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Home-ground Garam Masala

November 21, 2009

You might not guess from the general contents of this blog, but I do a fair amount of Indian cooking. I’m about as Anglo-Saxon-Germanic as you can get (blonde hair [check] ; blue eyes [cheeyeck] ; pasty-white skin that were it not for the rosacea I would look perpetually sick [hmph, check] ), so I grew up with potatoes and pot roast and apple streusel, not the richly perfumed bouquets of coriander and cloves and cinnamon and cumin. My education in the spicy wiles of Indian curries has been a recent but decadent adventure. There’s a reason Chicken Tikka Masala is the National Food of Britain: it’s glorious. I don’t know any other way to say it.

Although the base spices, like coriander and cumin, are readily available everywhere ’round these parts, there’s one blend that’s really hard to find: garam masala. I’m lucky in that one of the rare stores to carry it is only about a mile away from my house, but unlucky in that it’s $5.69 for a little 1.8 oz jar. And I go through a lot of garam masala: one dish can easily use 1 to 2 tablespoons. There had to be a cheaper way.

One little fact I came to learn was that there are as many ways to make garam masala as there are curries. Families have cherished recipes and secret ingredients, each as different and alluring as the next, that are passed from generation to generation. I don’t know what gall possessed me to create my own blend, given my amateur Indian cooking status, but the result has been so enjoyable and satisfying (and cheap! hey, I gotta be me…), that I wouldn’t have it any other way.

They key to “delicious” is finding quality ingredients. The key to “cheap” is buying them in bulk. There’s the internet, of course, so if all other avenues fail, turn to Amazon. In Cincinnati, however, we are lucky to have a bulk supplier in the form of Herbs & Spice and Everything Nice, based out of Findlay Market. For less than two retail jars’ worth of garam masala, I can come home with a bag brimming over with enough herbs and spices to last months … and many, many jars of garam masala. Truly awesome.

Whole herbs and spices are first gently toasted to bring out the very best of their flavors.
Then they’re left to cool completely. Don’t rush it – grinding warm spices more often than not produces a paste instead of a powder.
This Stone Mortar and Pestle is awfully fun. Got a little frustration building up? Work it all out with this thing. It’s particularly suited for grinding large amounts of black pepper – much faster than a mill (call me wimpy, but I find it sigh-inspiring, trying to twist out a 1/2 teaspoon of pepper). I also use an electric coffee grinder devoted to spices (once you grind cloves in it, don’t use it again for coffee – you’ll never get all the clove residue out). Just take it slow. The friction of the blades can actually burn the spices. Grind the big pieces first (like the cinnamon sticks), and work your way down to the smallest. Bay leaves go last.
Fresh, fragrant garam masala. Someday, I’ll share a Chicken Tikka Masala recipe. Chicken heaven, I do believe.
Garam Masala
I have to admit that I don’t really measure out these ingredients anymore. I just grab a teaspoon, scaling the balance in favor of my favorite ingredients.
  9 sticks 1 inch each, cinnamon
2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 heaping teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon black cumin seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon cardamom
2-3   bay leaves

1. Place all ingredients in a small pan over medium heat. Stir more frequently as pan begins to heat up. When the whole spices begin to turn color, remove from heat and transfer to a plate.

2. Allow to cool completely.

3. Place ingredients in a mortar or spice/coffee grinder. Grind to a fine powder. Tip: it’s easier if you start with the largest pieces, such as the cinnamon sticks and cloves, and then add the remaining seeds, ending with the bay leaves.

4. Transfer to an airtight container. Blend will keep for a couple of months.

  1. November 24, 2009 12:24 am

    Wow, I am crazy about cumin seeds but have never seen black ones. Here in Los Angeles, we have a Little India section where all of these spices are plentiful. Bags of garam masala abound and are cheap, so I never thought about making my own. Just wondering why you don’t grind the cardamom pods instead of using powdered?

  2. SoupAddict permalink
    November 24, 2009 10:46 am

    Garam masala in bags? I’m jealous. Cincinnati has a large German population, so there’s no shortage of, like, struedel. Or micro-breweries. (We do, in fact, boast the 2nd largest Oktoberfest party in the world (said party occurring in September, of course), behind only Munich. This year, a tall, fuzzy-suited, not-at-all-fake Homer Simpson was the celebrity host, where he (or she, for all I know) was forced to lead the World’s Largest Chicken Dance. A prouder moment, I’ve never had.)

    Anyhoo, that’s a great question about the cardamom. The answer is very SoupAddictesque. SoupAddict, in an uncharacteristic fit of organization, made a long shopping list and tucked it into her pocket before heading down to Findlay Market (home of her spice dealer). Then, in the mayhem surrounding the vegetable stands, and the exchange of paper and metal for organics, and the absent-minded shoving and removing of excess metal into/out of jeans pockets, the list fell out. Or possibly paid for a butternut squash, I’m not sure.

    But by the time she reached Herbs & Spice, the list was long gone, and she had to order from memory [snort] and the lovely green caradamom pods were forgotten. Good eagle eye you’ve got there!

  3. December 4, 2009 5:28 pm

    My dear SoupAddict, thank you for the kind words about our store. It is so great having customers like you that really know what they want and aren’t afraid to try new tastes and flavors. See you at the market.

    • SoupAddict permalink
      December 4, 2009 11:03 pm

      Colonel! Love Herbs and Spice, and Spice University. In addition to the best spices in the tri-state, you also introduced me to Grains of Paradise. Awesome.

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