Mahlab is a spice that is made from ground cherry pits and is popular in Middle Eastern and Greek cooking. It has a bitter cherry-almond flavor with a subtle anise undertone and a texture that is similar to a fine meal. Mahlab is mostly used in baking, desserts, and for meat rubs and marinades. Middle Eastern recipes use the ingredient in cookies, bread, biscuits, and mamool. The Greeks add it to tsoureki made for Easter and Christmas.
Finding mahlab in stores can be a challenge throughout the United States and in other parts of the world. If you can’t get your hands on any, then you’re going to need a good alternative. We’ve compiled a list of the best mahlab substitutes so that you can create any recipe without the original ingredient.
What’s the best mahlab substitute?
To replace mahlab in your next recipe we recommend using a combination of almond extract and star anise or almond liqueur and kirsch. Ground cardamom and fennel seeds or tonka beans and bitter almonds are also good combinations that will work in many recipes.
1. Almond extract and star anise
Combining almond extract and star anise will provide your food with a flavor that is similar to mahlab. The extract brings almond flavor to the recipe while star anise is responsible for adding licorice. Star anise is often sold as a whole spice, so you’ll need to freshly grind it at home or look for the powdered variety in store.
This flavor combination will quickly overwhelm a dish, so moderation is essential. We suggest using one teaspoon of the extract with half a teaspoon of ground star anise and then taste testing. If necessary, add a little more. To mimic the taste of mahlab, almond should be the dominant flavor with a more subtle anise undertone.
2. Almond liqueur and kirsch
If you’ve got a well-stocked bar then you may be able to put it to good use. A combination of almond liqueur and kirsch or any other cherry liqueur will work well as a stand-in. To replace 1 tablespoon of mahlab try using 1 teaspoon of almond liqueur and 1 teaspoon of kirsch.
Keep in mind that you are replacing a powder with liquid which could affect the ratios if you’re baking. You may want to add a little extra flour or a similar dry ingredient to compensate.
3. Ground cardamom and fennel seed
Cardamom and fennel seed are common ingredients that can be found in the spice aisle of your local supermarket. You’ll get anise notes from the ground fennel seeds while cardamom adds sweetness and a fragrant aroma.
The spice combination won’t perfectly mimic the flavor profile of mahlab, but it won’t be out of place in sweet or savory dishes. If you’re baking a traditional tsoureki bread, then we recommend using a different alternative as these flavors stray too far from the original ingredient.
4. Tonka beans and bitter almonds
Ground tonka beans are useful for bringing cherry aromatics to your cooking and the bitter nuts will provide the almond taste that’s needed. To replace 1 tablespoon of mahlab use 1 ½ tsp roasted and freshly ground tonka beans and 1 ½ tsp bitter almonds.
Note: We recommend checking that tonka beans are suitable for your diet before consuming them. Also, some countries don’t allow the importation of tonka beans.
5. Pure anise extract and almond essence
Use this combination for a quick and easy mahlab substitute that will replace the licorice notes with one splash from these bottles. Anise extract is a fairly potent ingredient so add it conservatively and taste before adding more.
6. Cinnamon, cloves, and bay leaf
Are you searching for a seasoning that’s a little different than mahlab which will still work in a wide range of savory applications like slow-cooked meals, marinades, and sauces? A combination of cinnamon, cloves, and bay leaf will provide a sweet, warming, earthy combination of spices that taste delicious. Use a 2” cinnamon stick combined with 3 cloves and a bay leaf. This option is not suitable for baked goods.
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Fast facts about mahlab
- Mahlab comes from the prunus mahaleb tree, also known as St Lucie cherry or mahaleb cherry. The tree is native to Iran, the Mediterranean, and sections of Central Asia.
- The spice is sold ground or as whole seeds which can be processed using a spice mill or mortar and pestle at home.
- There are a wide range of alternative spellings for mahlab including mayleb, mahlebi, mahlepi, and mahlep.
- When using this spice in cooking, you’ll find a little goes a long way.
Mahlab isn’t the type of ingredient you’ll find in the spice section at your local store. If you need it for a recipe but can’t find it then consider using a combination of almond extract and star anise or almond liqueur and kirsch. Ground cardamom and fennel seed is also a good spice combination that will work in many recipes.
Another option we didn’t mention on this list was dried and ground apricot kernels. They offer a similar flavor and consistency, but they are hard to find and some countries won’t allow them to be imported. There are potential health risks from consuming these kernels so we left them off the list.