The secrets of making great curries in 6 simple stages

Anjum Anand
29 May, 2014

Anjum Anand wants you to be able to make the best curry you can. She shares her 6 secret steps to amazing curry every time.

I hope to give you a deeper understanding of how to cook a curry and maximise its flavours. So, when you get to the stove, remember these five distinct and vital building blocks ...

Stage 1: Whole spices

Always the first ingredient to go into the hot oil. They add a greater depth of flavour than ground spices. cumin seeds should be fried until they release a nutty aroma and have reddened a couple of shades. It should only take five seconds sizzling in hot oil.

  • Fenugreek seeds should darken to medium brown.
  • Mustard seeds start popping straight away in hot oil. As they pop, reduce the heat and, once the popping dies down, move on to the next stage.
  • Nigella and carom seeds need only about 10 seconds in hot oil to release their full aroma.
  • Other whole spices (cinnamon, cloves, cardamom pods, black pepper etc) should be cooked in hot oil for 20–30 seconds, to release their aromatic oils.

Stage 2: Onions

The base of most curries, so getting them right is crucial. Always make sure they are cooked through until soft and turning golden at the edges. After that, the further you cook them the deeper the flavours of the curry. For a lamb or chicken curry, cook onions until the edges are well-browned. In curries containing more delicate ingredients - such as vegetables or some seafood – onions only need to be golden, or their resonant taste could overpower the rest of the dish.

Stage 3: Garlic and ginger

I often make a paste of ginger and garlic for a smoother sauce. For small amounts, I grate both on a Microplane. For larger quantities, chop them coarsely, use a small stick blender and add a little water to help break them down. Cooking garlic fully is essential. You can tell when it’s cooked by the fragrance, which changes from raw and strong to mellow. In a paste, garlic will start to look grainy and turn a pale gold colour.

Stage 4: Ground spices

  • Grinding: Whether you use a mortar and pestle, a spice grinder or a clean coffee grinder, make sure spices are really well ground so they melt into the sauce. Any gritty spices added will remain so in the finished dish.
  • Cooking: These burn easily so keep the heat down and stir often. Many people add a little water with their spices to ensure they don’t scorch. They will cook in 40 seconds, or two minutes if you add water.

Stage 5: Tomatoes and/or yogurt

  • Tomatoes: Once these have been added, the ingredients in the pot are thought of as a ‘masala’, which simply means the mixed and spiced base of a sauce. The masala lets you know when it is cooked by releasing some oil back into the pan, so look for droplets of oil on the base as you stir. If you’re not sure if a masala is ready, try a little. It should taste smooth. If it’s still too strong, add some water and cook it for a little longer. 
  • Yogurt: This adds sourness and creaminess. You have to be careful, as it can split in the pan; this isn’t a disaster but will mean the dish isn’t as creamy as it could be. To avoid curdling, use full-fat yogurt at room temperature, as the fat stabilises the yogurt and a cold product added to a hot pan is more likely to split. Add yogurt in batches if it is a large quantity, stir constantly until it comes to a boil and continue to do so for a further few minutes. It should now be fine with only an occasional stir.

Stage 6: Balancing the final dish

A curry is a delicate balance of sweet, sour, spicy and salty and you need to correct all these flavours before serving to achieve the most delicious dish. Here are your most important tools:

  • To add heat: Sprinkle in chilli flakes or halve a green chilli lengthways, add to the pot and simmer for few minutes.
  • Or tame the flame: Add a little cream, coconut cream or sugar, depending on the other ingredients in the curry.
  • To add sweetness: Use a little sugar, cream or coconut cream, depending on the dish. Restaurants add caramelised onion paste: to do the same, fry onions until golden or brown, depending on the dish (remembering delicate curries will be overwhelmed by over-brown onions), then blend with a little water until smooth.
  • For more acidity: Try lemon juice, tamarind paste, dried mango or pomegranate powder, even sour cream. Be guided by the other ingredients in the curry as to which souring agent is most suitable.
  • To perk things up: Add garam masala for warming spices, cumin powder for earthy depth and black pepper for aromatic heat.
  • Sleep on it: Many curries improve overnight, as the flavours mature and permeate the main ingredients. You can cook chicken, meat, potato and lentil curries a day earlier, they will taste even better tomorrow.

Now you know the secrets of great curry, it's time to go make one!


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