Garam masala (warm spice blend) is a finishing spice in Indian cuisine. This means that you add these spices near the end of the cooking process. If you add them earlier the aromatic elements that are the reason for adding them will cook off and leave your dish flat or worse bitter.
I analyzed eleven recipes for garam masala that I found on the internet and every one of them was completely different. Frequently, as I am doing this type of research, the recipes for a spice blend will be almost indistinguishable copies of each other, the same ingredients in close to the same amounts. Not so with garam masala. While there was some general agreement about the spices that went into it, which were to be the stars of the mix were very diverse.
Several of the recipes had cumin and coriander as the prime ingredients. The simplest recipe eliminated these spices all together. This one contained only green cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and black cardamom—which was optional. Other recipes had cloves or cinnamon or bay leaves as the dominate spice in the mix.
It was a comment that garam masala was a finishing spice that gave me the clue. When I was researching Ethiopian Berbere spice blend I discovered that what was sold as that blend in America was really a combination of two spice mixes. One spice blend was to be added early in the cooking process and a second blend, Mekelesha, which was to be added at the end of cooking.
I came across a second comment about the order of Indian cooking. Indian spices are used whole or ground to a power. If you are using them as whole spice you add them at the beginning to give the dish a depth. You add the powered form at the end to give the dish fragrance.
Whole cumin and coriander seeds are frequent additions to Indian cooking. I suspect that their addition to garam masala is the simplification of foreign cooking for an American audience. A traditional Indian cook would naturally know that you add whole cumin and coriander at the beginning. Another possible explanation for the inclusion of these spices in their powered form is as a refresher for the volatiles lost through long cooking, even though they had already been added as whole spice at the beginning.
Note: This is one of the things I have set out to do with this blog. Find the hidden steps in recipes and to clarify them. Many of my mother’s recipe cards had only two or three lines of directions, everything else was assumed knowledge. I seek the questions that most cooks would answer, “That is what mother always did. Everybody knows that!”
While cloves and cardamom were the only spices that were in all eleven recipes. Cardamom was also the greatest variant. Some recipes called for simply ground cardamom. Others called or green cardamom or black cardamom. Many recipes called for both or for using just the seeds of both—you were to discard the woody hulls.
Cinnamon was also used in all of the recipes. Except for the one that insisted that cassia bark was preferred, but that if you could not get it you could make do with cinnamon.
Most of the recipes also contained black pepper, nutmeg and bay leaves. But again the proportions were all over the place. Pepper was anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon. Nutmeg was anywhere from a quarter teaspoon to two whole nutmegs. I found recipes that included one bay leaf up to one that had a cup of bay leaves, dominating every other spice in the mix.
A few recipes contained other ingredients such as: dry ginger, cayenne chili, black cumin seeds, star anise, mace and even one that contained rosebuds. My guess is that these are regional or family additions to the basic recipe. The recipes contained as few as four and up to eleven spices. The recipes with the higher lists tended to have multiple forms of some spices, like green and black cardamom or both cumin and black cumin.
My conclusion is that a basic garam masala recipe should include: bay leaf, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. All of these spices have volatile elements that are lost from long cooking. The wide variations in quantities between the recipes suggest that the balance between these elements is purely personal. Experiment and find a combination that works for you and your family and then start adding variations from there.
For my own blend I am emphasizing the cinnamon. For the dish I am making I plan to add cumin and coriander at the beginning, so I will include them in this blend as “refreshers.” Green cardamom and black cardamom are actually different spices. The black cardamom has a smoky flavor, but only if you leave the hull on. Cloves, nutmeg and bay leaf are dominating flavors, a bit is good, but too much and that is all you will taste.
Note: Today I was contacted by JMK about the difference between Indian bay leaves and Western bay leaves. As I mentioned earlier in this post one reason for this blog is to share the hidden knowledge of native cooks. This is a perfect example. Frequently the problem will be the same thing having many different names between cultures. Here the problem is two very different things with the same common name. Indian bay leaf (Cinnamomum tamala) is not the same as Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) or California bay leaf (Umbellularia californica). I thank JMK for passing on this information and I have amended my recipe with this change. I am planning another trip to my local Indian supermarket tobuy the correct leaves. I look forward to trying this blend again the way it should taste.
Karl’s Garam Masala
2 Tbs. cinnamon
2 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. coriander
½ tsp. nutmeg
5 green cardamom pods
1 black cardamom pod
1 Indian bay leaf (Cinnamomum tamala)
1. Toast the black pepper, cloves, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, green cardamom pods and black cardamom pod in a small skillet for one minute over medium heat.
2. Let the spices cool slightly and place them into a spice grinder with the rest of the ingredients.
3. Process to a fine power. (Makes about 5 tablespoons)