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my perennial garam masala problem

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I love Indian food and I love cooking it at home but there's one problem that I just keep running into that I can't seem to find a solution to. What do you do when a recipe calls for only a small amount of garam masala (or any masala), usually in combination with larger amounts of other pure spices? Like a good purist, I like to make my own masalas and store them as whole spices so I can toast and grind them as needed. But of course, if you only need a small amount, it's hard to get exactly the right mixture in such a small sample, especially since most garam masala recipes call for very small amounts of certain spices (like a small piece of cinnamon stick.) The only way to get exactly the right ratio of spices in a small sample seems to be to store it ground but I don't want to do that. How do more experienced Indian food aficionados solve this problem?

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  1. I wonder if you are trying to be 'more Catholic than the pope'.

    If the recipe has a list of spices that are freshly toasted and ground at one step, and then calls for a sprinkle of garam masala at the end, without specifying the preparation steps, then the author probably intends for you to use your favorite mixture (which you may have bought earlier in the week from the spice merchant).

    1 Reply
    1. re: paulj

      haha, it's quite possible and this is good for me to know.

    2. Why not just coarsely break up the cinnamon stick in a mortar and pestle? Finely grind the portion you are using, and put the remaining chunks back in your masala box.

      I wouldn't worry too much about getting the *exact* ratio; Indian cuisine tends to have pretty large margin of error for most spices. Whoever wrote down your recipe probably just eyeballed it.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Scrofula

        haha, yes, this is true and it's funny because I tend not to be a big recipe user anyway and I often end up throwing in different stuff until it tastes right to me. But since I'm not remotely Indian and don't have any cultural familiarity with Indian culinary traditions (as opposed to European ones), I guess I've been more obsessive about orthodoxy than usual--at any rate, I wanted to make sure there wasn't some secret that all Indian food cooks were in on except me! This is exactly the kind of info that is useful to me, though.

      2. I make garam masala fresh almost every time. As in, when I make a dish, I make garam masala in a quantity just for that dish. Garam masala recipes vary from house to house an region to region, but the basic concept is warming, aromatic spices. My basic is cloves, green cardamom, peppercorns and cassia. I might use 2 cardamom, 2 cloves, 4 peppercorns and a smallish bit of cassia (broken up) that looks inline with the other ingredients to make about 1/2-1 tsp garam masala. I may double this if necessary. My method is to toast lightly and grind. This should be added near the end of cooking as the toasting makes a lot of cooking unnecssary.

        I also have a more complex Punjabi style garam masala that I save for certain dishes. I make it about once a month. It has a lot more stuff in it (black cardamom, nutmeg, mace, cassia leaves, etc.) and is more aromatic. I do not toast it heavily, but simply either dry the spices out without toasting and then grind them.

        A lot of commercial garam masala are full of filler spices like coriander in such large quantities as to completely ruin the flavour, IMO. Also, they don't have the fresh taste of homemade. I never buy such mixes.

        1. For garam masala I powder and store it every few months. It's just fine.

          1. When I make garam masala for one dish, I often make a little extra (not a lot), which I store in a small jar. Then when I have a dish that calls for just a little, I have it on hand. Because I don't store very much, it doesn't hang around too long, and is still much fresher and more fragrant than buying at the store.