This is a great overview of the basics of Indian cooking. Learn how to control a chili's heat, substitutions, equivalents, shortcuts, and options that will help you get started.
The Building Blocks of Indian Cuisine
If you are new to Indian cooking, these ingredients are frequently used as a starting point for a masala:
- Chilies: dried and fresh
- Garlic and ginger: equivalent if using separately
- Ghee and oil
- Lemons and limes
Chilies - Fresh & Dried
IMPORTANT NOTE: Be conservative in your chili use when cooking a dish for the first time. Especially if you are not using the chili called for in the recipe. You can always add more heat at the end.
Resource: Cayenne Diane is a great website that lets you search and index any chili heat-related questions you might have.
Indian dishes typically use dried whole red peppers or chilies in powder form. If you don’t have access to an Indian grocer and don’t want to buy Kashmiri ground red chili or whole chiles online, Mexican chiles de arbol and pasilla chiles are good substitutes. In a pinch, ground black pepper can also be used in place of red chili powder.
If you use cayenne as a substitute for Kashmiri chili, use half the amount because cayenne is much hotter than Kashmiri chilies. If you are cooking a dish that is known for its red color use this substitution: 1 part cayenne and 3 parts paprika (not smoked).
A dear friend complained that I always called for Kashmiri chilies, and couldn’t he use the dried chilies he has. The answer is yes, use whatever red ground chili you prefer. I use Kashmiri chilies because most Indian recipes use this variety of chili, and for the heat averse like me, they aren’t particularly hot but add a lovely fruitiness and color to a dish.
Another good ground chili to use that isn't quite as hot as cayenne, is Korean gochugaru, a coarsely ground chili that is hot, sweet, and smoky all at once. So, you are the chef (chief) in your kitchen, and please use whatever dried chili works for you.
If you have ground Kashmiri chili but not the whole chili, substitute each chili with a 1/2 teaspoon Kashmiri chili powder. And vice versa.
Fresh chilies, if used whole in a recipe is often slit down the sides, so they don't burst while cooking and fling their seeds all about. If you want to reduce the heat when using fresh chilies, remove the seeds. I have the good fortune of having an Indian grocery around the corner from my house, and they have bags of small, slender green chilies that I use in my cooking. These tiny chilies add up to about 1/2 teaspoon when finely minced.
A good substitute is 1/2 of a serrano chili due to its size, or a Thai green chili (a bit hotter than a serrano or jalapeño. A jalapeño will also work in a pinch. If none of these options are available to you, experiment with what you can find. Your dish will still be good, regardless. If you are not used to working with fresh chilies, you may want to wear gloves to avoid getting the capsaicin on your skin.
See Coconut Facts post.
Garlic & Ginger
Ginger garlic paste is traditionally made with equal measures of ginger and garlic. If making your own paste, you can change the balance if you prefer one over the other. Throughout this website I use a homemade ginger garlic paste that I make a big batch of, put in ice cube trays in 1 tablespoon dollops, freeze, and then ziplock bag them.
Depending on your time or interest you can make a paste every time you cook, make and freeze a big batch, or buy it. If I am making small quantities of ginger garlic paste, I like using a grater (Microplane) to get a lovely, fine paste quickly.
1 clove = 1 teaspoon chopped garlic = 1/2 teaspoon garlic paste = 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic = 1/ 8 teaspoon garlic powder = 1/2 teaspoon garlic flakes = 1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
1-inch piece of ginger = 1 tablespoons minced ginger = 1 tablespoons ginger paste
Ghee & Oil
I prefer using ghee—Indian clarified butter—for most fat requirements, or you can use a neutral oil of your choice. I prefer avocado or coconut oil, depending on the dish. I have posted a recipe for making your own ghee, which is fun and easy to do.
Lemons & Limes
Lemons and limes are used interchangeably in Indian cooking. I typically have lemons on hand, so that is what I use. I can’t imagine my fridge without fresh lemons. No matter what cuisine I am cooking, a splash of lemon very often seems to be just what is needed to brighten and intensify the flavors. I find this to be true even in dal, which doesn’t often call for it.
Indian lemons and limes are much smaller than the ones we find here in the U.S., so my recipes always call for a specific measurement, rather than “use the juice of one lemon.”
(For more information on cooking onions pop over to this post on How to Cook Onions.)
I typically call for any kind of onions in my recipes, though occasionally, like in my korma, yellow or white onions are preferred to keep the masala pale in color. Onions are one of the underpinnings of Indian cooking. Red small onions are most frequently used, and they are much smaller than the onions we find here in the U.S.
So, I have used cups and grams throughout, as a more precise way to express measurements than just “use 2 onions.” Every now and then, a recipe calls for shallots, and as with onions, Indian shallots are much smaller than the ones I find. My calculation is that 2 American shallots equal 10 Indian shallots. Here are more benchmarks:
- 1 large yellow onion, peeled (About 3 cups chopped): 13 ounces / 368 grams
- 1 large shallot, peeled (½ cup chopped): 2½ ounces / 71 grams
Since I always seem to be in a hurry I prefer to mince my onions very fine, so if a sauce is typically pureed in a blender, I can often avoid that step. You get to decide how smooth a sauce you prefer, and for most recipes, this is not important.
See my post on How to Cook Onions!
Cooking onions can be one of the most time-consuming parts of a dish, besides marination. The darker, and heavier the protein you are cooking, the longer, and darker you will want to cook the onions. Thus, in a vegetable, legume or fish dish, you are most often required to cook the onions until translucent, or to a pink color, when using red onions. This step takes about 6 minutes on medium-high, with frequent stirring.
When cooking a chicken dish, it may be suggested that you cooked the onions to a more caramelized stage. This takes between 8 to 15 minutes over medium heat, with water added to prevent sticking.
If you are making a lamb or beef masala, the recipe may require a full-on melty, caramelized state, which can take 35 to 45 minutes.
Another onion preparation is called birista/beresta, which is frying very thinly sliced onions in oil, until dark brown and crispy. Birista is used in biryanis, kormas, and pulaos. One of my favorite Indian food blogs, Cubes N Juliennes, has a great post on using and making this onion preparation that gives flavor and texture to many Indian dishes.
The Good News
If you do a lot of Indian cooking, you can make a big batch of caramelized onions or birista, and pop it in the freezer in 1/2 cup batches, to pull out when needed. This, along with making ginger garlic paste, are the perfect Saturday or Sunday, putter in the kitchen kind of project that you can do while catching up on your favorite podcasts.
Measuring salt is much trickier than most people realize. Kosher salt has become the darling of chefs and home cooks alike. What most people don’t know is that if measuring by volume, you get a very different result. Not just between table or sea salt, but even between brands of kosher salt.
I typically call for table or sea salt. If you are translating these salts to kosher salt, you may need up to twice the amount called for. The salt crystals of kosher salt are much larger and thus take up more space. If you want more detail on using and comparing kosher salt brands, one of my favorite food blogs, Simply Recipes, has a thorough post on the ins and outs of measuring salt. And Taste Cooking has a deep dive on kosher salt.
One of the common mistakes a home cook makes is under salting their food. Especially when making spice-laden Indian food, curries need more salt than you might expect. Be sure to taste your food as you go along, and when a dish is finished, add salt until it tastes good to you. I do always err on the side of less salt initially, and then I can always add more if needed.
A reasonable shortcut I make is to use a canned tomato product. Feel free to substitute my tomato puree in a dish with chopped tomatoes. I use purée for several reasons, it is much quicker to open a can than chop tomatoes. The puree doesn’t take as long to cook; if using chopped tomatoes, you need to cook them until they have broken down. And in my location, tomato season it not very long.
Depending on the dish, tomato paste diluted with an equal amount of water shortens the cooking time, while still giving you a long-cooked, concentrated flavor.
1 plum tomato, or small regular one = 1/ 3 cup = or about 75 grams
1 cup to crushed or pureed tomatoes, 8 oz, 225 grams = 3 small/plum tomatoes
14.5 ounce can of crushed tomatoes, or 5 small tomatoes, diced, about 1 1/2 cups (411 grams)
Diced Tomato Tip
Canned diced tomatoes often have a preservative to help them keep their shape. Avoid them if you are wanting the tomatoes to break down into a sauce.
The Good News
Tomatoes are one of those ingredients that don't require exact measurements. If you are off my 10 grams here or there, it does not matter. And cans of pureed or crushed tomatoes are easy to find, cheap, and you can stock up on them so that is one less thing to think about.