What Is Garam Masala? How to Make It and Cook with It

How to cook with this warming Indian spice blend.

October 28, 2022
Garam Masala in a spoon

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Garam Masala in a spoon

Photo by: ajaykampani/Getty Images

ajaykampani/Getty Images

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By Layla Khoury-Hanold for Food Network Kitchen
Layla Khoury-Hanold is a contributor at Food Network.

Spice blends are integral to Indian cooking, including the widely used garam masala. But what spices are included in garam masala? And how do you cook with it? For answers, we consulted an expert: Chitra Agrawal, founder of Brooklyn Delhi, a small-batch Indian condiment company, and author of Vibrant India: Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn.

What Is Garam Masala?

“Garam masala is a North Indian spice blend made from warming spices which makes sense because garam means hot and masala means spice blend in Hindi,” Agrawal says. “The spices are very lightly toasted and then ground to a fine powder. Garam masala is often used in curry and dal recipes, where it is sprinkled on top of the dishes towards the end of cooking.”

Garam masala is common in recipes across the Indian subcontinent and in Pakistan, too, although the blends can vary regionally. “I mainly know garam masala as a North India spice blend. My mother is South Indian and did not grow up with this blend in her family, so she learned how to make it from my father's mother, who is from Allahabad,” Agrawal says. “Garam masala recipes vary widely though from household to household, but the commonality is the warming, sweet spices.”

A bowl of Palak Paneer made of Paneer cheese dipped in mildly spiced Spinach gravy on wooden background.

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A bowl of Palak Paneer made of Paneer cheese dipped in mildly spiced Spinach gravy on wooden background.

Photo by: DipaliS/Getty Images

DipaliS/Getty Images

What Does Garam Masala Taste Like?

“Garam Masala has a warming heat with a bit of sweetness from cinnamon, cloves, black cardamom and black pepper,” Agrawal says. “I use garam masala when I’m making saag paneer, chana masala, rajma masala and in my dal recipes. The blend brings a nice toasty flavor that is subtly smokey and also some heat from the black pepper and sweetness from the cinnamon and cloves.”

What Is In Garam Masala

Agrawal says that each family has their own recipe for garam masala, but that common spices typically include cinnamon, black pepper, cloves and black cardamom. She notes that in other varieties, one might find nutmeg, mace, cumin and star anise. Agrawal likes to make her garam masala with a combination of cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, black cardamom and cumin. This combination of whole spices is lightly toasted and ground into a fine powder.

Tips for Shopping For, Grinding and Toasting Spices

  • Buy whole spices: Agrawal prefers buying whole spices over ground spices because they keep their flavor for longer. Seek out whole spices from a shop that has a high turn-around as spices are likely to be replenished more frequently.
  • Grind spices in a coffee grinder: Agrawal has a dedicated coffee grinder for blending spices that she leaves on her counter for easy access.
  • Toast your spices: Toasting spices brings out their aromatic oils and imparts a toasty, layered flavor to dishes. Agrawal prefers to toast her spices in a pan on the stovetop (rather than in the oven) to ensure even roasting.
  • Make spice blends fresh: Agrawal says that the spice she grinds most often is coriander seeds, because it loses its flavor quickly after being ground. She uses up other homemade spice blends within a few months.

Garam Masala Substitute

If you don’t have time to make your own garam masala blend from scratch or are short on some spices, Agrawal recommends making a garam masala substitute by combining equal parts ground cardamom, cloves, and black pepper, plus a half measure of cinnamon.

Classic Recipes Using Garam Masala

Garam masala is a versatile blend that brings a sweet, warming flavor profile to a variety of recipes, including meat, fish, vegetarian and vegan dishes.

Food Network Kitchen’s Vegan Dal.

Food Network Kitchen’s Vegan Dal.

Photo by: Matt Armendariz

Matt Armendariz

Dal

This vegan lentil dish is inspired by the richly flavored lentil stews enjoyed throughout India. This dal recipe comes together quickly and gets its fragrant scent from a duo of curry paste and garam masala.

Chana  Masala

Chana Masala

Chana masala, sometimes known as chickpea curry (and often called Amritsari Chole), originates from Punjab but is popular all over India. It stars chickpeas smothered in a delicious thick, piquant and spiced gravy that owes its complexity to a blend of roasted spices, including coriander, cumin, black pepper, cinnamon and cardamom.

Weeknight Cooking

Photo by: RYAN DAUSCH

RYAN DAUSCH

In a nod to India’s masoor dal, this comforting red lentil stew features lentils simmered with tomatoes, aromatics and fragrant garam masala. It’s satisfying on its own, but buttery shrimp laced with ginger bolster the dish and turn it into a seafood-focused main.

Food Network Kitchen’s Palak Paneer.

Food Network Kitchen’s Palak Paneer.

Photo by: Matt Armendariz ©Copyright 2015

Matt Armendariz, Copyright 2015

This spinach dish, heady with the fragrance of garam masala, cumin seeds, chili and turmeric, originated in the Punjabi region of northern India but is popular around the world. It’s worth making your own paneer (it’s easier than you think) and using fresh spinach gives the dish its bright green color, but if you’re short on time try this Shortcut Palak Paneer recipe.

Classic 100 Chicken Tikka Masala

Classic 100 Chicken Tikka Masala

Photo by: Caitlin Ochs

Caitlin Ochs

Chicken Tikka Masala is spicy, tomato-based dish that’s said to have been created by a Bangladeshi chef in Glasgow in the 1960s. It’s seasoned with aromatics, including garlic, ginger, fenugreek, which lends a nutty, slightly minty flavor profile, and garam masala, a fragrant blend chockful of warming spices such as cloves, cinnamon and cardamom.

Butter chicken, known in India as Murgh Makhani, features chicken seasoned with a fragrant blend of spices that’s simmered in a creamy, buttery sauce until tender. This recipe skips the marinating step and employs an Instant Pot to reduce cooking time, but still calls for garam masala and complementary spices, including paprika, ground cumin and ground turmeric, to make the dish sing.

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