they come from the same flower as opium.) These itty-bitty, kidney-shaped seeds are dark, dark brown, almost black. But sometimes, you might catch a blue glimmer off a bowl of poppy seeds — an optical illusion created by a layer of tiny, prismatic crystals on their outer husk.
Poppy seeds tend to have a bitter, peppery taste, which is why they work so well in baked goodies, like kolaches, challah bread, and the aforementioned lemon treats. It also makes them a great addition to creamy dressings and sweet vinaigrettes. We’ve even whisked them into a sauce of Dijon mustard, melted butter, and Worcestershire sauce, and then drizzled it all over a tray of savory-sweet Hawaiian ham and cheese sliders. Poppy seeds can also be used as a garnish or to add texture to dips, like this beet and ricotta hummus.
Sesame seeds are a common ingredient in Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, but the plant from which it hails, Sesamum indicum, is in fact native to the central African savanna. Today, however, the plant is grown in India, China, Mexico, and the Sudan — and it yields tiny, teardrop-shaped seeds in a variety of colors, from golden brown to white, violet, and black. The different hues are pretty much interchangeable taste-wise and play more of an aesthetic role in cooking.
For the most part, sesame seeds are toasted to develop a deep, nutty, slightly sweet flavor (they actually have some of the same sulfuric aromatics as roasted coffee!). They make an excellent crust for various meats and seafood (think: buttery ahi tuna), and you can use them as a garnish for all sorts of dishes. Toasted sesame seeds also play well with other spices and herbs, which is why we use them in the Gelson’s Togarashi and Za’atar seasonings — and in our recipe for homemade everything bagel seasoning. But because of their subtle sweetness, we also love them in baked goods, brittles, and other confections.