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Masala Making 101

One of the things that people find most intimidating about Indian food are the spices, many of which have unfamiliar names or ingredients. But the spices shouldn’t be intimidating! In fact, it is easy to recreate standard Indian spice blends at home. Most ingredients can be found online (on Amazon or Penzey’s Spices) or at specialty food stores, and the technique for blending Indian spices is straightforward.

For example, a staple in every Indian home is garam masala, a spice blend that forms the backbone of most dishes. The word garam means ‘warm or hot’ and the word masala means ‘spices’. So, basically, garam masala is a blend of warm spices.

There are many versions and variations of garam masala depending on the region. For example, the garam masala in northern India will be a little different from that of southern India. Also, families have their own recipes for garam masala, so there isn’t one ‘correct’ or authentic recipe.

Making garam masala was an important ritual in my family, one I remember vividly. To this day, I use my mother's recipe and technique which consists of cumin, coriander, black peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, black cardamom, and cloves.

The process starts by dry toasting whole spices in the sun before grinding.Toasting the spices
releases their essentials oils and allows the flavors to begin to mingle. After toasting, I store the whole spice mix in an airtight container and grind it to a fine powder as needed, so that its flavor is not lost over time. I have an inexpensive coffee grinder that I use to grind all my spices, but you can also use a mortar and pestle.

Although pre-ground garam masala can be bought in the spice aisle of most grocery stores, the flavors of this homemade version cannot be compared to any store bought spice blend. Homemade masala has a much richer and nuanced flavor, and can make even the simplest Indian meals taste like you’ve been cooking all day!

Ingredients:
  • 1 cup whole coriander seeds
  • 1/2 cup whole cumin seeds
  • 2 tablespoons whole peppercorns (see note)
  • 4 tablespoons whole cloves
  • 6 cinnamon sticks (each approx. 3 inches long)
  • 3 to 5 whole cardamom seeds (from black cardamom pods, if you have them)

Instructions:
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Toss all ingredients together and arrange them in a single layer on the baking sheet. If you live in a warm climate, set the spices out in the sun for a week (make sure they don’t get rained on!). If it’s winter (or you lack outdoor space), then roast the spices at 250 degrees for 30 mins, watching closely to ensure they do not burn.
Transfer the whole spice mix to an airtight glass container, and grind in small batches as needed. The whole mix will stay fresh for about 24 months.   

Tips/Notes:

Break open the Black Cardamom and remove and use only the seeds, discarding the husk. Black cardamom is pungent, so if you don’t want a pronounced cardamom flavor you can reduce the amount to 3 seeds.
The color of the spice mix varies depending on how much black cardamom and peppercorns are used, so don’t worry if your mix does not match our pictures or if your batches have different coloration.
Before grinding, save yourself some work by breaking cinnamon sticks into smaller pieces so that it is easier to grind.