Learn how to make the aromatic Indian spice mix, Garam Masala, for use in curries and dals.
Garam masala is a powdered blend of healthful, warming spices used in north Indian cooking to make tasty curries and vegetable sides. It is intensely aromatic and it can transform even the simplest recipe into the most delicious Indian food you ever ate. But storebought masalas often lack the flavor and fresh aroma of a homemade garam masala spice mix. This easy recipe is better than any mix you can buy and you can make a batch in just 15 minutes. Use it to add mouthwatering flavor to many Indian recipes, including restaurant-style Vegan Palak Paneer, Aloo Paratha, Vegan Butter Chicken, and Vegan Malai Kofta.
Making your own homemade garam masala powder will not just make you feel like a domestic god, it will make your home smell so fragrant, you might find yourself in constant craving for some great Indian food.
And that's perfect, because there's no end to the delicious recipes you can make with this masala.
Garam masala is perhaps India's best known spice blend globally, although it is by no means the only one. It is mainly used in northern Indian dishes. There are hundreds of other regional spice mixes made and eaten around India, but garam masala's breakout popularity is probably due to the easy availability of north Indian Punjabi food and the dominance of north Indians in the restaurant business worldwide.
Every Indian cook who uses garam masala has his or her own recipe for this blend. This one's uniquely mine. It's the one I always have in my kitchen for the Indian recipes I share with you. I hope you'll try it!
What is garam masala?
Garam masala is an aromatic mix of spices originally intended to warm the body. Garam, in Hindi, means hot, and masala is a spice mix, and this blend originated in India's northern states, which, contrary to stereotypes about Indian weather, tend to get bitterly cold.
A typical garam masala spice mix would include cinnamon, black cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and peppercorns, all considered warming spices. For modern, all-weather use, most garam masala recipes now balance things out by mixing in cooling spices, like fennel, green cardamom and coriander seed.
"Garam masala" is commonly understood to mean the powdered spice blend. Keep in mind that in some recipes it can refer to a mix of whole spices as well ("whole garam masala"). Both will have very different flavor effects on your recipe. Indian cooks often distinguish between the two by calling the powdered blend "garam masala powder."
In addition to being really delicious, spices, such as those in garam masala, carry immense health benefits and can keep your doshas in balance as the seasons change. Make a batch today!
Expert tips for an authentic garam masala
- Use whole spices for garam masala. This is really, really important. No cook worth his or her salt should be mixing ground spices to make garam masala. There are two critical reasons for this.
- The ingredients of garam masala should already be cooked as the blend is usually added to finish a dish. Don't be tempted to make a quickie garam masala by blending bottled, store bought spice powders because the uncooked ingredients will add an unpleasant bitterness to your recipe.
- Second, and this one is even more important, by the time you buy a powdered spice and use it, it will probably have lost most of its flavor. Smell a powdered spice that has been sitting around and you will find that it smells like a pale version of itself, at best, or like sawdust, at worst. Spices have essential oils in them, which give them that heady aroma. But these oils are volatile and they will dissipate over time. Therefore, adding a powdered spice that's past its prime will add as much flavor to your food as you would get if you added sawdust. Whole spices are a better investment because they last longer. And when you blend and use them in small quantities they will reward you with more flavor and fragrance.
- Always roast the whole spices before you powder them. This follows from what I said in the earlier tip. Always roast garam masala spices before you blend them for the best and most authentic flavor.
- Balance and layer the spices: Garam masala acquires its special flavor and aroma by layering on fruity, fragrant spices, like green cardamom, peppercorns, cinnamon and fennel, with earthy ones, like peppercorns, bay leaf, cumin and stoneflower. You need a balance of both in the recipe.
You can simply follow my recipe to make a delicious garam masala, but if you want to tweak it, it would help if you understand the unique personality of each spice and be mindful of the proportions. Don't, for instance, use the same amount of coriander seed and cumin seed or of green and black cardamom. Coriander seed has a tart and lemony fragrance and flavor, while cumin is earthy and warm. A rule of thumb I follow is a teaspoon of cumin for a tablespoon of coriander in any spice blend. Brown cardamom is strong, so use far less than you would of the green variety. And so on.
- Make small batches at a time. Remember what I said about the volatile oils in spices dissipating with time? This recipe makes a little more than one packed cup of powdered masala. That would last someone who cooks Indian food most days, like me, three to four weeks. But if you don't cook Indian food regularly, make just enough to last you up to 3 months. See storage tips below for instructions on how to preserve your garam masala.
Garam masala ingredients
Spices are full of antioxidants and antiinflammatories--they are not just tasty, they are great for you. Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of healing, has long used spices as medicine. They help balance the body's three doshas--vata, pitta and kapha.
- Cinnamon (dalchini): The benefits of this deep earthen-hued spice sourced from the bark of a tree range from lowering blood sugar levels to lowering cholesterol, fighting cancer and helping weight loss. It is also delicious, with spicy-sweet notes. As a kid, I'd nick a cinnamon stick from my mom's spice box and chew on it to taste those sharp, spicy-sweet flavors! The best cinnamon for Indian recipes is ceylon cinnamon. It is thinner and has a more delicate and sweeter flavor than the cassia cinnamon typically found here in the United States, which is thicker and rougher. But if that is all you have, it's okay to use.
- Cloves (laung): These tiny dry, brown spices--which are actually flowers of the clove tree, have potent properties, including the ability to improve liver function, reduce ulcers and fight free radicals. Like cinnamon, this is an incredibly aromatic spice. Chew on one after meals for fresh breath.
- Bay leaves (tej patta): More of a herb than a spice, this is not an ingredient whose flavor profile is immediately obvious. In spice mixes they add subtle, flowery, herbal and slightly bitter notes. They help heal wounds and are anti-bacterial and anti-viral, among other benefits.
- Black cardamom (badi elaichi, kali elaichi): Despite their similar names--and the fact that they are both seed pods--green and black cardamom have very different flavor profiles. While the green variety is sweet and fragrant, the black pod, which looks more brown than black, is strong and smoky. But those properties make it an amazing addition to garam masala. The health benefits of this spice range from improving digestive health to heart health. It is also a diuretic.
- Green cardamom (hari elaichi): This is my favorite spice of all, because it is simply so exquisite, with that heady aroma. That fragrance, and the natural sweetness of this spice, make it a natural addition to Indian sweets and in Indian-inspired recipes like the Vegan Turmeric Cake I recently shared with you. But it holds its own in spicy dishes and blends like this garam masala as well. It can also help guard against cancer, it helps improve liver health and is a powerful antibacterial, among its other benefits.
- Cumin seeds (jeera): Earthy but bold, cumin is one of the most ubiquitous spices in south Asian, middle eastern, north African and Latin-American cuisine. It can help reduce cholesterol and aid in weight loss.
- Coriander seeds (dhania ke beej): These are the dried fruit of the herb we call cilantro, with a taste that is somewhat similar although more concentrated. Coriander brings citrusy, floral freshness to a recipe and I cannot imagine being without in my kitchen. It also has great digestive benefits as well as being an antidiabetic and antioxidant.
- Fennel seeds (saunf): Fennel seed comes from the plant whose crunchy bulb is often added to salads and whose leaves make an amazing fennel fronds pesto. Fennel seeds taste like licorice and have great digestive and breath-freshening qualities. That's why they are often offered after a meal in Indian homes and restaurants. Fennel seeds also help reduce water retention and they protect from high blood pressure and cancer. If you don't have fennel, you can use star anise, or chakra phool, in this recipe, because it has many of the same flavor notes.
- Mace (javitri): This is the woody kernel of nutmeg, and it is used as a spice all by itself. Mace has a more subtle flavor than nutmeg, and works better in this garam masala. Among its many benefits, mace helps boost blood circulation and reduce stress.
- Dry red chili peppers (lal mirch): These are not always added to garam masala, although I like to add a few, both for a touch of heat and for some color. You can leave them out in this recipe or tweak the quantity to your personal preference. If you use it, try and use a chili pepper that imparts bright red color, like Kashmiri chili, but is not too hot. The Kashmiri chili peppers I get at the Indian grocery store here don't tend to have much color, for some reason, so I added an unconventional ingredient--a couple of Mexican guajillo peppers -- for their color and mild heat. Chili peppers are packed with vitamins, and they suppress appetite and kickstart a sluggish metabolism, among other benefits.
- Black peppercorns (kali mirch, optional): You can skip black peppercorns if you are concerned about the level of heat in the recipe. Or add just a few peppercorns--four or five. Black peppercorns have a host of health benefits, including cancer fighting properties. They are also packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatories and can help reduce blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
- Stone flower (dagad phool, patthar ke phool, optional): This is a lichen with a papery, dull, brown appearance. But it has a woody, earthy aroma that adds mystical, delicious notes to food--call it the je ne sais quoi factor. It's benefits range from healing urinary tract infections to improving respiratory and digestive health. You can easily find stone flower at Indian stores but you can leave it out.
How to make garam masala (step by step)
Roast the spices:
- Add the big spices to a wide skillet: This includes the chili peppers, bay leaves, black and green cardamom and cinnamon. It is important to use a wide skillet, with a large surface area and short sides, so the spices roast evenly. Don't add any oil as it could go rancid and reduce the shelf life of the garam masala.
- Stir the spices as you roast: Keep the stove turned to medium-low heat and don't leave the spices unattended. There are oils in the spices and they could burn. Toast the spices until they are a couple of shades darker and fragrant, about five minutes.
- Remove the roasted spices to a plate and set aside to cool.
- Add the remaining spices to the skillet. This includes the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, mace, cloves, black peppercorns and the optional stone flower. Toast these lightly until a couple of shades darker and very aromatic.
Blend and store the spices:
- Blend the garam masala in a spice grinder or blender. The ground garam masala should be a bit coarse, but it shouldn't have any whole seeds or pieces of spices in it.
- Store the garam masala in an airtight jar.
Frequently asked questions
You can whole spices at the Indian grocery store and online via Amazon. The Indian grocery store has better prices and you'll find everything under one roof. But if you want organic versions you're more likely to find them online. Whole spices can last up to three or four years. Store them in containers that are airtight in a cool, dry environment.
Some online sources say powdered spices last 2-4 years but it is safest to use them up within a year.
Store homemade garam masala or any powdered spice in an airtight jar, in a cool, dark, dry place. If you have room in the refrigerator, your spices are safest in there.
The "garam" or "hot" in garam masala doesn't refer to how hot the spices are; they refer to the fact that this is a spice blend intended to warm the body. You can tweak the heat in the garam masala by adjusting the number of red chili peppers up or down.
Garam masala evolved as a north Indian spice blend, while curry powder was created by Indian cooks for British palates, as an all-purpose spice mix, during the colonial era. The two are quite distinct although they do have some common ingredients. A curry powder borrows elements from sambar powder, a spice blend used in south India, like lentils and fenugreek. Curry powder also contains turmeric--an ingredient that's not typically added to garam masala.
The flavor profiles of garam masala and curry powder are quite different and they are not interchangeable--at least not in traditional dishes. But you can sometimes substitute one for the other in modern spin-off versions of Indian recipes like my easy vegetable curry.
Garam masala is usually added to finish off a dish. There are some exceptions but if your recipe doesn't specify an exact time it is safe to assume that you should add the garam masala at the tail end and just before you turn the heat off. Garam masala spices are already toasted so it doesn't need to cook again with the rest of the recipe.
- 8 inch-long pieces cinnamon (dalchini)
- 5-6 dry bay leaves (tej patta)
- 1 tablespoon green cardamom pods (hari elaichi)
- 4 black cardamom pods (kaali elaichi, badi elaichi)
- 2 mace (javitri)
- 8-10 dry red chili peppers (laal mirch. Use Kashmiri chili peppers or any mild to moderately hot chili pepper)
- ¼ cup coriander seeds (dhania ke beej)
- 1 ½ tablespoon cumin seeds (jeera)
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns (kali mirch)
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds (saunf. Use 2 star anise as a substitute)
- 1 tablespoon cloves (laung)
- 1 tablespoon stone flower (dagad phool or patthar phool, optional)
- Heat a wide skillet over medium low heat. Add the cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, red chili peppers, green and black cardamom.
- Roast until the ingredients are just a couple of shades darker and smell fragrant. Remove to a plate or bowl to cool.
- Add the remaining ingredients to the skillet and toast them, again until a couple of shades darker and fragrant. Also remove to the plate or bowl.
- Once the spice ingredients have cooled, place them in a blender (preferably one fitted with a jar for dry blending), or to a spice grinder. Blend into a coarse powder.
- Store in an airtight jar.
- Use a wide skillet, with a large surface area and short sides, to roast the spices.
- Always dry-roast the spices, meaning don't add any oils to the pan. Oil would go rancid and reduce the shelf life of your garam masala. It is also quite unnecessary.
- You can roast all the spices together, but I like to separate out the big spices and the small ones so they roast evenly. First go in with chili peppers, bay leaves, black and green cardamom and cinnamon. Put them in a plate or bowl to cool and then roast the remaining, smaller ingredients.
- The oils in spices will make them brown fast if you leave them unattended, so watch them closely and stir them constantly as they roast, over medium-low heat, to ensure they cook evenly. Turn off the heat when the spices are just a couple of shades darker and smell really fragrant.
- A spice grinder (or coffee grinder) works best to blend spice mixes, but a powerful blender would work too. The powdered garam masala should be a bit coarse, but it shouldn't have any whole seeds or pieces of spices remaining in it.
- It is safest to use powdered spices within a year. Store your homemade garam masala and any powdered spice in an airtight jar, in a cool, dark, dry place, to maximize its shelf life. If you have room in the refrigerator, your spices are safest in there.