Indian garam masala is made of whole spices--cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns,
cumin, coriander and cardamom seeds--which must be ground to fine powder.
Let me begin by admitting defeat. Last spring I didn’t buy the Sumeet Multigrind when it was briefly featured in the Williams Sonoma catalogue. Made in India, this rocket-shaped, wet and dry electric spice grinder inspires rhapsodic testimonials from practically everyone who’s used it, even though it looks like something invented in a 1950’s Lab of the Future. Its secret appears to be a muscular 400 watt motor that instantly pulverizes whole spices to a silky powder and whips ornery ingredients like grated coconut, lemon grass and dried chiles into perfectly smooth pastes. Avid cooks of Indian, Thai and Mexican food swear by the Sumeet.
But by the time I got around to ordering, Williams Sonoma was out of the Sumeet. After phone calls and emails too numerous and frustrating to mention, I finally connected with Sumeet’s North American rep in Toronto and placed an order. That was on March 17th. I’m still waiting, but optimistic: A new shipment is expected in October.
The Sumeet is currently priced at $80. In the meantime, I’ve been testing a trio of under $30 blade coffee grinders from Krups, Cuisinart and Kitchenaid. I was curious to see if a mixture of assorted whole spices could be ground to a fine powder in machines made for coffee beans---and if so, how easily. Though I love my volcanic stone mortar and pestle from Singapore, I don’t have the muscle power to pulverize tough spices like star anise and cinnamon, nor the stamina to grind anything to a powder that takes more than a few minutes.
For the spice blend I chose Julie Sahni’s Garam Masala, the recipe for which appears in Classic Indian Cooking. It is a wonderfully fragrant mixture of cardamom seed, cinnamon sticks, cloves, peppercorns, cumin and coriander seed, popular, she writes, in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. The whole spices are roasted in a cast iron skillet and, after cooling, ground very fine. If you are using hard cinnamon sticks (these are actually cassia, a tree related to true cinnamon which is grown only in Sri Lanka), you must smash them into little pieces in a mortar and pestle or with a mallet—otherwise they are too tough to be ground to a powder. (For the recipe for Julie Sahnie’s Garam Masala, see the end of this post.)
I tested three grinders under $30: the Krups Fast Touch Coffee and Spice Grinder, the Kitchen Aid Blade Coffee Grinder and the Cuisinart Grind Central Coffee Grinder. All had stainless steel blades and all the removable parts were dishwasher safe. Note that the oils of spices like cloves and allspice will cloud the plastic tops of these containers, even if you wash them frequently.
Here are the results:
Krups Fast Touch: $19.95 at www.broadwaypanhandler.com
How does it look? Compact and lightweight; a slim white oval base with a clear top so you can see what’s going on inside. (For unknown reasons, mine came with a pale aqua top.) The blades are stainless steel, as are is the non-removable “grinding chamber.”
How much power? 200 watt motor (half the horsepower of the Sumeet)
How much will it hold? Up to 3 ounces or 5 tablespoons of whole spices. Not a problem for most recipes, but if you want to make a larger quantity, you’ll have to do in batches.
How well does it work? The Krups is easy to fill and to operate. Spoon or pour whole spices into the oval bowl, cover with the lid and depress the plastic “on” button. Of the 3 grinders, this is the quietest.
I tested 1/4 cup or 2 ounces of whole spices for garam masala After the recommended 25 seconds, the mixture was finely ground, though with more texture than I wanted. Another 15 seconds reduced the mixture to an almost silky powder.
Cleaning: The plastic top can be washed on the top rack of the dishwasher. However, the stainless grinding “chamber” is not removable and must be cleaned with a damp sponge or soft cloth.
The bottom line: Recommended by many restaurant chefs, the Krups is a good, inexpensive tool for grinding small quantities of spices quickly and easily. I was impressed by the way it pulverized hard stick cinnamon and cloves. Although the “on” button feels flimsy, it has not broken in three months of fairly regular use.
Kitchenaid Blade Coffee Grinder (BCG100WH): $29.95 at www.cooking.com
How does it look? A curvaceous appliance with a heavy plastic base, it has a sturdy “professional” look and feel. A clear rounded “polycarbonate” top fits over a removable stainless steel cup and blade. It comes in 4 collors: white, black, red and blue.
How much power? 200 watt motor.
How much does it hold? Up to 1-1/4 cups of whole spices.
How well does it work? Easy to fill and to operate. Pour or spoon whole spices into the bowl, fit the plastic top into its grooves and press down.
I tested1/3 cup of spices. After the recommended 25 seconds, the garam masala was coarsely textured. After a total of 90 seconds, it was much smoother, although I did discover a few hard “grains” of cinnamon.
Cleaning: The stainless bowl and attached blade twist off for cleaning. Both the bowl and plastic top can be washed on the top rack of the dishwasher.
The bottom line: This is a reasonable choice for grinding larger quantities of spices. However, grinding for a full 90 seconds tends to heat up the spices, which can cause them to lose volatile oils and flavor. One solution is to grind in shorter bursts and to let the grinder cool slightly in between. Kitchenaid recommends grinding for no more than 25 seconds at a time.
Cuisinart Grind Central Coffee Grinder (DGB-12BC): $29.95 at www.amazon.com
How does it look? A rectangular, brushed stainless steel “box” with an unfortunate resemblance to a mini-trash can. A square plastic top covers a round stainless bowl with measurement lines: The lines refer to the quantity of beans needed to produce 4, 10 and 12 cups of coffee. With some difficulty, the cord can be forced inside a hole in the base for storage.
How much power? 175 watts.
How much does it hold? Up to 1-1/4 cups of whole spices.
How well does it work? Easy to fill and to operate. Pour spices into the bowl, fit the plastic top in place and depress the rectangular “on” button.
I ground 1/2 cup of whole spices. After 25 seconds, the spices were virtually untouched. It took another 3 minutes, grinding in 10-15 second bursts, to achieve a powdery texture—and even then, the grinder missed some fragments of cinnamon.
Cleaning: The stainless bowl and attached blade twist off for cleaning. Both the plastic top and bowl assembly can be washed in the top rack of the dishwasher.
The bottom line: Not recommended for spice grinding. Although the large capacity cup is appealing and the grinder is easy to operate, the less powerful motor is a real problem. The long grinding time caused both the grinder and spices to overheat. The blades are set higher than in the other models we tested, which may reduce the grinder’s ability to reach small seeds in the bottom.
For Julie Sahni’s Garam Masala recipe, see below:
(Adapted from Julie Sahni, Classic Indian Cooking, William Morrow and Company, 1980)
Makes 1-1/2 cups
3 tablespoons (about 20) black, or 2 tablespoons (about 75) green cardamom pods
3 cinnamon sticks, 3 inches long
1 tablespoon whole cloves
1/4 cup black peppercorns
1/2 cup cumin seeds
1/2 cup coriander seeds
1.Break open the cardamom pods. (This is easily done by crushing the pods in a mortar and pestle.) Remove seeds, and reserve. Discard the skin.
2. Crush cinnamon with kitchen mallet or rolling pin to break it into small pieces. (Or crush it in a mortar and pestle.)
3. Combine all the spices, and roast over medium heat in a cast iron frying pan, stirring and shaking the pan constantly until the spices turn brown and release their fragrance. Do not let them burn.
4. Remove the spices from the pan and spread them out on a plate to cool to room temperature.
5. When they are cool, grind them to a fine powder using an electric spice grinder.