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, and it is mainly used in northern Indian cooking. There are hundreds of other regional spice mixes made and eaten around India, and garam masala's breakout popularity is probably due to the easy availability of north Indian 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, and 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?
- What is the difference between curry powder and garam masala?
- How to make an authentic garam masala
- Where to buy whole spices?
- How to store whole and powdered spices
- Ingredients for garam masala (and their benefits for your health)
- Tips and steps
- Recipes to use garam masala in
- Garam Masala Recipe
What is garam masala?
Garam masala is an aromatic mix of spices that was originally intended to warm the body. Garam, in Hindi, means hot, 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, brown or black cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and peppercorns, which are all considered warming spices. For modern, all-weather use, most garam masala recipes now tend to balance things out by adding a few cooling ingredients, like fennel, green cardamom and coriander seed.
While "garam masala" is commonly understood to mean the powdered spice blend, it is important to keep in mind that it can refer to a mix of the 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."
What is the difference between curry powder and garam masala?
Curry powder and garam masala have some crossover ingredients. But unlike garam masala, curry powder did not originate in India, although it definitely has Indian roots.
Curry powder is believed to have been created by Indian cooks in Britain who wanted to create an all-purpose spice mix to add to different dishes. A true curry powder tends to borrow some ingredients from a sambar powder, a spice blend used in the south of India, like lentils and fenugreek. Curry powder, like sambar powder, also contains turmeric--an ingredient that's not typically added to garam masala.
The flavor profile each of these spice blends will add to the dish will be quite different and generally curry powder and garam masala are not interchangeable--at least not in traditional dishes. That said, you can sometimes substitute one for the other in modern spin-off versions of Indian recipes like this easy vegetable curry.
How to make an authentic garam masala
- BEGIN WITH WHOLE SPICES, NOT POWDERED ONES! I put that in big, bold letters, and I put an exclamation point after it, because it is really, really important and no cook worth his or her salt should be mixing powdered spices to make garam masala. There are two critical reasons for this.
- Garam masala is usually added to finish off a dish, so it's important that the ingredients in it are already cooked. You might be tempted to make a quickie garam masala by blending bottled, storebought spice powders, but the uncooked ingredients will add an unpleasant bitterness to your recipe. You could take the extra step of using another skillet to roast the raw garam masala and add it to each recipe you make, but really, why would you do that?
- 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. Try smelling a powdered spice, any spice, including a garam masala, that has been sitting around and you will find that it either 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 the longer the powered spice sits around, the more the oils will dissipate. As a result, adding a powdered spice that's past its prime will add as much flavor to your food as you would get if you added, well, sawdust. Whole spices are a much better investment because they last longer, and when you grind them in small quantities and use them, they will reward you with much more flavor and fragrance.
- Always roast the whole spices before you powder them. This follows from what I said in the earlier tip. Garam masala spices should always be roasted before you blend them for the best and most authentic flavor.
- Learn how to 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 brown cardamom, peppercorns, bay leaf, cumin and stoneflower. You need a balance of both in the recipe.
To make a spice blend you need to 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 cardamom 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 green cardamom. And so on.
You can make tweaks, but if you do, make thoughtful ones so you don't upset the balance.
- Make small batches at a time, to ensure the garam masala tastes the best. 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.
Where to buy whole spices?
I buy whole spices at the Indian grocery store and, sometimes, 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.
How to store whole and powdered spices
While some online sources say powdered spices last two to four years, I would venture to say that it is safest to use them up within a year, for the most flavor and health benefits. 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.
Any spice mix that has oil or coconut added to it should always be refrigerated, or it could go rancid.
Whole spices last much longer, up to three or four years, so long as you store them, again, in containers that are airtight and are kept in a cool, dry environment.
Ingredients for garam masala (and their benefits for your health)
The ingredients in this garam masala recipe should be familiar to most cooks with the exception, perhaps, of the stone flower (dagadphool). You can leave it out, although it is available at Indian grocery stores and online, and adds more wonderful flavor to this blend.
Spices are loaded with antioxidants and antiinflammatories, so when you eat them, you not only get all that amazing flavor, you also get some viable health benefits. They have long been used as medicine in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of healing, and to balance the body's three doshas--vata, pitta and kapha.
- Cinnamon: 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 love nicking a cinnamon stick from my mom's spice box and chewing on it, releasing those sharp, spicy-sweet flavors on my tongue! The best cinnamon for use in Indian recipes is ceylon cinnamon, which 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: 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.
- Stone flower: Stone flower, called dagad phool or patthar ke phool in India, 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.
- Bay leaves: More of a herb than a spice, bay leaf, like stone flower, is not an ingredient whose flavor profile is not immediately obvious. In spice mixes, bay leaves add subtle, flowery, herbal and slightly bitter notes. They are known for their wound-healing powers and for being anti-bacterial and anti-viral, among other benefits.
- Black cardamom: If you're used mostly to the green cardamom, the black cardamom comes as a bit of a reality-check. Despite their similar names--and the fact that they are both seed pods--both have very different flavor profiles. While the green cardamom is sweet and fragrant, black cardamom, which looks more brown than black, is stong and smoky and nowhere near as pleasant as green cardamom on its own. But those properties make it an amazing addition to garam masala. The health benefits of black cardamom range from improving digestive health to heart health. It is also a diuretic.
- Green cardamom: 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. Green cardamom can help guard against cancer, it helps improve liver health and is a powerful antibacterial, among its other benefits.
- Cumin seeds: 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: These are the dried fruit of the herb we call cilantro (or coriander leaves), with a flavor 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: The green fennel seed, from the fennel plant whose crunchy bulb is often added to salads and whose leaves make an amazing fennel fronds pesto, is one of those spices you can munch on by itself. It has a distinctive, licorice-like flavor and great breath-freshening qualities--the reason it's 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.
- Mace: 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: 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.
Tips and steps
- Making garam masala is quite simple and straightforward, and it shouldn't take you more than 15 minutes from scratch to get one that's truly world-class.
- Begin with a wide skillet, with a large surface area and short sides, to roast your 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 I go in with chili peppers, bay leaves, black cardamom, gree cardamom and cinnamon. I put them in a plate or bowl to cool and then roast the remaining, smaller ingredients.
- You should only lightly toast the spices--don't burn them. 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.
Recipes to use garam masala in
You will find tons of recipes on the blog that use garam masala. These are just a few of my favorites:
Garam Masala Recipe
- 8 inch-long pieces cinnamon.
- 5-6 dry bay leaves
- 1 tbsp green cardamom pods
- 4 black cardamom pods
- 2 mace "flowers"
- 8-10 red chili peppers (like Kashmiri chili peppers or any mild to moderately hot chili pepper, optional or can use fewer--or more)
- ¼ cup coriander seeds
- 1 ½ tbsp cumin seeds
- 1 tbsp black peppercorns
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 tbsp cloves
- 1 tbsp stone flower (dagad phool or patthar phool)
- 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.