Garam Masala Vs. Allspice: SPICEography Showdown

Garam masala and allspice are valuable additions to your spice cabinet that are both widely available and versatile. Sometimes garam masala and allspice are interchangeable, but they can also be very different. To help you learn more about each of these ingredients, here’s another SPICEography Showdown post.

How does garam masala differ from allspice?

Garam masala and allspice are different products. Garam masala is an Indian spice blend that can incorporate a variety of spices. The components vary depending on the cook’s preference and the region in India — hotter garam masalas tend to be from the south of the subcontinent, for example.

Sometimes the term garam masala will refer to dried and powdered spices, in others it may refer to a spice paste. Sometimes, garam masala spices are used whole rather than broken down into powder or paste. Allspice is not a spice blend, though sometimes it is described as though it were a combination of spices instead of a single one. Allspice is the dried berry of a tree native to the West Indies and Central America.

Garam masala and allspice don’t taste the same. Because garam masala’s ingredients can vary, its flavor does differ from blend to blend; however, you will find that a core set of spices shows up in many blends. The core spices for garam masala include cumin, peppercorns, and coriander seeds. Cardamom and star anise are popular as well, but there can be up to 30 different spices in some blends.

Allspice is only one spice, but the first Europeans to encounter it described it as tasting like multiple spices. They detected notes of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. The similarity to multiple spices is where allspice got its name and accounts for the perception among many that it is a blend of spices.

If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?

Most garam masala blends make good allspice substitutes, but the ones with cloves are ideal. Cloves belong to the myrtle family just like allspice, and the two share some flavor and aromatic notes. Even though garam masala is good in most dishes that require allspice, it will change their flavor profiles. The changes will be obvious if garam masala is replacing allspice as the main spice.

As an allspice substitute, garam masala works best in the background alongside other flavorful ingredients rather than as the primary flavor. Some garam masala blends contain cinnamon and mace which makes them sweeter than allspice and this may stand out in some dishes but not necessarily in a bad way.

You can use allspice to replace garam masala, but it will lack the full complexity of the Indian blend. Despite its reputation for containing multiple notes from different spices, there is no way for one spice to compete with all the flavors and fragrances that you will get from a fresh garam masala. Using allspice instead of garam masala probably won’t render a dish unpalatable, but it will dramatically change its taste.

When should you use garam masala? And when should you use allspice?

Use garam masala in Indian dishes. Start by flavoring the oil with whole spices, and add ground garam masala at the end of the cooking time to brighten things up.

Use allspice in your dry rubs for grilled meat and as a part of your apple and pumpkin pie spice blends.