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Common Mistakes To Avoid When Cooking Curry
Do you want to make a curry?
Curry is one of the best dishes to learn how to make because it's so flexible. You can make a vegan curry, a meaty curry, a chicken curry, a kosher curry, a halaal curry... the possibilities are near endless. One of my neighbors actually makes curry from leftover bread, and it's amazing!
But unless you've been trained by an Indian chef, or are fortunate enough to have an Indian friend or family member to show you the ropes, you might find that your curry is sub par and runny.
Here is a selection of the most common errors my friends encounter when making curry. I hope that they help you in your endeavors to create your own mouthwatering curry at home.
Note: This guide is for Indian curries. I know nothing about Thai or Japanese curries, and these tips may or may not work with these varieties.
Your onions are sliced or cut in large chunks
The difference between a soup and a gravy is the thickening agent used. For curries, that thickening agent will be your onions and your tomatoes, and the smaller pieces your onions are chopped into, the thicker your gravy will be.
Before food processors became available, women would grate their onions on a box grater so that their curries would thicken nicely. Fortunately, we can just grab the food chopper and let it do the work for us (and shed fewer tears in the process).
Some recipes for curries call for slices of onions, but I really feel that a finely chopped onion is the way to go. If you want a thinner gravy, just add a little (boiling) water before serving. And remember, it's a lot easier to put water in than it is to take it out!
Note: If you cut your onions too big but you've already started frying them, you can use an immersion blender after you've added the tomatoes and chop them down into smaller pieces. Just make sure you haven't added your protein yet, otherwise it'll be difficult to just chop the tomato sauce and not the meat.
Your curry base is wrong
The base of flavours in a South Asian curry is the spices and onions cooked in oil until fragrant. Some recipes may refer to this as a vagaar, a baghaar, or a chaunk, and some will not call it by a name at all.
Many issues can arise from your curry base. If you're familiar at all with cooking gumbo, you know that if your roux is wrong then the gumbo doesn't come out right. Your curry base is the same.
Your curry base will usually go in this order:
- whole spices, fried until fragrant
- onions, mixed well in the fragrant oil and cooked until they start to brown
- ground spices, salt, ginger, garlic, and green chillies (if your recipe calls for them), mixed well and cooked for about 30 seconds to one minute
Many recipes call for the ground spices to be added into the oil straightaway, but this increases the risk of burning the spices so I prefer to add them after the onions. Likewise, some recipes may instruct you to add your ground spices after you've added your protein, but I've found that doing so can create pockets of spice on the protein itself, especially if you're using chicken pieces with the bone in. This creates inconsistent flavor and your guests may complain that the curry is suddenly spicy in some areas and not in others.
If at any point during the creation of your curry base you find your spices turning black or smelling like they've burned, take the pan off the heat and discard the contents. Continuing to cook with a charred curry base is only going to yield a curry that tastes of carbon. Start again in a clean, dry pan.
Universal Curry Mix
Using the exact measurements of red and green chillies as called for in the recipe
This one is tricky because if it's your first time making a particular curry, you'll need to use the measurements in the recipe. That's fine because there's no other choice.
What you don't want to do, however, is continue using that exact same measurement each and every time. If you know a recipe is too strong or too weak for your taste, adjust the chillies until you have the heat you desire - and then write down your changes so you don't forget them.
Adding garam masala at the beginning or the middle of cooking
Garam masala is perhaps one of the most famous of all spices in Indian cuisine. But unlike all the other spices out there (except for saffron), garam masala is a rather delicate blend. Adding garam masala to the beginning or middle stages of your cooking will obliterate most of its flavor.
Instead, add the garam masala when your tomato puree is completely cooked. This will give the garam masala much more impact on your final dish, and your mouth will thank you.
Not adjusting the salt appropriately
A frequent mistake made when using a recipe is forgetting to adjust the salt for canned ingredients. If the recipe calls for canned beans or tomatoes but you're using fresh, you'll need to taste and possibly add more salt. On the other hand, if the recipe calls for fresh ingredients but you're using tinned, you may need to decrease the salt.
If you accidentally put too much salt in your curry, add a peeled, raw potato and let it simmer. The potato will soak up some of the excess salt, and you may just save your meal.
Not smelling the curry as you cook
Curry is a full sensory experience, so you want to smell as you cook. As you cook curry more frequently, you'll discover that each ingredient will give certain clues. Whole spices will become very fragrant when it's time to add the onions. Onions will start to smell sweet when you should add the ground spices.
It's not an exact science but you will find that the more you pay attention, the better your final product will taste. Curry isn't something you want to try to make when you're distracted, so be sure to keep your nose engaged.
Adding raw potatoes to your curry
Many recipes call for adding raw, peeled potato pieces to your curry, but it's very tricky to get the meat and potatoes to finish cooking at the same time.
A much easier method is to peel and boil your potatoes in a separate pot until they're beginning to get soft, and then let them finish in the curry. This is crucial if you are serving curry to people who eat with their hands, as potatoes must be absolutely soft so they can easily be broken up and mixed into the rice with the fingers.
Adding the tomato before your protein is completely cooked
Unless you're cooking a chicken curry, you want to make sure that your meat or beans are the texture you want before adding the tomato. For some reason, tomato stops beans and meat from becoming tender, so if your chickpeas are hard or your mutton is still tough, wait until it softens up before adding any sliced tomato, tomato paste, or tomato puree.
Do you cook your own curry?
Voila! Your curry is ready!
These tips might seem overwhelming, but I think the important thing when learning how to cook a new type of food is to revisit your crib notes as often as you can. I recommend bookmarking this page and skimming it each time before you cook curry, so that these concepts remain fresh in your mind.
If you have any other issues that happen when you're cooking curry, drop me a comment and I will do what I can to help. Please let me know what recipe you're using as well, because sometimes the issue is in the recipe itself.