Garam Masala is becoming one of the most-commonly found Indian spice blends on your grocery store shelf. But, what is it?
I hear that constantly when I'm teaching cooking classes. Even from folks who use the spice and cook Indian food on a regular basis. They know they need it. They know where to find it. But, they are not exactly sure what it it.
It's a spice blend - that's what masala means. A mixture of spices. Garam means warm or hot. This blend is basically a combination of spices that are considered warm, earthy, and robust.
This is a blend also typical of North India cooking. And, no, there is no one recipe for this blend. In India, most households have their own variation. And if anyone - including I - tell you that we have the 'best' blend - please don't believe them. There are likely as many varieties of blends of this masala as there are households in North India. You do the math. It's a lot!
There are some guidelines that make a better garam masala than others, however. A good version is less about the recipe itself and more about the balance of the spices used to make it. Most blends sold commercially by folks who don't have a deep understanding of Indian cuisine tend to be heavy on particular spices including cinnamon and/or cloves rather than giving you a combination that ensures they are all subtly put together to form a more soothing blend.
A good blend is also roasted before it is ground. Why? Because dry roasting is an essential part of the process for Indian masalas. It not only helps pull out essential oils, but also give you added layers of flavor that you cannot get by merely grinding down unroasted whole spices.
When experimenting with my own garam masala recipe, I called my massi (aunt) in India to get my grandmother's own recipe. It's a combination of key spices, including from the top left: coriander seeds, black cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, cumin seeds, black peppercorn, and cloves.
Take these spices and roast them over medium-high heat in a large 4 or 6 quart saute pan for about 4 minutes. Shake them in between to ensure that they are roasted evenly. Fair warning - your house will smell amazing!
Take this blend and grind it down immediately. You'll have about 2 1/2 cups. Or, do what I do. Save them in a large glass jar and grab a fistful as you need it. Grind it and store in your Spice Tiffin. This way, your spices stay as fresh as possible. Remember, whole spices can last years, while ground spices lose their aroma and flavor within 6 months.
If you have never ground spices before, just head out and invest in a $30 coffee grinder. Reserve it just for spices, and grind away. The only issue is when you try to grind cinnamon sticks. I take mine, wrap them in a towel, and then break them down with a few taps of a hammer. If you have a Vitamix, use it to your advantage and grind away. It's fantastic (the wet and dry jugs both work) for grinding down your spices. Here's what it looks like in a small grinder:
Use your garam masala in all of your Indian dishes, and better yet, sprinkle a little into your meatloaf, on your popcorn, and whatever else could use a little Indian flavor twist. Try ours if you have trouble sourcing the key spices above. I'm very proud that none of our blends have unnecessary salt or food dyes. When searching for other Indian spice blends, take a look at the ingredient list and be sure they are as 'clean' as possible.
1 cup cumin seeds
1/2 cup coriander seeds
1/4 cup black cardamom pods
12 cinnamon sticks
1/4 cup whole cloves
1/4 cup whole black peppercorns
1. Combine all the ingredients in a shallow, heavy pan over medium heat and dry roast the spices for 4 minutes. During the entire cooking time, shake the pan every 15 to 20 seconds to prevent the spices from burning. The mixture should be just toasted and aromatic. Remove from the heat, transfer to a plate, and set aside to cool for 15 minutes.
2. Place the cooled, roasted spices in a spice grinder or a powerful blender, such as Vitamix, and process into a fine powder. Sift after grinding to refine the powder or use as it.
3. Store in an airtight (preferably glass or stainless steel) jar in a cool, dry place for up to 6 months.
I love roasting this blend, putting it in beautiful mason jars, and gifting it to my friends for the holidays as a hostess gift. That, a grinder, and your favorite Indian cookbook (hint, hint) are truly the perfect start to getting your Indian culinary juices flowing.
My third book is hands down gorgeous and ready for you to get your hands on. Indian For Everyone is on bookshelves, available on Amazon, and in smaller retailers everywhere. If you have a favorite bookstore and they don't carry my book yet - just ask for it. And if you have it, use it, love it, please do put a review on Amazon. It means the world to us authors!
Holiday Cookbook Giveaway: Thank you to all of you on my Facebook page who participated in the cookbook giveaway by sharing your most pressing questions about Indian food. Some of the questions truly stumped me, and I'll be looking to answer all of them in the coming week either here on my blog or on Facebook. For now, I wanted to announce the winners. Keep in mind, I drew them randomly and entered anyone who 'shared' my Indian As Apple Pie page with their friends and family twice. To redeem your prize, just email me which book you would like and where to send it. You can choose either one of my first two cookbooks Vegan Indian Cooking or The Indian Slow Cooker. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org - you can also send it to a friend. And, if you did not win this time, not to worry. There are more contest coming. Promise. Here are the winners this time around:
Neha Arcot, who asked about the right balance of garam masala. While there is no one right answer, I always say err on the side of less is more and you can always add more later. It's really about what tastes good to you - but you never want to overdo GM, it can be overwhelming. I say add less if it's really fresh and you've ground it yourself, as it will be more pungent. This blog post hopefully helped!
Joyce Freeman, who asked about the best place to purchase ingredients. I would suggest trying various places including online groceries. If you look on my site under spices you'll find more and more ingredients every day. You can also look in specialty grocers like Whole Foods and find many ingredients including specialty flours like chickpea flour. Also check out various grocers and their online sites like Patel Brothers and Nirav Brands. And, ask around. There are usually Indian grocers hidden away in many suburban neighborhoods. Ask a friend who is Indian where they shop for key ingredients.
Veena Dontharaju, who asked for a substitute for nuts in curries. I would suggest cream if you eat dairy. Plain yogurt, or sour cream - go for the vegan alternative if you don't eat dairy. You can also just leave the nuts out. The curries are just as tasty.
Judith Krasinski, who asked if you can use ground coriander instead of sauteing coriander seeds. You can, but the sauteed seeds do add another layer of unique flavor. Try to do that if you have the time. Go for the ground if you don't.
Sara Beth, who was looking for online resources for spices. See my response above to Joyce.
Tara Naran, who asked about adopting recipes for a pressure cooker. I'm asked this question so frequently I'm about to start working on a book on just that. Stay tuned for more recipes in that arena.
Thanks for taking the time to play, everyone. I will be answering all the other questions soon. And, can't wait to give away more stuff!
Happy New Year to you all.