Poppy seeds have been used for medicinal and culinary purposes around the world for thousands of years. They are popularly accompanied by lemon in baked goods, a nostalgic combination that has become a cult favorite throughout the US. These tiny seeds come from the inner pod of the vibrant poppy flower and boast incredible nutritional benefits that will have us all drizzling Lemon Poppy Seed Dressing on our salads every day.
The first evidence of poppy seeds was found in the Mediterranean region, where they were being used as a mild sedative as far back as 2700 BC. Today, poppy seeds are used in baked goods and other culinary preparations all over the world, but all of the poppy seeds we use are grown in just 15 countries, with Turkey, Czechia, and Spain being the biggest producers. It takes more than one million seeds to make up a pound, and with 168 million pounds produced annually, that’s a whole lot of seeds!
FROM SEED TO SEED
Poppy seeds are harvested from the poppy flower. Each poppy plant produces several flowers, which burst open to reveal a bluish-green seed pod. Every plant has a large central pod (the “hen”) that is surrounded by dozens of smaller pods (the “chicks”). After all the flower petals have died and fallen off, the remaining bluish-green pods are dried for several days and cut open to reveal dozens of tiny bluish-black poppy seeds. Poppy fields can yield as many as 2,500 poppy seeds per square foot. If the pods are not harvested, they split and scatter their seeds several feet around the plant so that new poppy plants can grow the following season.
Poppy seeds can be used whole, ground, or pressed into oil. They are popular in baking in European, North American, and Middle Eastern cuisines. Jewish cuisine in particular has several pastry recipes that use poppy seeds in the fillings. Indian cuisine uses ground white poppy seeds to thicken and flavor traditional sauces and stews. In the US, poppy seeds are usually paired with lemon in sweet pastries like muffins and scones, but are also used in savory applications like salad dressings and bagel toppings. Because they pair so well with lemon, they also make for an interesting addition to simple pasta dishes with garlic, lemon, and herbs.
Not only are poppy seeds a versatile ingredient in cooking and baking, but they are also a nutritionally dense little seed. Poppy seeds are rich in fiber, essential omega-6 fatty acids, calcium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, thiamin, folate, and zinc. Used in higher doses, some studies suggest unwashed poppy seeds added to tea have eased anxiety and promoted sleep. We love them because they are tiny nutritional powerhouses that add a subtle nutty flavor and fun texture to our Lemon Poppy Seed Dressing.