December 6

4 Best Garam Masala Substitutes

Written by: Caitlin Clark

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In the middle of preparing a warm curry or savory lentils, you find that you’re low on Garam masala--the main spice ingredient in many Indian stew-like dishes.

Don’t despair!  While this ingredient is ubiquitous in Indian cooking, a few substitutes can offer a similar savory aromatic quality. Below we've outlined our 4 favorite garam masala substitutes.

Enjoy!

Related Article: Best Coriander Substitutes

On-The-Go Reference

For a
Warming Effect 

  • Pumpkin spice powder
  • Cumin and allspice
  • Make your own Garam masala

For
Indian Style

  • Chaat masala
  • Masala curry powder

What is Garam Masala?


Garam masala is a complex blend of so-called “warming spices” typically found in Indian dishes such as soups and stews.

While spice mixes may vary by region or even household, a typical combination includes cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, cloves, cumin, pepper, and cardamom, some or all of which have been lightly toasted before grinding to release their flavorsome oils.

Chefs recommend using Garam masala as a finishing spice. Adding it towards the end of the cooking process allows the spices to retain their aromatic properties. It combines well with most other traditional Indian flavors and ingredients.  

No spice or spice blend perfectly substitutes for the complex bouquet of Garam masala. However, below we list several options that allow you to highlight the property of Garam masala you most value.

Best Garam Masala Substitutes


1) Masala Curry Powder

This Indian spice blend usually contains turmeric, ginger, coriander, chili powder, cumin, and black pepper. It confers an intense color to the dish as well as a bit of heat.  

Similarities: While curry powder is not as warming as Garam masala, it combines well with ingredients usually found in dishes that call for Garam masala. It will give the impression of an overall Indian style to the recipe. 

 Suggested Conversion: Use in a 1:1 ratio

Flavor Notes: Some cooling effect from the ginger and turmeric is balanced by heat from chili and coriander. Savory complexity is the result.  

Suggested Dishes: Soups, legumes, batters

2) Chaat Masala

Composed of amchoor (dried mango), coriander, cumin, mint, pepper, citric acid, and rock salt, this spice blend is noted for its cooling power.   

Similarities: Chaat masala tastes very different than Garam masala, but like curry powder, it accompanies many other typical Indian ingredients well.  Your dish will not taste the same with this substitution, but the result will be layered, engaging, and strongly reminiscent of all things curry.

Suggested Conversion: Start with half the amount as the Garam masala, then increase from there, adding slowly and tasting as you go.

Flavor Notes: Cooling, tangy, and salty, this spice blend is popular on savory snacks but has broad application in Indian cuisine because it is so adaptable.  

Suggested Dishes: Savory snacks, vegetables, legumes

3) Blend of Cumin and Allspice

Unlike the previous two suggestions, this blend attempts to mimic the overall effect of Garam masala more closely.

While most Garam masala does not contain allspice, it works well as a substitute because it gives the experience of warming without overwhelming the palate with a recognizable spice flavor.  The cumin recalls one of the other main ingredients of Garam masala and balances the warming with a savory element. 

Similarities: These two common spices have a place in most kitchens, and in combination, they give a background impression to a dish very similar to Garam masala.

Suggested Conversion: Combine the two spices in a 2:1 ratio of cumin to allspice, and use the same amount of this combination as you would of Garam masala.

Flavor Notes: Aromatic and satisfying, but lacking in depth.

Suggested Dishes: This combination is best used in dishes that include several other spices or elements.  It will work well in most stews and curries. 

4) Pumpkin Pie Spice

Both Garam masala and pumpkin pie spice blends contain “warming” spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove (pumpkin pie spice also contains ginger). 

Similarities: This may seem like a surprising suggestion, but pumpkin pie spices contain many of the same elements as Garam masala!  To make this substitution an even closer match, throw in a dash of cumin and black pepper!

Suggested Conversion: Substitute in a 1:1 ratio

Flavor Notes: Although many people associate this spice blend with sweet dishes, the mixture itself is complex and warming rather than sweet, and it serves well in savory applications as well. 

Suggested Dishes: Stews, meats, rubs

Frequently Asked Questions


Can I mix my own Garam masala from scratch? 

Absolutely!  You can make a simple Garam masala blend by mixing the following ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1.5 tsp ground cardamom 
  • 1.5 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 0.5 tsp ground cloves
  • 0.5 tsp ground nutmeg

This will make about 2 Tbsp of Garam masala blend.

For an even more professional homemade blend, toast and grind your own spices.

  • Mix whole spices in the same ratio, then gently toast all spices in a cast-iron skillet over low heat.  
  • Stir them occasionally until they become fragrant and turn just a few shades darker.  Do not turn the heat up, or you risk burning the spices!  
  • When spices have darkened slightly and smell lovely but not burnt, remove them from heat and allow them to cool. 
  • Finally, grind the spices as finely as possible with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.  Ground spices will quickly lose their flavor, so avoid making large quantities ahead of time.  

Concluding


While it is difficult to capture the exact flavor of Garam masala, a creative home chef has a number of options to mimic the effects of this popular Indian staple. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box if you find yourself short on this aromatic curry blend!  

If you have any questions or comments, don't hesitate to leave a note below.

Cheers,

Caitlin

 


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About the author

Caitlin is a Ph.D student and chocolate researcher at Colorado State University. Her research in the Food Science program focuses on chocolate fermentation (that’s right, it’s a fermented food!) and small-batch post-harvest processing techniques. When she is not acting in her capacity as resident chocolate guru, she researches other fermented foods and beverages like beer, sausage, and natto. Caitlin was drawn to fermented foods while living in rural Spain for six years, where she was exposed to traditional, time-honored practices of food preservation. At home, she practices Bollywood dance for fun and is followed everywhere by two small pet rabbits.

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