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How to Make Garam Masala

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Garam Masala

Garam masala is a versatile and popular spice mix that adds a gentle kick and tantalising aroma to curries and other savoury dishes. With ‘garam’ meaning ‘warm’ in Hindi, and ‘masala’ simply meaning ‘spice blend’, different regions of India have developed their own interpretations of the recipe over the centuries. These vary in heat (getting spicier as you venture further south), and can contain anything from six to thirty-six different ingredients.

Although garam masala is available ready-mixed, it is highly recommended that you make your own as this significantly adds to its intensity and enables you to find a mixture that suits your palate. There are plenty of different flavour combinations to explore and great scope for improvisation, so you can really get experimental when making your own blend.

What is garam masala?

Despite its capricious nature, garam masala has several core components. These are coriander seeds, green cardamoms, black peppercorns, cumin seeds, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, which are toasted and then ground into a powder. This can then be combined with oil, coconut milk, yoghurt or water to make a paste, so it’s easier to infuse into your curries and stews.

How to use garam masala

Garam masala is usually added either near the beginning of the cooking process or (more commonly) sprinkled near the end for a stronger sensory hit. It can also be used as a dry rub for meat or for sauces and marinades.

As with any spice mix, the aim is to get the right balance of flavours. The sweetness of the cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom should work to offset the bitterness of the cumin and harmonise with the pungency of the cloves, peppercorns and coriander. Once you have found the right blend for you, it is ready to be used in your cooking; working particularly well with spicy veg, fish or meat curries, and rice dishes like biryanis or pilafs.

Garam masala substitutes

A great stand-in for garam masala is a mixture of cumin (1 part) and all-spice (¼ part). If you need to substitute any one of the staple ingredients, they can easily be swapped out with alternatives.

Caraway seeds are also a great substitute for cumin, and bay leaves offer a similar flavour to cloves. Fennel can be used instead of coriander seeds, while ordinary ground black pepper works if you have run out of peppercorns. Allspice is a good option for covering the sweeter notes provided by the cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg.

Garam masala vs curry powder: what’s the difference?

Garam masala and curry powder are not interchangeable. Garam masala is a traditional Indian mix whereas curry powder is a British ingredient, which is hotter, earthier and less aromatic. In addition, Garam masala leans towards warm, comforting flavours like cinnamon and cardamom. Curry powder, on the other hand, brings a more earthy note with the presence of turmeric, and can sometimes pack a spicier punch due to chillies.

Garam masala recipe

Garam masala ingredients (with approx. amounts)

1 (heaped) tbsp Coriander seeds

1 tbsp Green cardamoms

1 tbsp Black peppercorns

1 tbsp Cumin seeds

½ tsp Cloves

½ tsp Ground nutmeg

A cinnamon stick

How to make garam masala

Firstly, toast the spices to bring out the flavour. Start by gently heating them in a pan, without oil, for around 10 minutes, or until they start to release their aromas. Make sure to shake the pan occasionally.

When your spices are toasted, remove from the heat and allow to cool completely.

Take your spices and grind them into a powder using either a pestle and mortar or a spice grinder.

If you wish to make your garam masala into a paste, mix a tablespoon of oil in for each teaspoon of powder, or you can use equal parts of spice, oil and water.

How to store garam masala

Once ground, spices tend to lose their pungency very quickly. To help mitigate this, store your garam masala in a cool, dark place in an airtight container. Keep an eye on it, and replace it at least every six months.

How long does garam masala last

The shelf life of garam masala depends on whether it’s homemade or store-bought, and in what form. Pre-ground store-bought garam masala tends to lose its potency faster because the essential oils are more exposed. Ideally, use store-bought garam masala within six months for the best flavour.

On the other hand, whole spices in a homemade blend will last longer, potentially a year or two. To maximize freshness for both, store your garam masala in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, away from heat and light. You’ll likely notice a decline in fragrance and flavour as garam masala ages. While it won’t spoil and is safe to consume, you might need to use more to achieve the desired taste in your cooking.

Garam Masala FAQs

What spices are in garam masala?

There’s no single recipe for garam masala! It’s a blend, and the specific spices can vary depending on region and family preference.  However, common ingredients include:

  • Cardamom
  • Cinnamon
  • Cumin
  • Cloves
  • Peppercorns
  • Fennel seeds (often)
  • Mace (sometimes)
  • Black peppercorns
  • Nutmeg (sometimes).

Homemade garam masala allows you to control the exact spices and ratios to suit your taste.

What can I use instead of garam masala?

If you don’t have garam masala, you can substitute it with a combination of spices that capture similar warm notes. Try a mix of cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cloves, and black pepper. The flavour won’t be identical, but it will add a similar depth to your dish.

Can you use garam masala instead of curry powder?

Garam masala and curry powder are both spice blends, but they have slightly different flavour profiles. Garam masala is generally warmer, with notes of cinnamon and cardamom, while curry powder can have more turmeric and chillies, making it more earthy and potentially hotter.

In a pinch, you can substitute one for the other, but you might need to adjust the amount depending on the recipe and your spice preference.

How much garam masala in curry?

A good starting point for adding garam masala to curry is 1-2 teaspoons per pound of meat or vegetables.  However, taste as you go and adjust based on your desired intensity.  Because garam masala can vary in strength, homemade blends may require more or less than store-bought.

Can you use garam masala for chai?

Yes, garam masala can be used in chai!  While not traditionally included, the warm spices can complement the black tea, ginger, and cardamom commonly used in chai. Start with a small amount and adjust to your taste.

Does garam masala contain gluten?

The individual spices in garam masala are naturally gluten-free. However, if you’re concerned about gluten exposure,  it’s always best to check the label of pre-made garam masala blends to ensure no added ingredients contain gluten.

How much garam masala should I use?

As mentioned earlier, 1-2 teaspoons is a good starting point for curries.  For other dishes,  start with a lesser amount (½ teaspoon) and taste as you go.  Remember, you can always add more, but you can’t take it away!

Our recipes that include garam masala

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