How we tested
Though blends can vary dramatically, curry powders come in two basic styles—mild or sweet (what we tasted here) and a hotter version called Madras. The former combines as many as 20 different ground spices, herbs, and seeds, the staples being turmeric (which accounts for the traditional ocher color), coriander, cumin, black and red pepper, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, cardamom, ginger, and fenugreek.
Tasters spooned spiced cauliflower, potatoes, chickpeas, and sweet green peas made with six brands of curry powder onto small mounds of basmati rice. The best batches of this aromatic vegetable stew were those boasting “vivid” yet “well-rounded” curry flavors that neither overwhelmed the vegetables nor shied away from the other signature fragrances: ginger, tomato paste, and fresh chiles. With their rich, round savor, two brands topped the list, with the winner edging out the “floral” flavors of the runner-up, with, as one taster put it, its “user-friendly balance” of “sweet” and “earthy” notes.
Meanwhile, the most widely available supermarket brand fell into the middle of the pack alongside as it suffered from overwhelming onion flavor. The most criticism was reserved for our two bottom brands. These blends, both described as “bland,” “one-dimensional,” and “thin,” paled before not only other brands but also against the dish’s competing flavors.