Garam masala is a spice blend associated mainly with Indian cuisine. It is used to flavor stews, soups, and curries. The spice blend can be used in any type of savory meal including poultry, meat, vegetable, and lentil dishes.
Buying the premixed spice blend is very convenient for most home cooks. It saves you from having to stock a pantry with every individual spice and also saves you from having to make the blend from scratch every time you want to whip up a dish.
If you are a purist when it comes to flavor, you will however prefer making your own blend since the store-bought premixes generally have a less robust taste.
Since they aren’t freshly toasted like a homemade version and possibly also contain some preservatives to prolong their shelf-life, the flavor can be slightly muted.
If you are ready to make your curried lentil dinner and realize you’re out of garam masala, don’t put your dinner plans on hold yet. We’ve got some ideas for the best garam masala substitutes you can use instead to add a bucket load of flavor to your dish.
What Is Garam Masala?
The word ‘masala’ means ‘blend of elements’. In this case, a blend of warming spices. Although garam masala spice blend is not necessarily spicy, it is very aromatic, providing comforting warmth. The blend is made up of cinnamon, cardamom pods, coriander, black peppercorns, cumin seeds, mace, and bay leaves.
The ratio of spices in the mix will vary according to the region it originates from. Traditionally garam masala recipes from Northern India will be more aromatic while southern regions have a lot more heat in the mix.
Garam Masala vs. Curry Powder vs. Tandoori Masala
Garam masala, curry powder, and tandoori masala are all spice mixes that are used in preparing curry-type dishes or sauces to add a specific flavor profile or coloring. Garam masala does not contain turmeric and is added to a dish towards the end of the cooking time.
Curry powder on the other hand contains turmeric and is added to the dish during the early stages of cooking.
Tandoori masala is used to season or marinate the meat before cooking in a clay oven known as a tandoor. Tandoori masala often includes garam masala as one of its ingredients along with garlic, cayenne pepper, and ginger.
Homemade Garam Masala Recipe
Making your own garam masala at home just before cooking will yield a stronger flavor compared to that of store-bought mixes which have already lost some of their potency.
To make your own blend lightly toast the following spices in a pan just until fragrant and they start to crackle. Grind them together in a clean coffee grinder or spice grinder. Lightly toasting the spices releases the aromatic oils. You can adjust the quantities to your preference and add your own selection of spices, chilies, or chili flakes according to your preference.
- 1 large or 2 smaller cinnamon sticks according to taste
- 3 dried bay leaves
- 2 Tbsp coriander seeds
- 2 Tbsp cumin seeds
- 2 tsp black peppercorns
- 1 tsp whole black cloves
- 1 tsp green cardamom seeds
- 1 small blade of mace (or a little grated nutmeg if you don’t have mace)
What Can I Use Instead of Garam Masala?
As a general rule when using spice substitutes, start with a similar or slightly smaller amount than called for in the recipe and increase according to taste. Some spices have a more robust flavor or more floral profile and you don’t want it to completely overpower your dish by adding too much in the beginning.
#1. Curry powder
The easiest substitution for garam masala is to use curry powder. It will offer the same warmth and depth of flavor, although it will have a different spice and color profile since curry powder contains turmeric and garam masala does not.
Add curry powder earlier in the cooking time to allow it to fully infuse in the dish. You can use curry powder in any savory dishes including meat, chicken, vegetable, and lentil recipes.
#2. Chaat Masala
Like garam masala, chaat masala is a spice mix that also contains cumin, coriander, and black pepper. These similar flavors make it a suitable alternative, however, it also contains other very potent flavors such as chili, ginger, and asafoetida.
The spice mix has salty-sweet notes and some zing, so start with a little less and gradually add to the taste to avoid overpowering the flavors of the other ingredients.
This is a good option for spicy sauces as well as vegetarian stews but can also be used in other dishes where the recipe calls for garam masala.
#3. Sambhar Masala
This spice blend also contains coriander, cumin, and cinnamon which provides the similar garam masala taste that you are trying to replicate. In addition, the Sambhar spice blend has mustard seeds, dry red chilies, and coconut. It’s a great substitute for lentil stews and curries and will add a wonderful pop of flavor to any other dish that requires a bit of heat.
Replace garam masala in equal quantities or start with slightly less if you are sensitive to chilies as this may have a spicy profile depending on the brand you have on hand.
#4. Chicken Tikka Masala
Chicken tikka masala sauce can be made or even purchased pre-made in the sauce aisle of general grocery stores. It contains garam masala already which makes it ideal to incorporate the same flavors in your dish. It also has tomato and cream and is generally cooked with chicken, but can be used in vegetable dishes as well.
#5. Indian Butter Chicken
This is another flavorful option that can be purchased as a premade sauce in-store for a quick-fix or as a spice blend. Some versions include garam masala in the mix with the addition of chili, turmeric, ginger, garlic, lemon, and yogurt. The taste profile is somewhat different but it is very aromatic and bursting with spicy flavors.
#6. Cumin, Coriander, and Cardamom
These three spices are all the main components of garam masala so if you are out of the spice blend but have these on hand they will make a very satisfactory substitute. Ideally, you want to toast the whole seeds lightly to release the fragrant oils and then grind them together in a spice grinder.
Use two teaspoons of coriander seeds and one teaspoon of cumin seeds with half a teaspoon of cardamom seeds. Use this mix for vegetable stews or in meat and lamb dishes.
#7. Cinnamon, Fenugreek, and Cloves
The cinnamon and cloves will yield similar warm flavors that you are trying to replace although you won’t have the full depth of flavor that you would with the full spice blend.
This mix of three spices is ideal for use in most recipes that require a replacement including chicken, meat, stews, and vegetable dishes.
Toast the spices lightly and grind them in a spice grinder before adding to the recipe ingredients. Cloves can be overpowering so make sure you only use a small amount in the mix.
#8. Mustard seeds, Curry Leaves, and Coconut
These flavors are slightly different but extremely aromatic. The toasted and ground-up blend can be used in sauces, fish dishes, lentil stews, and even dressings. Use a teaspoon of mustard seeds and shredded coconut with 12 curry leaves or less to taste.
#9. Allspice and Cumin
If you only have pre-ground spices at home, use a combination of cumin and allspice. Use one teaspoon of cumin with ¼ teaspoon allspice. It’s easy save to spare you a trip to the grocery store and offers lovely aromatic properties.
The great thing about making curries and similar types of dishes is that they contain a marriage of spice combinations that can be tailored not only to what you like but also to what you have in the pantry.
If you need a garam masala replacement the first best option is to see what similar individual spices you have on hand and make your own blend to imitate the taste you’re after. It can become a taste adventure that may just have you concocting your very own delicious spice blends in no time.
*image by serezniy/depositphotos