Good Question: How Do I Cook With Curry Powder?

Here's a good question from reader Chris, who asks:

Dear Kitchn, Do you have any suggestions on cooking with curry? I bought three different kinds of curry powered from Penzey's. I'm really into the warm spice flavors and would like to incorporate them into some easy weeknight meals.

I tried this Curried-Squash and Red-Lentil Soup recipe yesterday. I was expecting layers of flavors: rich squash, earthy beans and curry warmth. Instead, the soup just had this one flat spice note. Not very appealing. Can you give me more advice on cooking with curry? Thanks for your help.

- Chris

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P.S. Do you know how garam masala and curry powder are different?

Chris, we took a look at the recipe (also pictured above), and we have a few ideas on why it didn't turn out very interesting.

• When trying to develop Indian flavors and spice in your cooking, remember that most Indian cooking relies on a multi-layered process of building spice and flavor. A spice powder isn't the primary way that sauces and soup get their flavor. The flavor is usually built slowly by cooking whole spices with onions, and then sweating the onions with spices and oil (and sometimes ground spice powder too) until the flavor completely permeates the base sauce. Powdered spices are usually added nearer the end of cooking as a finishing kick of flavor -- not the main flavor base. Take a look at this post for some instructions on building a curry from scratch.

• Also, many curry powders use turmeric as the primary ingredient. Turmeric is a strongly colored spice, but not the most strongly flavorful. Check the ingredients to see if it comes first in the ingredient list.

• One way to get more out of cooking with curry is to make your own blend. This ensures that the spices are fresh and toasted to your satisfaction. You can see more about curry powder and its alternatives in this post, including ideas for making your own.

• And finally: sometimes recipes made with spices like these need some time to let the flavors develop. If the soup tasted flat and disappointing at first, try leaving it in the refrigerator overnight and trying it again the next day. Even some curries and dishes made with whole spices really benefit from a rest to let the flavors bloom and permeate the whole dish.

• And on your PS: garam masala and curry powder are simply two different spice blends. In authentic Indian cooking both of these have infinite variations, especially since they're usually made fresh by the cook. But in American spice shops you'll usually find curry powder that is dominated by turmeric, cumin, and ginger. It is invariably yellow. Garam masala is usually darker colored and has a warmer, sweeter mix of cinnamon, coriander, cumin, and peppers. You can try making it yourself with our recipe here.

OK readers -- your turn. What advice do you have for Chris?

Related: Try this recipe next: Recipe: Butternut Squash & Coconut Curry

(Images: Penzey's; Mikkel Vang for Gourmet)