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Water Cooler: A simplified approach to butter chicken

UPDATED: Wed., March 17, 2021

Speedy and light chicken curry is shown in a serving dish in Concord, N.H., in this image from January 2013.  (Associated Press)
Speedy and light chicken curry is shown in a serving dish in Concord, N.H., in this image from January 2013. (Associated Press)

The complex layering of spices and aromatics can make Indian cuisine seem a bit daunting for the home cook .

Thanks to commercially prepared spice blends, a few substitutions and some cooking cheats, there are many ways to simplify these dishes for the beginner cook. Try out a more simplified approach with a popular and mild Indian dish, murgh makhani, more commonly referred to as butter chicken.

The signature characteristics of this curry dish are the tender chicken and creamy tomato-based sauce. Its richness is balanced by tang and spice, and the curry has a velvety texture. The curry was developed by Kundan Lal Jaggi, and the story goes that it came about as a creative solution to some tandoori chicken leftovers. They were tossed into a rich gravy made from tomatoes, butter and cream and butter chicken was born. It was first served in India in the 1950s, then picked up popularity in the Western world a few decades later.

Start by marinating chicken. Use about 1 ½ cups of yogurt for every 2 pounds of chicken thighs. In India, the dish is often served with bone-in chicken, but boneless chicken is more common in the United States. The choice is yours. Whisk the yogurt with 1 tablespoon garam masala spice blend and 1 tablespoon kosher salt. Mix in the chicken, ensuring it is evenly coated. Marinate ideally overnight, or for a minimum of 30 minutes.

In the meantime, dice one yellow onion, finely dice about a 2-inch knob of ginger and mince five cloves of garlic. Measure 2 teaspoons each of paprika and ground cumin, 1 ½ teaspoons turmeric powder (optional if you don’t have any on hand) and 1 tablespoon of garam masala.

The next step is to cook the chicken. There are a variety of choices here. In India, tandoori chicken is made in a tandoor, a cylindrical metal or clay oven that reaches temperatures of up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Assuming you don’t have one of those in the garage, the closest most Americans can get is to grill the chicken or bake it on a roasting pan to get a similar char and sear.

For this simplified approach, you can pan fry it on a high heat. Don’t cook the chicken through yet. The goal is to quickly get a deep golden-brown sear, in about 2 minutes on each side. Cook in batches to ensure the chicken sears instead of boils in excess liquid. Set aside once browned.

Let the pan cool down, then add another tablespoon or so of oil. For a more authentic flavor, you can use ghee instead. Ghee is an Indian clarified butter which is simmered until the milk solids caramelize, giving it a nutty flavor.

Add in the spices. Cook and stir until fragrant. Add a splash of water if you need more liquid to deglaze the pan. Stir in a 14-ounce can of crushed tomatoes. Swish around two-thirds cup of water in the can to get those last bits and add to the pan. Simmer on low-to-medium heat for about 5 to 8 minutes, until the sauce is thickened and reduced about 25%. You can use an emulsion blender here for a smoother texture. Add the chicken and let simmer for an additional few minutes, until cooked.

Turn the heat to low and add 1 cup of heavy cream. Stir often and cook no longer than 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in 2 tablespoons unsalted butter or ghee. Adjust salt levels to taste, then serve over basmati or jasmine rice. If you don’t have those on hand, any long-grain white rice will do the job. If you want to spruce things up, garnish with fresh cilantro and serve with a side of naan.

Rachel Baker can be reached at (509) 459-5583 or rachelb@spokesman.com

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