Butter Chicken (Murgh Makhani) is without a doubt one of the most well known Indian dishes around the world. Maybe it's the name (can you think of a more decadent sounding name?), or perhaps it has a flavor profile that appeals across cultures. Whatever the reason, Murgh Makhani has managed to find its way around the globe, showing up on menus from Toronto to Tokyo to Turin.
While I love butter chicken, I have a few problems with many restaurant versions. The first is that it's often sugary sweet. The second issue is that it's often made with leftover tandoori chicken, which by the time it makes it into the butter sauce, could make the cut for an NHL approved hockey puck.
Why this Recipe Works
- Caramelizing the tomatoes (yes, tomatoes!) gives this butter chicken recipe a natural sweetness that really doesn't need any added sugar.
- The sweetness along with the pleasant tang from the yogurt marinated chicken balances out the rich creaminess from the butter and cream.
- Undercooking the chicken on the grill ensures the chicken doesn't get overcooked and tough once you add it to the sauce.
Butter Chicken vs Tikka Masala
Butter Chicken and Chicken Tikka Masala, two cherished dishes, carry their own rich histories that contribute to their unique flavors. Butter Chicken, born in Delhi, India, in the 1950s, was "accidentally" created by chefs who simmered leftover tandoori chicken in a rich tomato and butter gravy. The result was an instant classic, melding smoky tandoori flavors with a buttery, velvety sauce. Tikka Masala's origin is more contentious, with claims of its birth in both India and the UK. Some say it was created in the British curry houses of the 1960s by adding a tomato-based sauce to traditional chicken tikka, while others believe it has deeper roots in Indian cuisine. Regardless of its origin, Tikka Masala is known for its vibrant spice blend and more pronounced flavors, while Butter Chicken is a celebration of simplicity and richness.
Ingredients for Butter Chicken
- Chicken - I prefer using boneless skinless chicken thighs butter chicken because the extra fat on them ensures they stay tender and juicy, but skinless chicken breasts can be used as a leaner option if you don't mind the chicken being dryer and less flavorful.
- Aromatics - A combination of garlic and ginger adds a robust, aromatic flavor to the marinade for the chicken that's foundational to many Indian dishes. The ginger also acts as a meat tenderizer thanks to a proteolytic enzyme it contains called zingibain.
- Plain Yogurt - Adds a pleasant tang and helps further tenderize the chicken.
- Garam Masala - Garam Masala is an Indian spice blend including spices such as cumin, fennel, cinnamon, coriander seeds, chili powder, cloves, and mace. It adds warmth and complexity to the Murgh Makhani. Pre-made blends vary widely, so you may need to try a few before you find one that you like.
- Saffron - Gives a luxurious, fragrant depth and vibrant yellow color. You won't get the same flavor, but you could substitute turmeric for the color.
- Whole Stewed Tomatoes - The base for the curry is caramelized tomatoes, and I like to start with a good can of stewed tomatoes. Fresh tomatoes can be used, but stewed ones are consistent and convenient because they've already been cooked and will require less time to caramelize.
- Tomato Paste - Tomato paste is a concentrated tomato puree, so it's a great way to intensify the tomato flavor of any dish quickly.
- Butter - You can't forget the namesake ingredient, and I like using cultured unsalted butter because it contains a higher concentration of diacetyl, which is the compound responsible for giving butter its flavor.
- Spices - I use a combination of green and black cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and fenugreek seeds for the spices in my Murgh Makhani. These whole spices infuse the sauce with a complex array of warm spicy flavors that give Butter Chicken its signature flavor.
- Fresh Chili Peppers - I like using fresh chili peppers to amp up the heat in the curry, but you can use cayenne pepper powder or red chili powder and adjust the amount to suit your tastes.
- Raw Cashew Nuts - Adding a cashew nut puree gives the curry body while creating a rich, creamy texture.
- Dried Fenugreek Leaves (Kasuri Methi) - Adds a unique aromatic note that's hard to substitute.
- Heavy Cream - Provides a luxurious finish; coconut cream or extra raw cashew puree could be used as a dairy-free option.
How to Make Butter Chicken
Start by creating a potent garlic and ginger puree in a small food processor, or grate by hand if needed. This combination lays the aromatic groundwork for your butter chicken recipe. Whisk two teaspoons of the ginger garlic paste together with the yogurt, vegetable oil, salt, garam masala, and saffron to make the marinade. Marinate the boneless, skinless chicken thighs in this mixture overnight if possible, as this allows the flavors to fully penetrate the meat.
For the butter chicken sauce, begin by pureeing the stewed tomatoes and paste. This combination gives a concentrated tomato flavor and adds sweetness and body to the sauce. Melt the butter in a pot, and fry the green cardamom, black cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves. These whole spices infuse the butter with their volatile oils, maximizing their flavor impact.
Add the fenugreek seeds, chili peppers, and remaining garlic-ginger mixture to the butter and spices, and sauté until browned. Then, add the pureed tomato mixture and cook down to a thick paste. This slow reduction caramelizes the natural sugars in the tomatoes, developing a complex sweetness without added sugar. You're also getting Maillard browning, which gives this Indian butter chicken a deep umami-rich taste. This is similar to what happens when you caramelize onion.
While the tomato sauce is reducing, grill the chicken in a broiler or oven until it's lightly charred on the outside without cooking it through. This charring adds a smoky dimension to your murgh makhani, while undercooking ensures the chicken stays tender and moist after cooking it in the sauce.
Blend raw cashew nuts with water to create a smooth, creamy liquid. This adds a rich, creamy texture and provides a nutty undertone that complements the spices. Combine this with the reduced tomato mixture, strain, and simmer with the grilled chicken, salt, fenugreek leaves, and additional garam masala to allow the flavors to meld and the chicken to cook through.
Finish your murgh makhani with heavy cream, stirring gently to combine. This final addition of cream adds a luxurious, velvety texture that makes this dish an unforgettable indulgence.
Once the tomatoes have reduced down to a glossy paste, I whisk in some cashew milk. This not only provides a creamy base which allows me to cut down on the amount of cream I add, it also gives the sauce body. Lastly, I like to strain the spices out of the sauce, making the finished butter chicken easier to eat (there's nothing worse than biting into a fibrous cardamom pod or a mouth numbing clove)
Serve it With
Pairing Butter Chicken with the right accompaniments can elevate this already sumptuous dish to new heights of indulgence. A classic partner is freshly baked naan bread, a soft and fluffy Indian flatbread that's perfect for scooping up the rich, buttery sauce. If you prefer rice, fluffy Basmati rice is the ideal companion. For a refreshing counterbalance, consider a crisp, tangy side salad with cucumber and yogurt, known as raita, or a zesty lemon pickle. These can add a touch of brightness that cuts through the richness of the Murgh Makhani. If you're looking to create a full Indian food feast, complementing with a lentil dish like Dal Masoor and some spiced vegetables will round out the meal, offering a delightful variety of textures and flavors that harmonize with the star of the show, the Butter Chicken.
- 30 grams garlic (~ 5 large cloves, peeled)
- 30 grams fresh ginger (~ 1-inch piece, peeled and sliced)
- 450 grams boneless skinless chicken thighs
- ⅓ cup plain yogurt
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- ¼ teaspoon saffron (threads crushed)
- 600 grams whole stewed tomatoes (1 ½ small cans)
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 tablespoons cultured unsalted butter
- 6 pods green cardamom
- 1 pod black cardamom
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 4 cloves
- 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
- 2 fresh chili peppers
- 40 grams raw cashew nuts (about ¼ cup)
- 1 teaspoon salt (to taste)
- 1 teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves (kasuri methi)
- 1 teaspoons garam masala
- ⅓ cup heavy cream
- Put 30 grams fresh ginger and 30 grams garlic into a small food processor and puree, you may need to add a bit of water to make it go. If you don't have a small food processor, you can grate by hand.
- In a small bowl, whisk ⅓ cup plain yogurt, 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon garam masala, ¼ teaspoon saffron, and 2 teaspoons of the garlic ginger mixture together. Save the remaining garlic ginger mixture for the sauce.
- Put 450 grams boneless skinless chicken thighs in a freezer bag and pour the marinade all over it, rubbing it into the chicken. Squeeze all the air out of the bag and seal it. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or preferably overnight.
- For the sauce, puree 600 grams whole stewed tomatoes with their juices along with 2 tablespoons tomato paste in a blender or food processor.
- Add 3 tablespoons cultured unsalted butter to a pot along with the 6 pods green cardamom, 1 pod black cardamom, 1 cinnamon stick and 4 cloves. Fry the mixture until the cloves are puffy.
- Add 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds, 2 fresh chili peppers, and remaining garlic ginger mixture and saute until browned, and very fragrant.
- Add the pureed stewed tomatoes and tomato paste and cook this mixture over medium heat until the tomatoes have become very thick and paste-like (about 45 minutes). Once the mixture starts sputtering you'll want to stir it pretty regularly to keep the sputtering under control while maintaining enough heat to reduce the liquid.
- While the tomatoes are reducing, grill the chicken. You can use either an outdoor grill or broiler, but in either case it needs to be very hot. You want to get the outside lightly charred, but you don't want to cook the chicken all the way through as it will finish cooking in the sauce. If you cook it completely now, it will get overcooked in the sauce.
- Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and let it rest for at least 10 minutes before cutting.
- In a blender or food processor, add 40 grams raw cashew nuts along with 2 cups of water. Puree until smooth and milk-like in color.
- When the tomato mixture is done caramelizing turn off the heat and add the cashew nut milk, whisking it together.
- Pass the sauce through a wire strainer into a saucepan, pressing on the solids with a silicone spatula to get as much sauce through as you can.
- Cut the chicken into large chunks and add it to the pot with the sauce along with 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves and 1 teaspoons garam masala. Simmer this for 6-8 minutes over medium heat until the chicken is cooked through.
- Add ⅓ cup heavy cream and stir together and then turn the heat off. Plate the butter chicken and drizzle a little extra cream on top. Garnish with some cilantro leaves.