What is allspice?
Allspice is the dried berry of the pimenta dioica tree, also known as the pimento tree or the Jamaican pepper. Be aware that this spice is not a universal blend of multiple spices, regardless of what its name implies. It’s a berry of Jamaican extraction that hints profoundly of a number of other spices. This is a versatile spice that can be used in sweet or savory dishes, and it can be a worthy addition to your spice cabinet.
Botanically known as pimenta officinalis, allspice is native to Central and South America but it’s most closely associated with the West Indies island of Jamaica. Jamaica exports the majority of allspice for consumption around the world, so it’s no wonder that most classic Jamaican dishes such as jerk seasoning and beef patties make generous use of this spice. There’s no relation between the “pimento,” as the spice is known in Jamaica, and the red “cherry pepper” pimentos sold pickled and stuffed into martini olives.
It is a relative of the myrtle. You might easily confuse the allspice berry with a peppercorn at first glance — the early Spanish explorers did. These green berries contain two seeds, but they’re slightly larger than peppercorns. They have a rough, dark reddish-brown exterior when they’re dried. The berries are harvested when they reach full size but before they mature. They are then sun-dried, a process that turns them brown. The berries lose their flavor and aroma when they’re fully ripe.
Folk medicines in Jamaica use allspice for a variety of maladies. As an infusion, it’s been prescribed for infant colic and diarrhea, cholera infantum, bleeding from the lungs, and even excessive and painful menstruation.
What does allspice taste like?
Some enterprising spice companies sell a mixture of spices as allspice, so be sure to check the ingredients on the label to make sure you’re getting the real thing.
This berry holds a prominent place in Caribbean and Latin savory and sweet dishes. It’s also an important ingredient in many spice mixes, pickles, chutneys, vegetables, soups — and, of course, desserts. Allspice is a favored component in holiday treats like mincemeat and eggnog.
Allspice oleoresin is a natural mixture of resin and the oils of the myrtle berry and it’s often used in making sausage. It is a major component of pickling spice, which is a combination of ground allspice and a dozen other spices. When used for cooking, this spice may be called for in powdered/ground form or as whole berries. Both are widely available.
Cooking Tips and Substitutions
• Allspice may be substituted for cloves in many recipes.
• For a flavorful peppercorn mixture for your peppermill, add the whole berries in equal proportions to green, black, and white peppercorns.
• To further intensify the flavor and aroma of the whole berries, place them on a cookie sheet and roast in a 350-degree F. oven until they begin to smell, about 10 minutes. Achieve the same effect by using a heavy dry frypan on the stovetop, shaking often over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes. Watch carefully so they do not burn and become bitter. Cool before using.
• When using this spice in yeast breads, limit the amount to 1/4 teaspoon per cup of flour. The allspice can inhibit the activity of the yeast in large amounts.
• 6 whole allspice berries = 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice.
• 1 teaspoon ground allspice = 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon plus 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves.
• Another popular substitution for ground allspice: Use equal portions of cinnamon and ground cloves, then add a pinch of nutmeg and mix well.
Selection and Storage
Allspice is available in ground form as well as whole berries. When the ground spice is called for in a recipe, choose whole berries and grind them yourself in a peppermill, spice grinder, or mortar and pestle for the freshest and most intense flavor. Purchase ground allspice in small amounts from a reputable store with fast product turnover.
Store the powder or berries in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, and never near a hot stove or vent. As with most spices, ground allspice will begin to lose flavor after six months. The whole berries should be used within one year.
What is Allspice Photo ©2021 Peggy Filippone