When you are making a meal and see your garam masala bottle is empty, the best substitute for this Indian spice blend is what you can find in your cabinet! Read on to see some good ideas as a garam masala replacement when you are in a pinch.
What is garam masala?
Garam masala, which literally translates to warm/hot (garam) spice (masala), is a blend of spices which combine to make a key ingredient in authentic Indian cooking
Traditionally, garam masala is made by roasting whole spices, letting them cool and then grinding them into a fine powder. That spice blend is then added to dishes in addition to OTHER spices to make various dishes. The layering of spices is part of what makes good, authentic Indian cuisine taste amazing.
For authentic Indian flavors, garam masala is necessary if it’s in a recipe and I suggest not skipping it. The good thing is it can easily be made from common ingredients or found in stores.
There are many variations of garam masala recipes because the approach can vary from family to family. If you are familiar with Indian cuisine, you know how vastly varied the food is across the country from one region/state to another.
This is what I love about garam masala spice blend, you can make your own garam masala with common spices. My family uses a recipe my grandmother passed down.
So, it is a key part of what makes my food taste like home. I’ve even used garam masala to make apple pie cupcakes to give them a taste of home!
So, if you enjoy true Indian food and are looking for authentic flavors you’ll learn you may already have many of the spices needed in your pantry!
Garam Masala Substitute Ideas / Simple Garam Masala Replacements
A good substitute that makes for a quick fix when you don’t have garam masala on hand or in your masala dabba is to use pre-ground spices in your spice cabinet. While it is not a perfect match for roasted whole spices which are then ground, it will definitely get you a spice mixture closer in flavor than using something generic like curry powder.
1. Make your own blend out of powdered spices readily available in your pantry
I use a blend of cinnamon powder, clove powder, cumin powder, black pepper powder, coriander powder, and fennel powder to make a quick fix substitute.
Here’s a closer look at each of these ingredients and how they contribute to the substitute:
- Cinnamon Powder: Cinnamon adds a sweet and warm flavor to the blend. It imparts a subtle sweetness and a hint of spiciness that complements the other ingredients. Cinnamon also contributes to the aromatic quality of garam masala.
- Clove Powder: Clove is known for its strong and slightly pungent flavor. It provides a rich and earthy element to the substitute. Clove also adds a touch of spiciness and warmth, which is characteristic of garam masala.
- Cumin Powder: Cumin is a staple in many spice blends, including garam masala. It brings an earthy, nutty, and slightly citrusy flavor to the mix. Cumin also adds depth and a mild heat to the blend.
- Black Pepper Powder: Black pepper adds a spicy and pungent kick to the substitute. It’s responsible for the heat and peppery notes that garam masala is known for. Black pepper also enhances the overall complexity of the blend.
- Coriander Powder: Coriander offers a bright and citrusy flavor with a subtle earthiness. It balances out the other spices and contributes to the overall depth of the substitute. Coriander also brings a fresh, herbal note to the mix.
- Fennel Powder: Fennel provides a sweet and licorice-like flavor that sets it apart from many other spices. It adds a unique and pleasant sweetness to the blend, which can help mellow out the heat from other ingredients.
A suggested simple recipe and ratio are below in the recipe card. Bottle up your garam masala spice blend in an airtight container.
Cardamom has hints of sweet notes and licorice, similar to fennel. Understandably, everyone may not have fennel seed powder on hand and you can use it in place of or in addition to the other spices.
2. Use pre-blended powder mixes
- All spice + cumin powder + coriander powder + black pepper
I think this is the 2nd best best alternative to making your own quick blend. The ratio is equal parts cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Note, I don’t use nutmeg in garam masala and it is usually in a smaller quantity compared to cinnamon and cloves. But, as a one time quick fix I think it is a suitable option that is likely in many people’s cabinet.
- Pumpkin spice + cumin powder + coriander powder + black pepper
While pumpkin spice has ginger which is not usually in garam masala, you could use this in a pinch. Many Indian recipes use ginger, so if your dish does, this may work out. You may want to adjust the amount of fresh ginger to account for it in the spice blend.
- Ras el hanout
I think this could be an okay substitute, but my guess is this is not as commonly in people’s cupboard as all spice and pumpkin spice.
While, I truly don’t think these are good long term replacements for garam masala in your kitchen cabinet, I think they can act a temporary suitable substitute! None of these powder blends utilize the traditional method of dry roasting the whole spices which adds depth and adds the complexity of flavor. Dry roasting powdered spices can easily result in them burning.
Simple Garam masala substitute ingredients
- Coriander powder (coriander seeds)
- Cumin powder (cumin seeds)
- Black pepper powder (black peppercorns)
- Fennel powder (fennel seeds)
- Cinnamon (cinnamon sticks)
- Clove powder (cloves)
Coriander is the primary ingredient. The ratio is 2 coriander to 1 all other spices.
Other ingredients you can add:
- Cardamom powder
- Bay leaves
- Ground dry red chillies
Making your own ensures a good ratio of ingredients.
Bad Ideas for Garam Masala Substitute
I’ve seen some pretty terrible suggestions floating around and I’m going to briefly explain why they are not good ideas. I really think if you run out, you should just try to make your own quick blend as outlined above.
One of the main ingredients in chaat masala is black salt which gives it a strong salty note. Many also use amchur powder which is dried mango powder. It is not similar at all. Do NOT use this in place of garam masala. Use it where it is intended, in chaats!
Curry powder Vs Garam Masala
It does not give the same taste as garam masala.
From what I have seen these premade blends always includes turmeric and it tends to be one of the main ingredients. Turmeric is not in every Indian dish and in large quantities in can be an overpowering taste. I also see mustard seeds often, which are normally used in the tadka part of Indian cooking to impart flavor into the oil.
While curry powder is a turmeric forward spice blend, garam masala tends to use the same general profile of spices with no turmeric. Turmeric is not included in all Indian dishes and it should be used in measured amounts. When not done so, it is overpowering and will make all your dishes taste the same.
Here is a sample of ingredients from one brand I saw online:
Coriander, turmeric, mustard, cumin, fenugreek, cayenne, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, black pepper
The top 5 ingredients include 3 that are not included in garam masala: fenugreek, turmeric and mustard. Fenugreek is a strong spice that is used in small quantities and I find it odd to include it in every Indian dish, as it is not that common as cumin and coriander. Mustard seeds are best used in tadka when you are tempering your spices, not as a ground spice.
The ingredients in sambhar masala are way off the mark here and I do not recommend it. Sambhar masala powder often includes 3 types of dals, fenugreek, curry leaves and red chillies. These don’t combine to make a good sub for garam masala powder. But, it would taste delicious in sambhar!
Tikka masala sauce
No, do not do this as a substitute. Tikka masala sauce is not a good garam masala substitute because it typically contains a variety of other ingredients like tomatoes, cream, and yogurt, which significantly alter the flavor and texture of the dish.
Garam masala is a spice blend, while tikka masala is a complete sauce with a different flavor profile. While both have Indian origins, they serve different culinary purposes and can’t be used interchangeably without affecting the final result of a recipe.
While it may contain garam masala, it cannot be used as a 1:1 substitute.
Tandoori Masala vs Garam Masala
Tandoori masala is generally used for dishes cooking in a tandoor oven and garam masala is used frequently in Indian dishes to give them a wonderful warm, earthy, aromatic flavor.
Tandoori masala is especially used in North Indian cuisine. A very popular Indian appetizer is paneer tikka which uses tandoori masala blends. The masala it self can also be used to give smoky flavor to dishes. A fusion dish such as tandoori tacos or tandoori masala mac and cheese tastes great.
Tandoori masala is not a good garam masala substitute because it is a specific spice blend designed for marinating and seasoning dishes cooked in a tandoor (clay oven). It has a distinct flavor profile, with a focus on smokiness and a fiery red color due to the inclusion of ingredients like kashmiri chili powder and red chili powder.
Garam masala, on the other hand, is a more general-purpose spice blend that provides warmth and depth to a wide range of Indian dishes.
Purchasing Authentic Garam Masala
If you are an avid fan of Indian dishes, I highly recommend you either purchase the individual whole spices to roast and blend your own mix OR buy garam masala from your local Indian grocery store or online.
There are many different brands to choose from but choosing one from an Indian store or well known Indian brand (Deep, Laxmi, MTR etc.) will result in a better flavor profile.
Using Whole Spices
If you prefer making a blend with whole spices, which is the traditional way, it is pretty easy.
First, whole spices are toasted on low-medium heat in a pan on stove top. Then, once cooled, grind in a spice grinder. A coffee grinder will work great. Most people use a blender jar for spices which are available in Indian stores.
Note: I’ve used a Nutribullet to grind spices with success as well.
DIY Garam Masala (Easy Substitute Recipe!)
- 1 measuring spoon
- 1 small bowl
- Measure out and mix all ingredients to make a quick subsitute garam masala spice blend!