Whole Spices or Powder
Garam masala is not a single spice. Rather, it is a blend of spices.
When most people talk about garam masala, they are talking about a ground spice mixture powder. But some people refer to solid spices (such as cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, cloves, etc) as garam masala as well, which can be confusing.
This article is written to describe the ground spice mixture powder that is called garam masala.
What Does Garam Masala Mean?
In Hindi, “garam masala” means “warm spices” or “hot spices”. But this does not necessarily mean that a garam masala is spicy hot (although it can be). It means that the spice mixture gives a warm taste to the food that is often a bit sweet. Garam masala is often described as being aromatic or pungent.
Use Garam Masala or Curry Powder?
When should you use garam masala and when should you use curry powder? This is a question that is often asked but it is really a pretty meaningless question. A lot of curry recipes use both. In fact, almost all curry recipes that use garam masala also use curry powder (or its spices). Curry powder (or the component spices in curry powder) is used to give taste and heat to a curry. Garam masala also gives taste but also gives warmth.
Curry powder (or the component spices in curry powder) are generally added to a curry early in the cooking process whereas garam masala is usually added at the end of the cooking process.
Buying Garam Masala
Like most curry spices and spice mixtures, you can buy garam masala from your local Indian supply shop or from a supermarket. Your supermarket will usually sell you a small packet or jar of garam masala and your local Indian supply shop will usually sell you garam masala that you scoop out of bulk bins. These are the two most common ways of buying garam masala but there are lots of others.
Of course, you have no control over what is in a garam masala and there is seldom a breakdown of contents on the packaging.
You might be tempted to buy a huge bag of garam masala from a bulk bin because the price will often be a lot less than you pay in a supermarket. But spices do go stale.
You should only really buy enough garam masala to last you one or two months. This way you know that the garam masala is not stale. It is no use buying a big bag of garam masala if you are just going to end up throwing the masala away because it is bland or tasteless.
Making Garam Masala
Making garam masala is easy and cheap. And you have control over the ingredients in the masala – there will be no padding of the masala with cheap ingredients. And you know how fresh the garam masala is (shop bought garam masala might be lying around for weeks before it is put onto the shelves).
The warning about buying too much garam masala is just as relevant to garam masala that you make. You should only make enough garam masala to last you one or two months.
The process of making garam masala is much the same as making curry powder in that you dry-roast the spices and then grind them into a powder. In parts of Southern India, garam masala is made into a paste when the ground spices are mixed with coconut milk, water or vinegar.
Dry-roasting brings out the essential oils and aromas from the spice seeds.
Dry-roasting spices is a simple process. All you have to do is heat a small skillet, frying pan or saucepan without adding any oil of ghee, add the spice and stir-fry the spice until it starts to darken then tip the spice onto a small plate or saucer. Keep repeating this process with all of the spices until they are all roasted. Be careful that you do not roast the spices for too long (a minute or two is usually enough) or they will burn (if you do burn some spices then throw them away and try to dry-roast the spice again).
You let the dry-roasted spices cool and then grind them into a powder using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. If using a spice grinder then make sure that you only use it for grinding spices otherwise your ground spices could end up adding extra tastes to your coffee.
Storing Your Garam Masala
Store your garam masala in a clean, airtight, jar in a dark place. Light and air affect the potency of the garam masala. You cannot avoid taking the lid off the garam masala jars (how else do you get to the garam masala?) but you should replace the lid as soon as possible.
If you store the garam masala correctly then it will easily last you for two months. Of course, if you want the freshest garam masala then you can make it fresh while cooking the curry so no storage is needed.
The Spices in Garam Masala
There is a wide range of spices that can be put into garam masala. There is no single recipe for garam masala.
Most garam masala recipes will use coriander, cumin, cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.
Other common spices that can be in garam masala are mustard seeds, mace, ginger, garlic, turmeric, fennel seeds, star anise, fenugreek and saffron.
Not only can garam masala recipes differ in the spices that are used, they can also differ in the quantity of spices. For example, one recipe might use 12 cloves whereas another might use 24 cloves.
There are lots and lots of different garam masala recipes and you need to find the perfect recipe for you. The beauty about being able to make your own garam masala is that you can experiment with the recipes until you find the combination of ingredients, and quantities of ingredients, that produce a garam masala that you love.
Where to Find Garam Masala Recipes
There are lots of garam masala recipes published in books and online. You can spend many happy hours looking through garam masala recipes in your local library (if you have a local library) or online.
There are some garam masala recipes on the Curry Focus website that you can try.
As you can see, it is easy to make garam masala. All you need are the spices.
And it is really worthwhile investing in a spice grinder if you do not have one yet. A mortar and pestle may be “more traditional” but they can be hard work whereas a spice grinder usually needs nothing more that the flick of a switch to do the job.
You could buy your garam masala readymade (from a shop or supermarket). But making your own will be far more rewarding.