Published May 1, 2007. From Cook's Illustrated.
Our winner is not only traditional, but also widely available.
Though there are countless variations of garam masala, the warm flavors (garam means “warm” or “hot” and masala means “spice blend”) dominating this Indian spice blend are consistent: black pepper, dried chiles, cinnamon, cardamom, and coriander are staples, while cloves, cumin, fennel, mace, and nutmeg frequently turn up as supporting players.
Usually we recommend grinding whole spices (such as black pepper and nutmeg), but concocting this complex spice blend at home can add a great deal of time to your cooking—not to mention crowding your pantry with jar after jar of seldom-used ingredients and running up a hefty shopping tab. If we could find a commercial garam masala that tasted good in our favorite Indian vegetable curry and other dishes, we’d be happy to use it. We tested five brands.
Tasters favored those garam masala blends that both assimilated into the curry and rounded out the acidity of the tomatoes and the sweetness of the sautéed onions with slightly pungent hits of coriander and the subtle heat of cardamom, cinnamon, and sometimes cloves.
One of the more traditional mixtures (and also the most widely available in supermarkets) was the testers’ favorite, winning praise for adding a “mellow,” “well-balanced” aroma to the mélange of flavor-absorbing vegetables: cauliflower, bliss potatoes, and chickpeas. Another traditional mix, however, lost points with tasters for coming off as too “mild,” “flat,” and “one-dimensional,” though it received a good score overall. A more complex spice blend that adds Tellicherry, charnushka, caraway, and nutmeg to the core mix garnered compliments for its “citrusy,” “smoky,” and “smooth” notes.
Falling just short of our three favorites, one brand fused a curious mix of salt, autolyzed yeast extract, dehydrated onion, and garlic with other unspecified spices, which most tasters found overly “spicy” and “bitter.” Trailing far behind however, was the brand that overwhelmed tasters’ palates with “heavy” doses of both green and black cardamom and cloves.