Garam masala is a key spice blend used widely in Indian and South Asian cuisines. Popular in curries, lentil recipes, soups, garam masala will add warmth to marinades for grilled fish and meats and salad dressings.
A pinch of garam masala in fresh breads, yogurt dips, roast potatoes, jacket potatoes, vegetable sides, corn on the cob and scrambled eggs will also add depth of flavor to these everyday dishes.In this post we take a look at garam masala and just what makes it so unique. We also look at what you can use in place of garam masala, whether you have just run out of it, are struggling to find it in your grocery store, or would just like to experiment with some new recipes.
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About Garam Masala
The word garam means ‘hot’ and masala means ‘spices’ and it is thought that garam masala first developed in Northern India where it is still found in traditional Mughal recipes. Use of garam masala eventually spread across India and in to other countries including Pakistan and as far west as current-day Iran.
There can be thirty or more spices in garam masala, and these are warming spices rather than hot, and in Ayurvedic medicine, these spices are used to increase the metabolism as well as being a welcome addition to dishes served in colder regions such as parts of Northern India.
The blend of spices in garam masala vary depending on the region that it comes from, often the garam masala from Northern India (including the Punjab region) will be milder and more aromatic, relying on black peppercorns for heat, while recipes from further south tend to be hotter as these often include red chile in the blend.
Most garam masala blends include core spices such as cumin, cinnamon, mace, cloves, peppercorns, coriander, nutmeg and cardamom. Other spices can include fennel seeds, ginger, star anise, turmeric or saffron along with other ingredients such as garlic, red chiles, mustard seeds, fenugreek, bay leaves or Malabar leaves.
Kashmiri masala from the Kashmir region is also a popular regional version of garam masala and is common in countries such as Pakistan.
Because the quantity and amount of spices in garam masala do vary, it can be hard to describe how it tastes, but it should be fragrant smelling, have some sweetness and some floral hints and some heat from the peppercorns – but not too much.
The spices in garam masala are usually toasted before being ground, as this allows more flavor to come through when it is cooked. Garam masala is usually added towards the end of cooking to not only add flavor but also aroma. It can also be sprinkled on dishes as they are served.
Traditionally, garam masala is made fresh and used within a few days. In India, the masalchi or spice grinder is an important role and a masalchi will spend a lot of time grinding and pounding herbs and spices to get the best possible blend for cooking with. It is the blend of spices (and herbs) that makes Indian, and indeed other cuisines, as popular as they are.
Because garam masala is such a complex blend, most of us tend to buy it ready blended from the store rather than trying to blend it ourselves.
Once garam masala has been ground and blended, it is sold as is, or it can sometimes be sold as a paste which has been mixed with water, vinegar and coconut milk.
It is usually easy to obtain garam masala from larger grocery stores or specialty Indian stores but do buy it in small packs as some spices will begin to lose flavor within a couple of months of being ground.Store bought garam masala should keep for around six months if stored in an airtight jar or container kept in a cool and dark place. If you are using older garam masala then you may need to add more than the recipe says to get the same depth of flavor.
Substituting Garam Masala
If you have run out of this warming spice blend and want to rustle up a curry, here are a few substitutes that you can use in place of garam masala.
1. Homemade Easy Garam Masala
Although garam masala should be made from whole spices which are toasted before grinding, you can make a an easy and basic garam masala from the key spices that you will probably have in your kitchen.
If you have any of these in whole form, then grind them first before mixing them in as a powder. You need to mix these spices together beforehand rather than just adding the required amount of each to the dish, as this will allow the flavors to come through better.Use one part of cloves and one part of cumin with three parts of cinnamon and coriander with a half part of black pepper and a half part of cardamom. Mix these together and you will usually need to use the same amount in your recipe as you would of store bought garam masala. If you have any of the homemade mix leftover, then add it to an airtight jar and store in a cool dry place.
2. Curry Powder
Curry powder is another blend of spices common in Indian recipes. Like garam masala it adds flavor to recipes, however, the turmeric in curry powder also means that curry powder adds more color to dishes, in the form of the characteristic yellow hint.
Curry powder is usually used earlier in cooking, rather than garam masala which is added towards the end.
Like garam masala, what spices are in a curry powder will vary depending on what region it is from, but common ingredients include coriander, cumin, turmeric, chile peppers and curry leaf for a stronger flavor. Other spices that can be added include ginger, fenugreek, caraway, fennel seeds, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, black pepper and mustard seeds. Garlic may also be added. All of these give a spice blend which is both savory and sweet with earthiness and some heat.
Like garam masala, curry powder is made from scratch by toasting and then grinding whole spices, however, if you do have a well-stocked pantry, then you can make a basic curry powder by adding a teaspoon of chili powder, a teaspoon of ground ginger and a teaspoon of ground black pepper together with two teaspoons of ground turmeric, three teaspoons of ground cumin and two tablespoons of ground coriander. You can mix all of this up in a jar and it should keep for a few months. You can also add other spices for additional flavors.
Curry powder cannot give the same flavor of sweetness and sour to a dish that garam masala will but as it does have spices in common, it will replace garam masala in pretty much any recipe. Just replace the specified amount of garam masala with the same amount of curry powder.
As with garam masala, many of the spices in curry powder can offer some benefits to our health. Cinnamon may provide some support to blood sugar control in diabetics; with some research showing that those diabetics who took cinnamon supplements had evidence of lowered blood sugar levels compared to those in the study who took a placebo supplement. Cinnamon may also be useful in supporting weight loss and a healthier lifestyle.
Coriander seeds may also help support better blood sugar control in diabetics, as it seems that coriander may promote the activity of enzymes that play a role in removing sugar from the blood. Although this research has been carried out in animals to date, it appears promising for future human studies.
Coriander may also help to lower high blood pressure and cholesterol levels – both of which are risk factors for heart disease. Interestingly, in those population who consume plenty of coriander and other spices, the incidence of heart disease tends to be lower than those who consume a typical western diet.
Turmeric contains curcumin, a compound which has shown promise in anti-cancer studies in animals. Turmeric may also be of some interest for some cardiovascular and neurological diseases as well as cystic fibrosis.
Cloves are able to act as antimicrobials, and a laboratory study showed that cloves were able to kill off three common bacteria, including E.coli, a common cause of foodborne illness in the US. Another study showed that cloves could prevent growth in two bacteria which are linked with gum disease. A small number of animal studies also suggest that cloves may be useful in treating stomach ulcers.
The active component of black pepper is piperine which is known to alter the metabolism of some supplements and drugs; especially curcumin (found in turmeric), which it can increase the availability of it in the body by as much as 2000%. Piperine also appears to act as an antimicrobial and black pepper may also have some potential benefits for blood sugar control in diabetics, for brain health and as an anti-inflammatory. However, at present, evidence for these benefits is extremely limited.
Ginger contains a number of compounds that scientists are interested in. Gingerols are some of these compounds, and it may be these that help reduce symptoms of nausea, especially in those who are pregnant, undergoing surgery or even chemotherapy. Gingerols also appear to be anti-inflammatories and may provide relief to those who are suffering with rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis.Ginger can behave as an anti-microbial and it may have some benefits against infections such as the common cold. In the laboratory, ginger was able to prevent growth of some bacteria that can cause oral infections and because it can act as an anti-inflammatory, it can be useful in helping soothe some of the discomfort, such as sore throats, that occur with infection.
3. Cumin and Allspice
Used in many cuisines, including Indian and North African, cumin is an ancient spice with an earthy and warm flavor that is bittersweet. Cumin is made from the dried seeds of the Cuminum cyminum plant in the parsley family and as well as being used in whole seed or ground from, it is also in blends such as garam masala, curry powder, the common Middle Eastern blend of baharat and even chili powder.
There is some research supporting the benefits of cumin in our diets. Cumin may help with digestion and it may have some value in helping to control levels of LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol, as well as having a positive effect on blood sugar levels in diabetics. It is also a good source of iron.
Allspice, newspice, Jamaica pepper or myrtle pepper is made from dried berries from the Pimenta dioca plant. Common in Latin America, Caribbean and Middle Eastern cuisines and native to Jamaica, allspice has flavors of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and pepper which makes it ideal as a substitute for these spices. It can be used in sweet and savory dishes as well as bringing flavor to hot ciders and mulled wines.
Ground allspice does lose its aroma and flavor faster than whole allspice, although when in the ground form, allspice is more potent than whole berries.To replace garam masala, add one part cumin with a quarter part of allspice.
4. Chaat Masala
Another spice blend, chaat masala may be used by some, but as this is a cooling rather than warming blend of spices, it can give a different flavor to the dish. Chaat masala has sweet, salty and tart flavors and is made with spices such as cumin, coriander, amchur (dried green mango powder), ginger as well as asafetida, chili and salt.If you want to use this as a substitute, then start by measuring out the same amount of chaat masala as garam masala, but instead of adding the chaat masala all at once, add it a little at a time and taste as you go along - you may find that you will not need as much chaat masala as you would garam masala.
Not just for adding to curries, garam masala as a great spice blend to add flavor to many other recipes. If you do not have any to hand, then as long as you have a well-stocked pantry, you have the option to make up a very basic garam masala, or, substitute with curry powder (commercial or basic homemade), or cumin and allspice. If you do have some to hand, then chaat masala can also be used, although this is a cooling rather than warming blend.Whichever substitute you choose, as when substituting any spices, always add then carefully, as you may not need to add quite as much as you would of garam masala to obtain the same complexities and warmth of flavors.