Turmeric 101 – The Basics
Dried turmeric comes from the root (rhizome) of the plant Curcuma longa. Before being processed, the root looks a lot like ginger root. That’s no coincidence, since they are in the same plant family, Zingiberaceae (also known as the “ginger family”). Turmeric is sometimes referred to as Indian saffron since it has as very deep yellow-orange color like the prized spice, saffron. Sometimes turmeric is referred to as “curcuma” in reference to its highly praised component, curcumin. Because of these unique and special qualities, turmeric has been used throughout history as a culinary spice, herbal medicine, and dye for fabrics.
The flavor of turmeric is unique and all its own. The flavor is peppery, warm, and bitter. Its fragrance is mild and somewhat like a blend of orange and ginger.
People in the United States are mostly familiar with the dried, powdered form of turmeric, but the fresh variety is growing in popularity. When purchased fresh, it looks very similar to ginger root. But when cut, the flesh is bright orange and very different than that of ginger root.
Turmeric is native to India and Southeast Asia, where it has been used as a culinary spice for thousands of years. Additionally, turmeric has remained a mainstay in traditional medicine, going back thousands of years in the Ayurvedic tradition. In recent years in the United States, turmeric has become more popular for its natural medicinal properties. The vast majority of the world’s turmeric is grown in and exported from India.
Nutrition and Health Benefits of Turmeric
Turmeric is an excellent source of iron and manganese. It is also a good source of Vitamin B6, fiber, copper, and potassium.
Turmeric is well known for its many health benefits. The health-promoting phytonutrients in turmeric include curcumin, demethoxycurcumin, tumerones, and tumenorols. However, many of the health benefits of turmeric appear to be due to its special compound, curcumin. In fact, most research on the benefits of turmeric actually are centered around curcumin and not the spice itself. The amount of curcumin in turmeric is actually small, only 2 to 5% of the weight of the root. The amount can vary depending on the species, growing conditions, and timing of growth and harvest. However, when possible, use the whole spice to flavor food, rather than its single component, curcumin. Even though the other healthful components in turmeric have not been studied as much as curcumin, there is almost always greater value in consuming the whole food rather than its isolated parts.
Decreased Cancer Risk. Many research studies have demonstrated an overall reduced cancer risk from curcumin. These effects seem to be due to curcumin’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, immune-regulatory, enzyme-related, cell signaling, and cell regulatory mechanisms. These benefits apply to a wide range of types of cancers including cancer of the prostate, pancreas, lung, colon, cervix, breast, mouth, tongue, and stomach. Clearly, you can reduce your overall risk of cancer with regular consumption of turmeric.
Detoxification. Research has well-documented the detoxification effects of curcumin. It stimulates Phase II detox activity by allowing cells to bind toxins together with other molecules so they can be excreted from the body. As more toxins are bound and excreted, our risk for cancer decreases.
Cardiovascular Benefits. Adding turmeric to food helps to control blood fat levels after a meal. This effect was seen when individuals remained relaxed after their meal. When engaged in stressful activities post-meal, their blood fats were more elevated.
Animal studies have also shown that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of curcumin from turmeric improve blood pressure and lower the overall risk of cardiovascular disease.
Improved Production of DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid). Curcumin appears to stimulate the production of DHA from ALA, the essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid. ALA and DHA are omega-3 fatty acids with proven health benefits, improving cognitive function and protecting the nervous system. Many foods contain small amounts of ALA, but preformed DHA is found in only a few foods (mostly fatty fish like salmon and sardines). Largely, the body is responsible for converting some ALA to DHA. However, the conversion rate is small and many people aren’t good converters. Curcumin has been found to stimulate the enzymes needed to make that conversion, helping to increase our level of DHA. This, in turn, helps to promote proper brain function and wards off neurodegenerative problems like Alzheimer’s disease.
Helps to Preserve Beta-Carotene in Cooked Foods. Including turmeric as a spice in cooked foods helps to preserve the beta-carotene in some foods, such as carrots and pumpkin.
Protection of the Digestive Tract. When curcumin is broken down in the digestive tract, it releases vanillin and ferulic acid. These are well-studied antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds that may help to protect the digestive tract from cancer and other conditions known to afflict the bowels. Animal studies have shown that Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and inflammatory bowel disease may all improve with the use of turmeric.
A little goes a long way! Researchers have found that the benefits of turmeric and its compound curcumin can be realized without ingesting huge amounts of the spice. While many studies have looked at the amount of turmeric that may be ingested in India, where turmeric is used a lot, studies have shown that in some situations, as little as 50 mg of turmeric (as little as 1/50th of a teaspoon) when ingested regularly can have beneficial effects over several months.
Helps Prevent the Formation of Heterocyclic Amines in Grilled Meats. Heterocyclic amines are harmful compounds that can form when meats are cooked at high temperatures, such as in grilling and pan frying. Such compounds have been shown to cause assorted cancers in animal studies. Researchers have found that meat that was marinated in a spice mixture containing 1-2 teaspoons of turmeric per 3.5 ounces of meat were less likely to form heterocyclic amines when grilled, than meat that was not treated with the turmeric-laden spice mix.
How to Select Turmeric
Most grocery stores carry dried, powdered turmeric in the spice isle. The color of turmeric is not the best indicator of freshness because it can vary from yellow to orange. Aroma is the best indicator of freshness, but it’s not possible to smell the powder when purchasing the powder prepackaged. Look for a “Best by” date stamped somewhere on the container and use that as your guide for freshness.
Some stores are carrying fresh turmeric, which can be found in the refrigerated produce section, often near ginger root. Many people prefer the flavor of fresh turmeric over that of dried, powdered and will opt for fresh roots if they are available. When buying fresh turmeric, choose firm roots and avoid those that are soft, wrinkled, or shriveled.
How to Store Turmeric
Store dried, powdered turmeric in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark place such as a cupboard or your pantry. Use it within a year.
Fresh turmeric root should be stored in the refrigerator, wrapped in a plastic bag or in an airtight container. It should be used within a week or two. If you cannot use it all within that time, the remainder may be frozen for several months.
Dried vs Fresh Turmeric
Dried Turmeric. Dried turmeric is relatively easy to find in the spice isle of most Western grocery stores. Dried turmeric comes from the same rhizome (root) as does fresh. It was simply dried first and ground into a powder.
Fresh Turmeric. Turmeric is not used in Western foods as heavily as it is used in Asian and other cultures around the world. Because of that, many grocery stores do not carry fresh turmeric root. If they do stock it, the rhizome would be found in the refrigerated section of the produce department, often near ginger root. If your store does not carry it, try finding it in a specialty store that specializes in ethnic foods, such as Asian or Indian cuisine supplies.
Shelf Life. Fresh turmeric can last a few weeks in the refrigerator. Powdered turmeric can last for years when stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place, away from light. However, for best flavor, use dried turmeric within six months to a year.
Flavor. When compared in cooked dishes, both dried and fresh turmeric are indistinguishable, lending a mild flavor to the food. In an uncooked dish, fresh turmeric may impart a gingery heat to food if a lot of it is used.
Nutrient Availability. Turmeric has a lot of antioxidants that prove to be extremely health-promoting. Those found in fresh turmeric are more easily absorbed and used by the body than those found in the powdered form. For the best nutrient absorption, use turmeric with black pepper and a little added fat in a food. The compounds in turmeric are fat-soluble and the piperine in black pepper makes compounds in turmeric more bioavailable.
Interchangeability. The flavor of fresh turmeric may be a bit brighter when used in a raw food application. However, when used in a cooked food, the flavors of fresh and dried turmeric are considered to be indistinguishable. When substituting one for the other, use three times more of fresh, grated turmeric than you would the powdered version (1 tablespoon of freshly grated turmeric = 1 teaspoon of dried, powdered turmeric).
Which Application for Which Food? Use fresh turmeric when making a fresh or raw food, such as a smoothie or pickles. You will get the full benefit of the flavor and nutritional components that way. When using turmeric in cooked foods or when making a dry rub, use powdered turmeric.
How to Prepare Fresh Turmeric
Just like when using fresh ginger, fresh turmeric should be peeled first. Some people use the edge of a teaspoon to peel the rhizome since it won’t cut into the flesh as much as a paring knife. Then cut off whole pieces or grate it with a microplane grater. Wrap any unused portion with plastic wrap and store it in the refrigerator for up to 7 to 10 days.
Quick Ideas and Tips for Using Turmeric
* When substituting fresh for dried turmeric (or vice versa), the equivalents are as follows: 1 inch of fresh turmeric = 1 tablespoon freshly grated turmeric = 1 teaspoon dried, ground turmeric powder
* Try adding a pinch of turmeric to scrambled eggs. The color will blend in and the flavor will be subtle.
* Toss a little powdered turmeric onto vegetables before roasting them. This works well with cauliflower, potatoes, and root vegetables.
* Try adding a pinch of powdered turmeric to rice. It will give it some color and a little flavor.
* Sprinkle powdered turmeric on sautéed or braised greens like kale, collards, and cabbage.
* Add a pinch of powdered turmeric to chicken or vegetable soup.
* Try a slice of fresh turmeric (or a pinch of powdered) in fresh juice or smoothies.
* Fresh turmeric stains very easily and quickly. To avoid stains on your hands, wear kitchen gloves when working with it. To remove stains from cutting boards and counter tops, try soap and water as quickly as you can after the stain appears. You may also use diluted bleach, Soft Scrub, or a paste made with baking soda and water. However, to be sure the chemicals won’t harm your counter top, try them in a very small, inconspicuous area first just to be sure!
* Add a little turmeric powder to egg salad to give it a deeper color.
* Try mixing cooked brown rice with raisins, cashews and a little turmeric, cumin and coriander.
* To give salad dressings a yellow hue, add a pinch of turmeric powder.
* Add a little powdered turmeric to macaroni and cheese.
* If you’re not used to adding turmeric to foods, use a small amount at first. The flavor is distinct, and the color is very concentrated and may impart a yellow color to your food. Too much may make a food look somewhat muddy or give it a flavor you don’t want. When not sure, start with 1/8 teaspoon at a time.
* To make the nutrients and healthful compounds in turmeric more bioavailable, include some black pepper and a little fat in the same food as the turmeric. The piperine in black pepper makes the antioxidants in turmeric more useable by the body, and the fat increases absorption.
* Make golden pancakes! Add ½ teaspoon of powdered turmeric to dry pancake mix. This will give your pancakes a deep golden color.
* Add freshly grated turmeric to marinades for meat, fish, or poultry.
* Add grated fresh turmeric to your favorite stir-fry.
Herbs and Spices That Go Well with Turmeric
Cilantro, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, curry powder, ginger, lemongrass, mustard and mustard seeds, pepper (black)
Foods That Go Well with Turmeric
Proteins, Legumes, Nuts, Seeds: Beef, chicken, chickpeas, eggs, lamb, lentils, nuts and seeds (in general), peanuts, peas, tofu
Vegetables: Carrots, cauliflower, chiles, garlic, ginger, greens, kohlrabi, okra, onions, potatoes, scallions, shallots, spinach, squash (winter), sweet potatoes, vegetables (root)
Fruits: Avocados, coconut, cranberries, currants, lemon, lime, raisins, tamarind
Grains and Grain Products: Grains (in general), noodles, quinoa, rice
Dairy and Non-Dairy: Coconut milk, yogurt
Other Foods: Oil (esp. olive), sugar (esp. brown)
Turmeric has been used in the following cuisines and dishes…
Curries, dals, stewed greens, Indian cuisine, Middle Eastern cuisines, Moroccan cuisine, mustard (prepared), pickles, salad dressings, salads, sauces, soups, Southeast Asian cuisines, stews, stir-fries, tagines, Thai cuisine, tofu scrambles
Suggested Flavor Combos Using Turmeric
Add turmeric to any of the following combinations…
Basmati Rice + Dried Fruit + Garlic + Lemon + Pistachios + Scallions
Black Pepper + Lemon Juice + Olive Oil
Carrots + Chickpeas + Cinnamon + Couscous + Saffron + Zucchini
Cilantro + Cumin + Garlic + Onion + Paprika + Parsley + Pepper
Coriander + Cumin
DIY Curry Powder https://minimalistbaker.com/diy-curry-powder/
20 Tasty Turmeric Recipes to Spice Up Your Life https://www.thekitchn.com/recipes-with-turmeric-223795
The Best Ways to Cook with Turmeric https://www.mashed.com/51847/best-ways-cook-turmeric/
Sunshine Smoothie with Coconut, Clementine, and Turmeric https://www.thekitchn.com/recipe-sunshine-smoothie-with-coconut-clementine-and-turmeric-recipes-from-the-kitchn-199347
Cauliflower Steaks with Ginger, Turmeric, and Cumin https://www.thekitchn.com/recipe-cauliflower-steaks-recipes-from-the-kitchn-195541
The Superfood Baked Potato https://www.thekitchn.com/recipe-the-superfood-baked-potato-recipes-from-the-kitchn-201261
Turmeric-Ginger Tea https://www.thekitchn.com/recipe-turmericginger-tea-104084
Southwestern Tofu Scramble https://www.thekitchn.com/recipe-southwestern-tofu-scramble-recipes-from-the-kitchn-183466
Mixed Bean Masala with Fragrant Yellow Rice https://www.thekitchn.com/recipe-mixed-bean-masala-with-fragrant-yellow-rice-177562
5-Minute Vegan Golden Milk https://minimalistbaker.com/5-minute-vegan-golden-milk/
Golden Milk (Turmeric Milk) https://downshiftology.com/recipes/turmeric-milk-dairy-free/#wprm-recipe-container-32718
Page, Karen. (2014) The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Julia W. Klee (Judi) began her journey enjoying “all things food” in elementary school when she started preparing meals for her family. That love of food blossomed into a quest to learn more and more about health and wellness as related to nutrition. She went on to earn a BS Degree in Food and Nutrition, then an MS Degree in Nutrition. She has taught nutrition and related courses at the college level to pre-nursing and exercise science students. Her hunger to learn didn’t stop upon graduation from college. She continues to research on a regular basis about nutrition as it relates to health. Her hope is to help as many people as possible to enjoy foods that promote health and wellness.