No bigger than the head of a pin, a single poppy seed may seem like a small, inconsequential ingredient, but a small amount can have a huge impact on all kinds of food preparations. This concise guide offers tips on buying and storing, ideas on how to use poppy seeds, and links to recipes.
Poppy seed myths and misinformation have captured the culinary imagination as they fall out of favor after centuries of popularity. What caused the rise and fall of poppy seeds, and do they still have a place in contemporary cooking? Read on to find out!
What Are Poppy Seeds and Where Did They Come From?
Poppy seeds have a long history, emerging as a noted food ingredient sometime around the first century CE in the Mediterranean Basin. Of course, the poppy flowers from which they’re born have been around for much longer, dating back to 2700 BC, when it was cultivated for medicinal use.
When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, he began importing spices from the Middle East into Greece, including poppy seeds. Sold alongside cinnamon, ginger, and allspice, this explains why they first caught on as an ingredient in baked goods and sweets.
What do poppy seeds taste like?
Poppy seeds have a subtle nutty flavor and light sweetness that intensifies when roasted or toasted, which is much more apparent in traditional recipes that use much larger quantities at a time.
Although blue poppy seeds are the most commonly available variety, they can also be found in black and white. Don’t go out of your way to find the rarer colors; all three taste about the same.
To the naked eye, the tiny seeds may look smooth and round, but in fact, they’re more of a kidney shape and have a pitted surface. There are somewhere between 1 and 2 million seeds in every pound of poppy seeds.
Buying and Storing Poppy Seeds
Since most people in the U.S. don’t use poppy seeds frequently nor go through great volumes at a time, it’s wise not to buy in bulk. It may be tempting to scoop out just a tablespoon as needed, but such large quantities of poppy seeds tend to sit around for a long time, collecting dust and becoming rancid.
It’s better to buy small bottles, found in the baking and spice aisle, sealed and clearly dated to ensure freshness. Store them in a dry, cool, dark place in an airtight container in your kitchen for the greatest longevity.
While you could theoretically plant food-grade poppy seeds to grow flowers, it’s not recommended to try the opposite. It’s a bad idea to eat poppy seeds labeled specifically for gardening since they aren’t kept in reliably hygienic conditions.
Poppy seed paste is more common in Europe where it’s sold as a sweetened, ready-to-use filling for pastries and cakes. Sometimes it can be flavored with lemon or orange zest, cinnamon, raisins, rum, vanilla, almonds, or walnuts. Read labels carefully because the prepared mixtures can sometimes include butter, milk, or heavy cream.
Best Uses for Poppy Seeds
Since their main claim to fame is in enhancing baked goods, poppy seeds excel as a topping for baked goods like bread, bagels, muffins, and cakes. They add a delightful crunch and a burst of flavor when simply sprinkled over the surface or mixed into the batter before baking.
As little as 1 tablespoons will add a visual impact, whereas 3 to 4 tablespoons will introduce more discernible flavor as well.
Poppy seeds play a bigger role in Eastern European cuisine, where they play a central role in pastry fillings and custards, like Polish poppy seed strudels and Hungarian poppy seed bread pudding.
Don’t count poppy seeds out when it comes to savory dishes, though! They can add an unexpected pop of texture to breaded or crusted proteins, noodle dishes, salad dressings, and sauces. Don’t forget that they play a crucial role in today’s trendy spice mix, everything bagel seasoning.
Poppy Seed Nutrition Notes
Poppy seeds pack a considerable nutritional punch. These tiny seeds are a great source of fiber, essential omega-6 fatty acids, calcium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, thiamin, folate, and zinc.
One tablespoon of whole poppy seeds even has about 2 grams of protein, which is a considerable amount for such a small serving! Learn more in this complete nutrition profile of poppy seeds.
See a link to delicious Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins, just below
Poppy Seed Recipe Ideas and Serving Suggestions
If you want to cook and bake with poppy seeds but don’t know where to start, take some notes from these tried-and-true recipes for success:
Muffins: Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins are likely the first thing most people think of when considering poppy seed recipes and for good reason. Bright citrus offsets the rich and tender crumb of the breakfast cake, while the crunchy, natural sprinkles within add a satisfying, contrasting texture. You can also take a fruitier approach by adding fresh berries to the equation with Lemon Poppy Blueberry Muffins.
Photo: Hannah Kaminsky
Cakes and other baked treats: Poppy seeds enhance all kinds of baked goods. A simple Vegan Poppy Seed Coffee Cake with a subtle hint of actual coffee flavor, this treat relies on pantry staples. More goodies: a plant-based recipe for Poppy Seed Roll and Vegan Lemon Poppy Seed Cookies.
Salad dressing: Traditional poppy seed dressing often uses yogurt or mayonnaise as a creamy base, but Tahini Poppy Seed Dressing is naturally dairy- and egg-free. Tangy and sweet in equal measure, it goes well with any sort of leafy green salad.
Everything bagel seasoning: You can buy this trendy seasoning readymade, but it’s easy to make your own. Use Everything Bagel Seasoning to lavish this crowd-pleasing, savory flavor on, well, everything! From crackers to dip, soup to salad, there’s hardly a dish it doesn’t enhance.
Noodles: Combine coleslaw mix with pasta and a light sprinkle of poppy seeds to make super easy Hungarian-Style Cabbage Noodles, delicious served hot or at room temperature.
Bagels are arguably the most prominent way that poppy seeds are on full display. World of Vegan presents a complete guide to bagel enjoyment, with the best brands, plant-based spreads, and a homemade bagel recipe.
Pancakes:You’ll flip for these Vegan Lemon Poppy Seed Pancakes that are sugar-free, oil-free, nut-free, and gluten-free.
Crackers: Poppy seeds are a fantastic addition to homemade seed crackers. Vegan Rosemary and Poppyseed Crackers and Gluten Free Poppy Seed Crackers are just two of many tasty and creative recipes you’ll find online.
Seed milk: Shake up your non-dairy routine by making Poppy Seed Milk from scratch. Oats and almonds add body to this creamy beverage that’s great solo, poured on cereal, or used as creamer in coffee.
Hamantaschen: Modern hamantaschen, the classic Jewish cookies for the Purim holiday, are often filled with any sort of fruit preserves or jam, but poppyseed filling was long the traditional choice. See the poppy seed and prune variation in our Vegan Hamantaschen recipe.
Contributed by Hannah Kaminsky: Hannah has developed an international following for her delicious recipes and mouthwatering food photography at the award-winning blog BitterSweet. Passionate about big flavors and simple techniques, she’s the author of Vegan Desserts, Vegan à la Mode, Easy as Vegan Pie, Real Food, Really Fast, Sweet Vegan Treats, The Student Vegan Cookbook, Super Vegan Scoops, and The Everyday Vegan Cheat Sheet Pan. Visit Hannah at BittersweetBlog.com.
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