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Garam Masala

Published May 2007

How we tested

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.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*