Butter chicken is one of those iconic dishes most people love to order at their favorite Indian restaurant, but would never dream about making from scratch. It’s too time consuming and involves so many ingredients and steps, right? Wrong! Granted, there are a few spices you need to have on hand, but this recipe is designed to be very approachable for the home cook.
Before we even get started, let’s get familiar with butter chicken. Just from the name alone, it sounds like it’s butter and chicken cooked together, and although that’s part of the dish, the complete story is much more exciting and complex than that.
Also known as Murgh Makhani, butter chicken is a type of curry that was invented by Chef Kundan Lal Gujral in 1948 at his popular restaurant in Delhi called Moti Mahal. The chef was looking for a way to use up leftover tandoori chicken, and to prevent the chicken from drying out, he stewed it in a sauce comprised of tomatoes, spices and butter, and butter chicken was born!
There are as many recipes for butter chicken as there are grains of rice, but this particular recipe streamlines the process without sacrificing the flavor, which is why it’s my go-to. I like to think about this recipe in three simple steps, so let’s begin.
The first step is to marinate the chicken in a yogurt-spice mixture. This not only seasons the chicken, but the acid in the yogurt helps tenderize the poultry.
This step can be done in as little as 30 minutes or as long as 1 day prior to making the dish. The longer the marinade time the better for maximum flavor.
Tip: When purchasing spices, buy them more frequently in small quantities so they’re always fresh.
The second step is while the chicken marinates, prepare the gravy. This is where the butter comes in, specifically ghee. Ghee is butter that has all of the milk solids removed, but not before they are toasted and golden brown, giving the ghee a nutty flavor. Removing the milk solids also greatly increases the smoke point of the butter, allowing you to use it for high-heat cooking.
Think of making the gravy in terms of layering flavors. First, the onions are sautéed until lightly caramelized to develop a deep flavor.
You then add garlic, ginger and tomato paste, and gently cook until aromatic. This is when your kitchen starts to smell really amazing, by the way.
It keeps getting better because the next step is to add your spices, and cook until toasted and aromatic, which only takes about 30 seconds… be careful not to over-toast and burn your spices!
Finally, pour in the tomato puree and cream, bring to a boil and simmer to marry the flavors.
The third and final step is to brown the chicken and simmer it in the gravy. A lot of recipes call for browning the chicken in a pan, but from my experience, yogurt-marinated proteins searing in a hot pan tend to stick and create a mess. To make the process easier but still get a good char on the chicken, I browned the chicken on a foil lined sheet-pan under the broiler. This created great flavor without all of the messy cleanup!
I let the chicken cool a bit, cut it into bite-size pieces, and then transferred it to the tomato gravy where it simmered for about 45 minutes. At this point, the chicken was falling-apart tender, and had become so savory and delicious.
All that was left to do was adjust the seasoning of the butter chicken with more salt and pepper, and spoon it over steamed basmati rice. You can serve this with a dollop of raita (cucumber-yogurt sauce) for a cooling effect, and/or your favorite Indian flatbread such as chapati or naan.
Scroll down for a printable version of this recipe
Yield: 4-6 servings
Active time: 1 hour
Start to finish: 1 hour, 30 minutes
For the marinade:
1/2 cup plain yogurt
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon ginger, freshly grated
3 teaspoons garam masala
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder blend
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 pounds boneless and skinless chicken thighs
For the sauce:
1/4 cup ghee (see note, below)
1 onion, medium dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon ginger, freshly grated
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon chili powder blend
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
14 ounces tomato puree
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Steamed basmati rice (see note, below)
- To marinate the chicken, whisk together the yogurt, garlic, ginger, garam masala, turmeric, cumin, chili powder blend, kosher salt and black pepper in a medium-size bowl.
- Place the chicken in a baking dish or a sealable bag, and pour in the marinade. Make sure the chicken is evenly coated. Allow to marinate, refrigerated, for 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.
- While the chicken is marinating, prepare the butter sauce. Heat a French oven or saucepot over medium heat, and add the ghee. Sauté the onions, stirring occasionally, until lightly caramelized, 5 to 6 minutes.
- Add the garlic, ginger and tomato paste and cook until aromatic, about 1 minute.
- Sprinkle in the cumin, garam masala, coriander, chili powder and cayenne pepper, and cook for about 30 seconds.
- Add the tomatoes and heavy cream, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and cover.
- Preheat the broiler to high heat, and line a sheet tray with foil.
- Place the marinated chicken on the prepared sheet tray, and broil until lightly charred.
- Transfer the chicken to a cutting board, cut into bite-size pieces and transfer to the sauce along with any of the chicken juices.
- Continue simmering the chicken until cooked through and tender, about 20 minutes. Note: If the sauce is too thick, add a splash of water to thin.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve spooned over steamed basmati rice.
- To make ghee, place tablespoon-size pieces of butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook until the butter starts to bubble. You’ll notice that all of the milk solids will eventually sink to the bottom of the pan. Continue cooking the butter until the milk solids start to turn golden brown. Remove from the heat. Gently pour the butter through a cheesecloth-lined sieve, leaving the milk solids in the pan. You now have ghee.
- To steam basmati rice, place the rice and a pinch of salt in a saucepan. Pour in 1 1/2 times the amount of water to rice to the pot (e.g., 1 cup rice to 1 1/2 cups water), and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cover. Cook, undisturbed, for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to steam an additional 5 minutes. Remove the lid, fluff with a fork and serve.
Are you now craving Indian cuisine? You’re in luck, because we’re offering a Virtual Taste of India Workshop on Sunday, September 12th from 4-6pm CST. You’ll learn how to prepare:
- Gobi 65 (Crispy Fried Cauliflower)
- Saag Paneer (Sautéed Spinach with Fresh Cheese)
- Butter Chicken