It’s not unusual to be halfway through cooking a curry, only to discover one of the vital ingredients is not in your pantry. When that ingredient is Garam Masala, you may find yourself wondering what to do. While other spice jars contain only one spice, the rich blend of Garam Masala makes it difficult to substitute. And despite its many uses, Garam Masala can still be difficult to source.
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Whether you’ve run out without realizing, or you aren’t sure what exactly Garam Masala is, there’s no need to worry. While no substitute will fully capture the unique flavoring of Garam Masala, there are things you can use. These additions will give your dish the same warmth and complexity that Garam Masala provides.
What is Garam Masala?
Garam Masala is a South Asian spice mix that’s popularly used in recipes from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The careful balance of flavors in Garam Masala make it highly adaptable, with a complex medley of warming spices.
Garam Masala is often made of whole spices which are toasted before being ground to a fine powder and mixed together. There are many regional variations to be found, as it’s so common in South Asian home cookery.
As Garam Masala grows in popularity worldwide, it does become easier to find on the shelves of grocery stores and supermarkets. However, once it’s been left for too long it begins to lose its vibrancy. Many prefer to make their own Garam Masala, to adjust to their tastes. If you can’t find Garam Masala in a grocery store, try Indian markets or delis.
What does Garam Masala taste like?
Garam Masala translates to ‘warming spices’, but that doesn’t mean they’re hot. While some Garam Masala has heat, the name refers to the warming effect it has on the body. Garam Masala is aromatic and sweet, but with an undertone of earthiness. It adds an extra layer of comfort to a bowl of hot food. It’s even considered to have health benefits, due to the balancing effects the spices have on the body.
There are many variations of Garam Masala, blends that have been developed by families and regions to fit different cooking styles. Some Garam Masala will have added heat, while others will incorporate a zest or tang. For some families, a Garam Masala blend can be a source of pride.
Regardless of the variations, the key ingredients at the core of Garam Masala are warming and sweet.
The Best Substitutes for Garam Masala
The easiest substitute: Curry Powder
Curry powder is a fairly generic term, seeing as there are so many varieties of curry. Most commonly, curry powder describes a blend made of coriander, turmeric, cumin, and chili peppers.
Despite what many see as a lack of authenticity, this simple ingredient has proven to be incredibly useful. It’s a go-to spice mix for many cooks with little time. While it won’t capture the exact same flavorings as Garam Masala, it does give a similar overall taste.
There are sometimes a few different varieties of curry powder for sale, but anything labelled simply ‘curry powder’ will do. Garam Masala isn’t a particularly fiery spice blend, so avoid any curry powder labelled ‘hot’. ‘Mild’ or ‘medium’ is generally the best option.
You may find something called masala curry powder. This isn’t the same as Garam Masala, and is generally just the same as regular curry powder. ‘Masala’ translates literally to a mixture of spices. Regardless, masala curry powder still works as a good substitute.
Using curry powder will also change the appearance of a dish. Curry powder contains turmeric, an ingredient that’s missing from Garam Masala. Turmeric has a vibrant yellow hue that often shows in the final appearance of a dish. Garam Masala, on the other hand, is brown. These cosmetic changes aren’t particularly important.
Curry powder is a decent store cupboard ingredient. It’s flexible, so it can be added to many dishes to enhance flavor. It also comes in useful when you may need to substitute other Indian spice mixes.
Curry powder can be used as a direct substitute. This is a very simple and easy switch, to quickly replace the entirety of Garam Masala in a recipe. It can be added at the same point in the recipe as well.
For South Asian authenticity: Chaat Masala or Sambar Masala
As Garam Masala is a mixture of spices, there’s nothing else quite like it. However, if you want to add some authenticity to a dish, an Indian spice blend is a good substitute. The flavor profile won’t be an exact match, but it should give similar extra dimensions.
Ideally, you’ll have cooked using these spices before, and understand what they taste like. This makes them easier to substitute with. Chaat Masala has a zingy taste that's surprisingly sour. These sharp notes are underscored by heat and umami. Replacing Garam Masala with Chaat Masala will give a dish a sour element, and less of the warmth.
Sambar Masala captures this warming appeal, but adds greater heat. It’s very fragrant, and is commonplace in Indian cookery.
Although neither spice blend has the exact properties of Garam Masala, they use several similar ingredients. They also add a complexity that some simpler substitutes can’t match. If Garam Masala isn’t available, either of these options are worth trying. If you’ve never sampled them before, then you just might find something new to love.
While these can be used as a direct substitute, it’s better to add slowly and build up. Particularly if you’ve never tried them before. They’re both also blends with some variety, so some may be bolder than others. Start with half the amount required, and work your way up, tasting as you go.
In a hurry: Cumin and Allspice
Although simple, a blend of cumin and allspice can go some way to replicating that Garam Masala flavor. They’re also something likely to be found in any cook's store cupboard!
A traditional Garam Masala can contain upwards of 30 ingredients, so it’s not always feasible to make your own. Cumin and allspice achieve a similar warming effect, in a much shorter time period.
The key is in getting the balance right. Add 1 part cumin to ¼ part allspice, and you’re done! With this ratio, a sweetness and fragrance is added to the cumin, without overwhelming the balance of the dish. Allspice tastes like a blend of clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg - hence the name. It’s use here gives the dish a similar variety of flavor these individual spices would provide.
This ratio is incredibly simple, and can be adapted for both small and large amounts. Whatever recipe you have, this very basic blend can work. If you’ve reached to put Garam Masala in only to find the spice jar empty, then turn your hand to this.
With a little more time…
There are a few ingredients that are essential to a Garam Masala. These are: coriander, cumin, black peppercorns, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Thankfully, these ingredients are also common additions to spice racks.
If you have some time to spare, use these to create a simplified spice blend. The basic components of Garam Masala are covered, and you have some room to play around and create something unique to your tastes. Try mixing up a larger batch, that way you have something on hand next time a recipe calls for Garam Masala.
The basic ratio is:
- 3 parts coriander
- 3 parts cinnamon
- 1 part cumin
- 1 part cloves
- ½ part cardamom
- ½ part black pepper
- ½ part nutmeg
A mixture of this will be warming, fragrant, and aromatic. Mix it together thoroughly before using, rather than adding them directly to the dish.
If you don’t have all the spices, play around to create something that works for you. If you regularly use Garam Masala, you can probably recognize a favorite component. You’ve also probably noticed how it can vary from brand to brand! Pay attention to the ratio, but don’t worry too much about going off course.
Any items that are missing from the store cupboard, consider adding to your repertoire. Every ingredient on the list has multiple uses across cuisines, and you’ll soon find another dish for them. One of the best things about cooking is getting to experiment with flavor, so you should never be afraid to add a jar to the spice rack.
If nothing else: Pumpkin spice or Ras el Hanout
It may not seem like an obvious choice, but a pumpkin spice mix can be used in place of Garam Masala. However, you’re probably going to want to make a few changes.
Traditionally, pumpkin pie spice mix is made using cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and ginger. While it’s often used for sweet cooking, it can be found in savory dishes as well. You may recognize many of those ingredients from the simplified Garam Masala above.
This gives pumpkin spice that same warmth of Garam Masala. However, there are a few components missing. Pumpkin spice doesn’t contain coriander, cumin, or black pepper. If you intend to use pumpkin spice as a substitute, we recommend enhancing the flavor with cumin and coriander.
Be very sure to use a spice mix, rather than a syrup! It may seem obvious, but we’ve all made some wild cooking mistakes. A syrup would not work at all, and would end up far too sweet.
Another option is Ras el hanout. Ras el hanout is a North African spice mix, with multiple ingredients. In many ways, it’s similar to Garam Masala. Some core ingredients are: cardamom, cinnamon, clove, cumin, nutmeg, and coriander. Ras el hanout is generally hotter than Garam Masala, so take that into consideration if substituting. We recommend adding ras el hanout slowly, and building up the flavor.
Of course, one of the big issues with using ras el hanout is that it’s often harder to find than Garam Masala. You may occasionally see a mix called ‘Moroccan spice’, and this is either ras el hanout or something similar. If you have ras el hanout in your cupboard, definitely consider it for a substitution.
(This one goes both ways. If a recipe calls for ras el hanout, try adding Garam Masala with a dash of cayenne pepper.)
Best option: Make your own
If you’ve been endlessly searching for Garam Masala to no avail, then consider making your own. There are a wealth of recipes out there, so you can find something that works with your taste buds and the ingredients available. Although there are a few core spices, Garam Masala has evolved and grown over time and travels. A quick search for authentic Garam Masala recipes will soon show you just how much can be done with the basic spices.
The ratio and ingredients we’ve given below are a good starting point for making your own Garam Masala:
- 3 parts coriander
- 3 parts cinnamon
- 1 part cumin
- 1 part cloves
- ½ part cardamom
- ½ part black pepper
- ½ part nutmeg
If you want to make the best version, then use whole ingredients and toast them. In a hurry, there’s nothing easier than using a ground spice. However, a few minutes toasting the whole spices unleashes a new level of flavor potential. It’s important to note coriander refers to coriander seeds rather than leaves.
Look out as well for cassia bark, which is a variation on cinnamon. The two can be used in place of each other, although cassia is typically stronger. Authentic recipes may also refer to mace. This is similar to nutmeg, and another direct substitution.
To toast the spices, measure them out and place them in a dry pan over a medium heat. All the ingredients should be in an even layer. Keep the spices moving by gently shaking the pan. If they’re left in one place for too long, they can quickly burn. Keep cooking until the spices start to pop and release an aroma. Remove them from the heat, and leave to cool.
The traditional way to grind spices is with a pestle and mortar, and many still prefer to do it this way. Alternatively, use a food processor or a coffee grinder. For a very basic method, place the spices in a plastic bag and try to crush with a rolling pin.
Other common additions to Garam Masala are star anise, bay leaves, or fennel seeds.
You may find that once you’ve tried your own homemade Garam Masala, you start adding it to everything. Beginner chef’s can be wary of complex spice blends because they’re unsure when to use them. No one wants a spice mix to lose its aroma from sitting too long on a shelf. But once you’ve tried Garam Masala, you’ll see how well it goes across dishes. Adding a teaspoon to soups and stews gives a depth and warmth.
Is Garam Masala necessary?
It does depend heavily on the recipe, but for the most part it isn’t something you want to leave out. Because it’s such a complex spice blend, Garam Masala contributes a huge amount to the meal.
Occasionally, a recipe may call for only a small amount of Garam Masala. In this case, you may choose to leave it out entirely. However, it’s still worth adding a substitute. If nothing else, cumin will do as an extra pinch of flavor.
Often, Garam Masala is added at the end of a dish. Even though it doesn’t have the same simmering time to impart flavor, it still adds depth and aroma. You may consider leaving Garam Masala out if it’s only included at the end, but this is actually when the spice blend is traditionally at its best.
How do you use Garam Masala?
Garam Masala is used across many dishes, so there isn’t a single best way. Often it’s used at either end of the recipe: as one of the first ingredients, or right at the very end. Sometimes Garam Masala will be cooked in oil at the beginning, alongside an ingredient like onion. Used this way, the earthy tones of Garam Masala come through.
When used at the end, Garam Masala retains the lighter, fragrant flavorings. Here it adds aroma to a dish. Garam Masala may even be sprinkled over the top of a dish, as a final finishing touch.
Whichever way it’s used, once you’ve tried Garam Masala you’ll be looking to incorporate it in other dishes.