Love at First Bite
I fell in love at my first bite of butter chicken. Creamy, and mildly spiced but flavorful, this North Indian chicken dish called murgh makhani is loved the world over. It is also a perfect introduction to Indian food. Chicken tikka masala is very similar to butter chicken, but typically has more heat from chilies, a slightly different blend of spices, and is not quite so rich with cream and butter.
Murgh Makhani Origins
Butter chicken was invented by Kundan Lal of the Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi, sometime in the 1950s. He used this invention to repurpose the leftover Tandoori chicken. He created a mildly spiced tomato sauce to moisten the dried out meat. Little did the chef know this chicken curry would be so soulful and beloved by Indians and non-Indians all across the globe.
After reviewing over three dozen recipes and much trial and error, I think I have found THE butter chicken recipe. I wish I could say this is a weeknight dish, and yes, you could make it one, but the overnight marination of the chicken truly transforms this butter chicken from ordinary to irresistible. Plus, you didn’t have to do anything but wait.
Perfect for Entertaining
Butter chicken is a perfect centerpiece for entertaining your friends. It easily doubles, or even triples. I typically make the marinade, add the chicken, and make the sauce on Day One. On Day Two, I cook the chicken and finish it in the sauce. It will be great at this point, but another day in the fridge is ideal. This breaks up your steps and only requires that you reheat it at party time. Leaving you time to catch your breath and take care of any other elements of the meal, or better yet, have that quiet glass of wine before the hosting whirlwind begins.
Murgh Makhani Freezes Well
I have also made this whole recipe from start to finish and stowed it in the freezer until needed. Freezing butter chicken works beautifully without any ill effect, either in flavor or texture. If anything, it is better because the flavors have all had even more time to mix and mingle.
This is one of those sauces that you should make a big double batch of, then store in flat zip lock bags in the amount you need for a meal. You won’t ever be tempted to call for takeout. Throw in whatever you have in the fridge that needs a home, or quickly cook some meat or vegetables, and dinner is done with a side of rice or bread.
I also have a great Instant Pot butter chicken recipe that’s quick and delicious.
See notes below before you cook.
Easy Butter Chicken (Murgh Makhani)
- 1 pound chicken thighs ~ Skinless, boneless, cut into 2-inch cubes
- 1/4 cup plain full-fat yogurt
- 1 teaspoon garam masala ~ Buy or make
- 1/2 teaspoon Kashmiri ground red chili ~ Or 1/4 cayenne pepper
- 2 teaspoons paprika ~ Sweet, not smoked
- 2 tablespoons ghee, or oil ~ Divided; buy or make
- 2 cups onions ~ Mince finely
- 1 tablespoon ginger garlic paste ~ Buy or make
- 1 14.5 ounce can tomato puree ~ 4 tomatoes, pureed. About & see Notes below
- 1/4 teaspoon Kashmiri ground red chili ~ Or 1/8 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, substitutions.
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 teaspoon kasoori methi ~(Dried fenugreek leaves), optional
- 4 teaspoons lemon juice ~ I usually add one more teaspoon at the end
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons plain yogurt ~ Optional
- 2 tablespoons cilantro ~ Chopped
- 1 tablespoon cream ~ Drizzled
- In a bowl mix all the ingredients listed for the marinade. Let marinade from 20 minutes to overnight. See Notes below.
Sauce (while chicken is marinating):
- Gather your ingredients
- Heat 1 tablespoon ghee or oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or dutch oven, and over medium heat sauté onions until translucent. About 5 to 7 minutes.
- Add the ginger garlic paste and sauté for another minute or two, stirring constantly, until the paste no longer smells raw.
- Add ground red chili, cumin and coriander, and cook for 2 minutes.
- Add tomatoes, and cook for 6 minutes, scraping any browned bits on the bottom of the pan into the mixture. You should end up with a thick sauce.
- If you want a silky smooth masala, remove from the heat and allow to cool until you can safely add to your blender or food processor. Puree until smooth, adding up to a cup of water as needed. If you are not proceeding with the recipe immediately, store in the fridge for 2 days, or in the freezer for 6 months. If you are using immediately, return the sauce to the large pot or dutch oven. Since this is called easy butter chicken, I often skip the blending step. See Notes below.
Cooking the Chicken and Final Steps
- Remove chicken from the refrigerator, saving any extra marinade to add back into the sauce. Heat remaining tablespoon of ghee, or oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add chicken to the pan without crowding, so they have room to develop a nice caramelized crust; even a little char is good. You may have to do this in two batches, depending on your pan size and whether you've doubled the recipe. If you prefer, you can add the chicken pieces to a rimmed baking sheet lined with foil, and broil in the oven until there are nice brown spots. Do not overcook because you will be finishing the chicken in the sauce.
- When all the chicken is sautéed or broiled, add to the sauce with any with reserved marinade. Simmer over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes.
- Add cream, cover and very gently simmer on low heat for 10 minutes, to blend all the flavors and finish cooking the chicken.
- Uncover, add garam masala, crushed kasori methi (if using), lemon juice, sugar, and butter. If the sauce is too thick, thin with a little water. Taste for acid, sweet, heat, and salt levels and adjust to your preference. If the sauce needs mellowing a little, add yogurt to balance out the spices. I often need to add a couple more tablespoons of yogurt to find the right flavor for me. Garnish with cilantro and serve hot with rice and Indian bread.
- Use chicken thigh meat so you will have moist, tender chicken. Shrimp and lamb cubes would work well in this sauce too!
- Decide before making this recipe, how long you want to marinate your chicken. You can make a weeknight version and do a 20-minute marination, or go for an overnight version. However, I do strongly recommend marinating the chicken overnight.
- To save time cook the chicken pieces, while you are blending the sauce.
- I have written a mildly spiced murgh makhani. If you want more heat, add a minced fresh green chili (or two, or more) with the tomatoes, and/or increase the ground red chili amount, and add a half teaspoon or more garam masala with the lemon at the end.
- My goal with this recipe is to offer a more streamlined version of butter chicken. To that end, if you use pureed tomatoes and mince the onions finely, you can skip the blender step. However, if you are looking for a silky smooth sauce, go ahead and blend it.
- This sauce is perfect for vegetarians. Just swap out the chicken with sautéed paneer, mushrooms, extra firm tofu, or even your favorite mix of vegetables.
- To avoid cow’s milk yogurt and cream, use unsweetened coconut yogurt and coconut milk or cream. To thicken the masala, you may need a bit of arrowroot (start with 2 teaspoons) added with the cream or coconut milk at the end, or soak 2 tablespoons of cashews for an hour, and add with the tomatoes. You will need to blend the sauce to pulverize the cashews and don’t skip the butter. or it won’t be butter chicken!
- Kasuri Methi is dried fenugreek leaves and it adds a complex sweet, earthy note to the dish. Use it if you got it!
- If you are using fresh tomatoes instead of puree, you will want to either remove the skin and seeds before cooking, strain the final sauce before after blending, and before you add your meat or vegetables.
- I understand that from a traditional Indian way of cooking, this recipe is heretical for not adding a final fillip of garam masala at the end, but why spoil an already perfect dish? You certainly can if you wish, starting with a 1/2 teaspoon.