This traditional Punjabi butter chicken recipe is the best, rich and creamy curry that's easy to make at home and one of the most famous Indian restaurant dishes in the world.
- What is butter chicken
- Why is it called butter chicken
- What spices goes into butter chicken
- What is butter chicken sauce made of
- Useful equipment for this recipe
- Ingredients needed
- Professional tips
- How to make it
- What to serve with it
- Alternative cooking methods
- Recipe variations and substitutions
- Other recipes you might like
- Frequently asked questions
- Authentic Indian Butter Chicken Recipe (Murgh Makhani)
- Nutrition Facts
What is butter chicken
Authentic Indian butter chicken known as murgh makhani in Hindi is a Punjabi dish that originated in 1974 in a restaurant called Moti Mahal in Delhi.
It was the invention of resourcefulness. Leftover tandoori chicken was cooked in a rich creamy tomato gravy and it instantly became an Indian restaurant favourite.
It's now one of the most loved and well known Indian curries in the world.
Why is it called butter chicken
Similar to chicken tikka masala it's made by simmering chicken in a mildly spiced rich and creamy tomato-based sauce but, with the addition of lots of butter.
This is one of the small but, main differences between British chicken Tikka masala and butter chicken(murgh makhani).
The amount of butter used is up to you but this recipe takes into account the traditional butter chicken flavour and keeping it healthy enough to regularly cook at home.
What spices goes into butter chicken
Like most Indian curries, butter chicken uses garam masala as the main spice ingredient. It's a complex spice blend consisting of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, peppercorns, cumin, and fennel seeds among others.
Versions and recipes vary from one producer to the next. With families and chefs having their own unique versions of this popular Indian spice mix.
Along with garam masala, butter chicken gets a healthy helping of dried fenugreek, also known as kasoori methi.
This, along with the garam masala and maybe a few extra pinches of cumin and fennel seed is what gives butter chicken it's mild yet warm and pleasing flavour.
What is butter chicken sauce made of
Traditionally the sauce or gravy more accurately consists of aromatics like ginger and garlic, tomato paste, spices, chopped tomatoes, cream and butter.
Often, but not always, cashew nuts are added, then blended into the gravy which thickens the sauce and gives it a rich and velvety nutty characteristic otherwise not possible.
As with almost all tomato-based sauces, it needs to be balanced with sugar to counter the tartness of the tomatoes and harmonise the flavours.
Useful equipment for this recipe
Sauce Pan Set
Cast Iron Skillet
Electronic Kitchen Scales
High Speed Blender
The ingredients used in butter chicken are easily found in your local supermarket.
The spices are widely used in Indian cuisine and can be bought in your local spice shop or online. I've included the links down in the ingredients section.
For this recipe, we use homemade Indian curry paste which I urge you to make as it's extremely easy, useful and way more delicious than store-bought versions.
You can also control what goes into it which means you decide how spicy or not you want it.
Otherwise, this ready made curry paste is a good substitute.
Apart from the curry paste, we will look at what we need to marinate the chicken and also the ingredients for making the gravy.
This way it's all simple, understandable and beautifully laid out in front of you. Ready to buy, make and enjoy.
Ingredients for marinating the chicken
- Chicken - Brown meat or chicken thigh is the best. You can use breast if you want but thigh is best. Bone on or off. Your choice but it's much more succulent, tender and suitable for this kind of cooking method. If you want to know how to cook chicken breast properly then see this oven-roasted chicken breast recipe.
- Spices and herbs - Garam masala, turmeric powder, chilli powder, dried fenugreek(kasoori methi)
- Yoghurt - Natural plain greek yoghurt works best.
- Lemon juice - Freshly squeezed.
- Garlic & ginger paste - This is just equal amounts of garlic and ginger blended with some water and oil. It's also the base for any curry or curry paste.
- Salt - Natural sea salt.
Ingredients for the gravy
- Chopped tomatoes - Chop up fresh tomatoes or use tinned chopped tomatoes. Up to you. try and use good quality either way. Low-quality tomatoes will be tasteless, sour and you will have a hard time bringing balance to the dish later.
- Minced Onion - All Indian curries start with minced onion and lots of it. Regular white onion works best.
- Cream - Double cream is the only choice here. Single cream is too thin and not rich enough.
- Curry paste - Homemade butter chicken paste or a good quality store-bought version.
- Butter - 82% fat real butter.
- Cashew nuts - Roasted or not roasted but I prefer to roast mine for added flavour.
- Salt and Sugar - Regular sea salt and cane sugar.
- Use fresh spices - Well sealed spices are key. When spice stands open, especially ground spices they lose their aroma and flavour. This results in a bland and bitter-tasting tasting curry.
- Toast whole spices before grinding - Toasting the spices whole in a dry pan brings out the flavour. If you can, buy whole spices then toast and grind in a spice grinder as needed.
- Cook aromatics and tomato paste well - Raw ginger, garlic and tomato paste taste bitter and not very rounded. Cook them thoroughly before adding liquids.
- Marinate the chicken well - The longer you marinate the chicken the better. I always do 24 hours. Why? Yoghurt contains lactic acid which slowly tenderises the meat. Ginger contains the enzyme zingibain, a protease that cleaves proteins into amino acids. This means that the chicken will be softer, as well as more flavourful as glutamic acid binds with salt to form natural umami flavours.
- Caramelise but don't burn - You want to sear the chicken well so that it has a roasty rich flavour that carries on into the gravy. If you burn it the process of caramelisation will go too far and end up leaving bitter tastes in the curry. The same goes for all the other components that need to be sauteed or fried.
- Simmer not boil - Slowly simmering any stew, soup, or curry is key to retaining the delicate flavours. If you boil it you lose those flavours and your dish might end up tasting like it lacks depth.
- Use cashews - Cashews give a wonderful creaminess to the dish as well as a subtle nuttiness that goes extremely well with the other flavours and also helps round the taste and texture of the sauce.
- Make-ahead - Curries, as well as other stewed or simmer dishes like soup, always taste better the day after. This means that butter chicken a dish perfectly suited to make ahead. Remember how it was created? You can easily use grilled chicken from the day before or make the sauce in advance as a base for other curries or stews. Then, when you fancy a curry. Simply add the two together. And hey presto, butter chicken!
How to make it
Butter chicken like many curries are very forgiving dishes and you can cook it in a variety of ways and get similar results.
Baked in the oven.
Marinating and cooking the chicken
- Cut the chicken thighs into large 2 bite pieces.
- Mix with the marinade ingredients and marinate for as long as you have time for. It's best to marinate the chicken for 24 hours but if you are rushed then go ahead and use within the hour. Just note that 24 hour is truly special and I highly recommend you try it.
- Heat a skillet with some neutral tasting oil like canola to fry the chicken in.
- Fry the chicken marinate still on it, on all sides until nice and golden brown but not burnt. If you burn it, it will be bitter and you won't be able to use the chicken fonds in your gravy. See below.
Once the chicken is caramelised, add water, vegetable or chicken stock to the skillet to pick up all those roasty flavours. Set aside until we are ready to add it to the gravy.
Remember, traditionally this would have been leftover chicken from the tandoor. I think very few of us have a tandoor at home.
Which is why we are replicating the process in a skillet as best we can.
Making the gravy
- Heat a non-stick pan or saute pan with some neutral tasting oil like canola.
- Add the chopped onions along to the pan and cook on medium heat until soft, fragrant and very lightly caramelised. Why? This is important in Indian cooking. You want to bring the sweetness out of the onions by doing this. Take care not to caramelise them too much.
- Add the curry paste and chopped tomatoes. Cook on medium heat for about 2 minutes until the tomatoes are soft and the watery juice has reduced. You will know this is ready when the mix starts to come together in a kind of puree and looks oily.
- At this point, we add the cream, liquid in the skillet with cooked chicken, cashew nuts, and butter. Simmer on medium/low heat for about 4 minutes just so that it all comes together and the cashew nuts soften a bit.
- Pour this gravy into a high-speed blender or use a stick blender to blend it smooth. Take care not to burn as this stuff is molten hot at this stage. While you at it, give it a taste. You will notice that the salt and sugar is missing. Consider the consistency of the gravy. It should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, smooth and velvety. If it's too thick add a bit of cream, stock or water. If it's too runny don't worry we simmer it a bit longer in the next step until you are happy with the result.
- So, Get this gravy back into the pan and add the chicken to it or add the gravy to the pan with the chicken. Whichever you have space for.
- Now is the time to add the salt and sugar in increments. I say that because we all have different salt tolerance and also your tomatoes might be sweeter or more sour than the ones I used. So, add half the required amounts of each and then taste and adjust until you are happy with the balance.
- The final step is to simmer the chicken in the gravy on medium/low heat. This is to make sure the chicken is cooked through and the sauce is the right consistency.
- With everything looking great, serve up your masterpiece and enjoy!
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What to serve with it
Perfect served with rice and flatbread. Also great with other side dishes and greens.
- Steamed rice
- Soft flour tortillas
- Roasted onion couscous
- Mashed potatoes
- Creamed spinach
- Panfried bok choy
- Roasted broccoli
Alternative cooking methods
- Oven-baked - This method works best when using larger bone-on pieces of chicken or tougher cuts of meat like goat or lamb that needs long slow cooking. Simply place the cooked gravy and seared meat in a casserole dish and cover with a lid. Turn the oven to 130 °C or 266 °F. Cook for 3 hours or until the meat is tender.
- Crockpot or Instant pot - Very similar to baking in the oven but, can be done even slower and longer. Also most popular with bone on or tougher cuts of meat that benefit from long slow cooking. Sear the meat, make the gravy and slowly cook for about 6 to 8 hours.
- On the fire - This is one for the bbq enthusiast among us. My favourite way to cook it. It gets a beautiful smokey aroma that not even a tandoor can replicate. Cook in a cast-iron cauldron or dutch oven straight on the fire. Keep it low and slow. Should take about 3 hours for tougher cuts. Small tender cuts like chicken thighs will be best after an hour of slow cooking. Make sure to top up with liquid so the gravy does not go dry.
Recipe variations and substitutions
- Add beer - Instead of using water or stock the deglaze the pan after frying the chicken, use a mild flavoured beer instead.
- Use coconut milk - To make this butter chicken recipe without cream simply substitute for coconut milk.
- Make it spicy - Add freshly chopped chillies or more chilli powder.
- Change the protein - You can change the chicken to any other protein like shrimp, turkey, lamb, goat, or beef.
- Make it vegetarian or vegan - If you want to make it vegetarian use vegetables like potato, pumpkin, sweet potato and carrots. To make a similar curry but just vegan, use coconut milk instead of double cream and substitute the butter for half its weight coconut cream.
Other recipes you might like
These are my favourite Asian recipes from across the continent and you will love them too.
- Coconut chicken curry
- Massaman shrimp curry
- Filipino beef adobo
- Den Miso baked eggplant
- Persian lamb koftas
- Thai Beef koftas
Frequently asked questions
A big secret that few home cooks know is that curry tastes better the next day or a few days after you've made it.
If you have leftovers or you want to meal prep in advance, simply store airtight in the fridge and it will happily last for 5 days.
You can cook large batches and freeze for future up to 6 months. Make sure it's covered airtight and portioned so that it's not one big block of frozen curry.
There are two ways to thicken a curry that might be too liquid.
If you are happy with the flavour and don't want it to get more concentrated, you can mix a bit of cornflour or regular flour with water and then whisk it in while simmering.
If you have xanthan gum, you should use that instead if you know how to, as it releases flavours better and you also need much less of it.
You could also reduce the sauce or gravy by slowly simmering until the desired consistency is achieved. Take care not to let the bottom catch or burn.
Depending on your dietary requirements, Butter chicken can be a healthy, tasty and balanced meal.
This is also a Keto butter chicken recipe if you omit the tiny amount of sugar used to balance the flavour a bit.
For people on low-fat diets, I suggest using reduced-fat coconut milk and using only a tiny bit of butter.
To make it even healthier I suggest making or buying wholemeal flatbreads and also having it with quinoa, brown rice or wild rice instead of regular white rice.
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