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Garam masala

I have a package of whole garam masala and would love recipe ideas. I know I can toast it slightly (seeds, leaves, sticks) to activate the aroma before grinding into powder for curries with cream and butter, but I'd prefer low-fat. How about sauteeing onions, garlic, ginger, reducing tomatoes, adding yogurt as a base for curry, plus the garam masala? Should I add it early in sauteeing or late in simmering?

Lots of recipes suggest just a pinch of garam masala at the *end* in addition to other seasonings, but isn't garam masala lots of seasonings already, so can't it be used early and without other seasonings? Can I mix it as is and consider it good to go as the main punch in the sauce? Or would I be missing important depth by omitting something?

Lastly some say it tastes too clove-y and cinnamonish for curry even though it's widespread in Indian cooking and there are countless versions of garam masala. How to balance that sharp clove-iness?


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  1. I've been studying Indian cooking lately. First, not all recipes are fat laden, in fact the dish you describe with tomatoes and yogurt is like many that I've read--I also like using a small amount of low fat coconut milk (I free the rest in cubes for later use) for the flavor. Virtually every recipe I've seen with garam masala instructs to be in in at the end, or close to it. I think that is because the flavors in it are delicate and will lose their aromatics with too much cooking. I look forward to seeing other comments.

    1. Definitely toast before grinding. Are you saying the Mix you have has over- clove or over-cardamom flavors or is that just what you have heard from others in general re Garam masala? If it is just in general that you will have to try what you have to determine your own taste experience.

      A close friend is from Goa and often cooked dinner for us. He used whole spices, toasted them, then ground them into a powder. This he added to the first step of cooking which usually is something like, frying the onions, this also helps the flavors activate. But I do understand that if you are using Garam masala that is already ground, just add it at the end, as it has lost alot of freshness and aroma that the long cooking would diminish.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Quine

        I've learned to cook a lot of Indian dishes since moving to England. I'm far from an expert, but would suggest that no curry should be without certain essential spices, including curry powder. The garam masala should just be used sparingly at the end of the cooking.

        I always use low-fat coconut milk and there are a lot of recipes on the web for really easy and fast curries or other Indian dishes. My favorite cookbooks are by Anjum Anand - fantastic, easy recipes that always work.

        One secret I've learned is to add ground almonds to the curry - a korma for instance. It really improves the sauce 100%.

        1. re: zuriga1

          Ground almonds and curry powder, nice advice! Thanks. Add them early in the sauteeing, midway, late?

          1. re: SuchTaste

            The ground almonds don't go in with the sauteeing. They go in when the sauce is cooking (with the coconut milk etc.)

            If you want my fast chicken korma recipe, just write... zuriga@hotmail.com. I'll be happy to pass it on. Sometimes I am so glad I moved to England. :-)

      2. For most dishes, you will toast some seasonings during the preparation, and then add the finishing spices at the end. Garam masala is often the finishing spice.

        There is no reason to ever use cream. Most of the great recipes I have used instead employ yogurt, and I have had very good success with no fat.

        1. Thanks a lot. This is what I have from your replies so far:

          Lightly toast until aromatic, grind into powder, set aside. Sautee onions, garlic, ginger, add curry powder and ground almonds, add tomatoes until reduced, mix in yogurt, simmer, then add garam masala powder near the very end, mix well.

          At what stage do I add the fish/chicken/vegetables to cook them? Or should I cook those separately, then mix with sauce before plating? I'd think cooking together in a shared pan/pot, right?

          3 Replies
          1. re: SuchTaste

            I would recommend getting any Madhur Jaffrey cookbook from the library. Indian cuisine is a complex and varied one, with thousands of years of tradition. These years of tradition would be difficult to encapsulate in an online thread. Also take a look at our Indian COTM threads for some additional ideas: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/656234

            1. re: smtucker

              Well put. I also like Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking - it has dishes from a variety of areas in India, as well as alot of background on technique, ingredients etc.

              1. re: sam_1

                I love the Sahni book, in fact, I probably prefer it, but for a cook who is just investigating Indian cuisine, the Jaffrey books seem a bit more approachable. And the pictures are lovely.

          2. I agree with smtucker. I usually add some garam masala after the onions have been "brown fried", but before the tomato is added for this type of dish. I also add turmeric, chili, and salt at this point. However, you can also just add some ground cumin and coriander at that time, and add some garam masala at the end if you think it loses too much flavour. Based on what you said about too much clove and cinnamon, you can certainly grind your own combination of spices rather than buying a pre-made package. Everyone has their own preferences/blend.

            With respect to cooking the protein or whatever you are putting in, yes, just put it in the same pot. Obviously cooking times vary with what you are making....for example, I usually sear chicken thighs before putting them in the masala to simmer for 45min or so. If making fish, it will take much less time.

            1. I don't use garam masala only to finish a dish. I use it at various points in the recipe depending on what the dish is. Also, I make dishes that contain garam masala that have a different finishing spice at the end (like cardamom).

              In some dishes powdered garam masala is added to yoghurt for marinating the protein. I often start a recipe by frying whole garam masalas. Other times it is added with the cumin, coriander powder, red chile, and turmeric. Other times it is stirred into yoghurt with ginger paste and added after the tomatoes have been cooked down. There are many dishes with both whole and powdered garam masala and also garam masala added in small quantities at two points in the cooking.

              It really depends on what you are making.

              1. If they are whole, why not just pick out the some of the cloves?

                A couple of points that may not have been mentioned. The name means 'warming mix', that is the spices used are ones that are considered to be warming (in the traditional warming/cooling framework).

                This is is the first time I have read about a whole spice mix of this type. I've always bought it ground, and I think that even in India it is mixed and ground (or ground and then mixed) either at the shop or at home, and kept on hand as a finishing spice. The idea is to brighten the flavors. Some of the same spices may have already been used earlier in the cooking. In the same line of thinking, some competition chili cooks at their proprietary chile powder mix in several dumps through out the cooking process.

                Otherwise whole spices are kept separate until cooking time. Then they are selected in various proportions (depending on the dish and the cook's preferences), toasted and ground (or some cases not ground), and used in the dish.

                You can, of course, toast and grind this mix, and use it as the main flavor component of the dish, but you are, in effect, stuck with the flavors of this mix.

                12 Replies
                1. re: paulj

                  Like paulj, I've never come across a pre-prepared, but unground, garam masala mix. I have recipes for making my own but, truth be told, I'm a lazy cook and I'm perfectly happy with a good quality ground one. The recipes I have from the sub-continent have the masala going in early in the cooking process.

                  1. re: Harters

                    As chance would have it, I recently found my first bag of pre-mixed (but whole) garam masala spice blend in, of all places, a newly opened Halal market. Before, I've always made my own blend. I haven't tried this mixture, but I was excited to see something that so simplified the assembly process. Fingers crossed that it's good...

                  2. re: paulj

                    I just returned from India where I purchased pre-prepared, unground garam masala from a spice shop in Delhi.

                    1. re: junglekitte

                      Delhi would be a long trip from North Cheshire.

                      1. re: Harters

                        And a longer trip from Pennsylvania!

                        Camellia Panjabi, in her excellent book, the Great Curries of India, makes the point that garam masala is added near the beginning of a dish for flavor. When it is added at the end, it contributes instead mostly to the aroma.

                        1. re: cheesemaestro

                          though I've seen claims that flavor is most detected in the nose. The tongue only has 4 or so types of taste sensors. In any case, spices added at the end make a different contribution than ones that have cooked a long time.

                          1. re: paulj

                            Sorry to say that makes no sense. To me IMHO, it's like saying presentation is a flavor component, I mean we can see so many more colors than the "only has 4 or so types of taste sensors" a tongue has. But wait, the eye only has two color sensors, cones and rods, so it must be a lesser thing.

                            Get a grip.
                            Adding some garam masala at the end of a dish is a finishing touch, not a flavor builder.

                            1. re: Quine

                              Then I suggest you edit this Wiki page :)
                              "Of the three chemical senses, smell is the main determinant of a food item's flavor. While the taste of food is limited to sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory (umami) – the basic tastes – the smells of a food are potentially limitless. A food's flavor, therefore, can be easily altered by changing its smell while keeping its taste similar."

                              We smell food in two ways. One is through the air we breath; that's the small we detect even before the food is in our mouths. The other is from the back; that's the flavor we detect while chewing the food. Spices at the end will have a stronger upfront smell.

                              1. re: paulj

                                See what citing a bad source of bad research does? You researched flavor which is different and cited a source that could not cite it's source. Many wikis are not sustained by references. This part of the article you quoted is not backed by a reference. Sorry.

                                Try this :
                                "By age 80, many men have almost no ability to detect odors. The intensity of a particular odor is strongly affected by adaptation . Odors may become undetectable after only a brief period of exposure. The sense of smell also plays an important role in the discrimination of flavors, a fact demonstrated by the reduced sense of taste in people with colds. The enjoyment of food actually comes more from odors detected by the olfactory system than from the functioning of the taste system. The olfactory and gustatory (taste) pathways are known to converge in parts of the brain, although it is not known exactly how the two systems work together. While an aversion to certain flavors (such as bitter flavors) is innate, associations with odors are learned."
                                Source. (APA) : "Smell." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. 2001. Retrieved February 10, 2011 from Encyclopedia.com:

                                1. re: Quine

                                  I don't see how your quote contradicts mine.
                                  "The sense of smell also plays an important role in the discrimination of flavors" says the same thing that I am try to say.

                                  I wasn't intending Wiki to be the final, authoritative word on the subject. That is why I suggested that you edit if you are convinced that it is wrong. I've come across this distinction between odors and tastes in multiple places. I probably could have found an appropriate quote from Harold McGee, but that would have required typing, not just cut and paste.

                                  1. re: paulj

                                    LOL!!!! You make it too easy:
                                    'Harold McGee replies: I’m not sure that salt makes sugar taste sweeter, but it fills out the flavor of foods, sweets included. It’s an important component of taste in our foods, so if it’s missing in a given dish, the dish will taste less complete or balanced. Salt also increase the volatility of some aromatic substances in food, and it enhances our perception of some aromas, so it can make the overall flavor of a food seem more intense."

                                    August 9, 2008, 4:58 PM
                                    Harold McGee on Salt
                                    By THE NEW YORK TIMES

                    2. I buy the small bags of whole garam masala mix and use it to pick out spices that I need so that I don't have to buy each individual spice in tiny portions and have a lot of containers. It keeps my spice stock fresher. For yakhni pullao, I just pour 1/4 a cup of the bag into the stock pot. So I always have it on hand. I recently tried toasting it and grinding it into powdered garam masala, adding in some other spices that I like in my garam masala like mace and nutmeg. It is a bit coriander heavy (as a filler), but works fine.