Know Your Spices: Garam Masala

Garam masala is a spice blend used throughout South Asia. It can contain anywhere from 4 to 14 different spices, and there are many different ways to make it.

Ground garam masala in a white bowl with a jar behind

Lori Rice

Garam masala flavors many Indian culinary favorites and is used in cooking throughout South Asia. Made from a ground blend of warming, aromatic spices and reddish-brown in color, few garam masala recipes are exactly the same!

What is Garam Masala?

Masala translates to a mix of spices and garam translates to hot. Most garam masala is not spicy, but the blend of spices is often described as warming when tasted.

Garam masala originated in Northern India and spread south, undergoing recipe adjustments and adaptations along the way. It’s now used throughout South Asia and many countries have their own versions.

Base recipes originating from Northern India can have as few as four to six ingredients while store-bought versions may incorporate as many as 14 spices into the blend.

Garam masala spice in a white bowl

Lori Rice

Garam Masala Ingredients

There are many versions of garam masala within each country and region. Families often have their own recipes that have been passed down for generations. Recipes originating from Northern India may contain cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper, and sometimes also coriander and cumin.

Store-bought garam masala may contain those ingredients plus black and green cardamom, ginger, bay leaf, nutmeg, fenugreek, or mace. Some also may have a spicier element, like chili powder, as part of the mix.

Garam Masala vs. Curry Powder

Both garam masala and curry powder are a blend of ground seasonings. They may contain some of the same spices, but they are not the same thing.

Curry powder contains turmeric, while garam masala does not. This is why curry powder is often yellow-orange in color versus garam masala’s reddish-brown hue. Curry powder also comes in hot varieties while garam masala is typically not spicy.

What Does Garam Masala Taste Like?

Garam masala has a deep, savory flavor with a fruity brightness and peppery notes that warm the tongue. The more spices used in the blend the more complex the flavor becomes.

Where to Buy

The best place to purchase garam masala is an Indian or international supermarket, where it can be purchased in small and large quantities for more affordable prices. Since these same stores supply ingredients specifically for making recipes from these culinary regions, it's likely the garam masala will be fresher than what could be sitting on the shelf at your local grocery store.

If you’d like to purchase the spice online, Simply Recipes’ editors recommend The Spice House.

ground garam masala Indian spice mix in a white bowl

Lori Rice

How to Store

Store your garam masala in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. If you purchase it in a bag, after opening transfer it to a jar or bottle with a secure lid. It will last about six months, but as time passes its flavor will lose strength.

Garam Masala Substitutes

If you don’t have garam masala on hand, nor the spices to make your own blend, you can substitute a curry powder blend 1:1. The curry blend will add more heat and bitterness and less of a rounded, warm flavor that the garam masala provides, but it’s a solid start.

A better option, however, is to try and make your own garam masala!

How to Make Garam Masala

To make a homemade garam masala blend, combine slightly more amounts of cumin, coriander, and cardamom with slightly less amounts of cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper. If possible, start with whole spices, toast them dry in a skillet until aromatic, then grind them together in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle.

Since there is no definitive recipe for garam masala, different blends may provide slightly different flavor profiles.

Recipes That Use Garam Masala

Garam masala has a vibrant, strong flavor which allows for it to be added to most recipes towards the end of cooking, and without the need for extended simmering to meld and bring out the flavor. It’s commonly used in marinades and rubs to flavor meats, or sprinkled over a dish at the end.