Butter Chicken has been a challenge for a few years now. The back-of-the-box method is no longer acceptable after having the real, deal, wedding grade butter chicken served at parties all over the lower main land. It’s likely I’ve self inflicted the pressure of making a damn good butter chicken, but I really do think it’s worth learning. I mean for god’s sake Subway has put it on a sandwich, which I don’t agree with, but if they are making money off a sub par butter chicken, there is no reason I shouldn’t be able to make something worth saving for leftovers. While the back-of-the-box methods seen on butter chicken masala boxes tend to be very straight forward for a weeknight dinner, there are many rivaling methods that quickly became too intense to throw together at 6pm in the middle of the week- it ain’t happening!
Over the years I’ve experimented with several different bases for making the sauce for butter chicken. I learned yogurt, masala, and tomato combinations that worked for the color but lacked flavor, and combinations that suffered in all aspects of a good butter chicken. Basically any way I could manipulate what I learned from different butter chicken masala boxes, I tried and failed. It wasn’t until we went to a wedding this year where I found my idea of a perfectly balanced butter chicken and tried to break it down.
I should add that I’ve had some pretty bad butter chicken at weddings too so this isn’t like making kraft mac-n-cheese.
I should also add I grew up a Gujarati vegetarian, so butter chicken was not something I even tried until I was in my mid 20’s.
These are my conclusions…
- Butter chicken masala or tandoori masala is not the sole spice used in butter chicken. The packaged masala boxes fooled me for years. Don’t be afraid to add spices. In fact I demand you to add cumin, coriander, cinnamon, bay leaf and much more!
- The sauce is thickened and gets it color from tomato (along with spices)- tomato in Indian dishes can be strong and can handle a lot of spice- DON’T BE SHY WITH MASALA.
- Butter chicken has a distinct red-orange color. This can be created from the spices, tomato, and the addition of cream, yogurt, and/or half-and-half. Using yogurt can add additional flavor while using cream can mellow out the spices.
- Chicken should be tender. Yes it’s obvious but how do you make it fall apart tender without cooking it in the sauce for hours?
- We eat with our eyes first so making curries look good can be hard. This particular butter chicken had a tandoori like color when I broke the pieces. The tender, red-lined meat gave it a laborious appeal which I loved! The last thing you want in a meat curry is fighting a piece of meat with naan trying to break it apart. The deep red outline of the white meat competing with the bright curry imitated a slow cooked stew. Easily a priority for my butter chicken
- It’s easy to have oil heavy curries, which is why slotted serving spoons can be a godsend. But I love the saucy gravy the meat and veggies swim in san pools of oil. Far from being an Indian cuisine expert, I believe I can safely say that butter chicken does not have to be fat heavy like it’s name implies. I’m taking a note from French cooking techniques here. While our mom’s may have cooked the crap out of onions, garlic, and spices, I think it’s safe to trust our nose to know when it’s time to keep moving. In my experience, this has eliminated the need for heavy oil pours.
This recipe is the closest thing I’ve made to a restaurant style butter chicken. It does require a few more steps and a little more time but it’s well worth it and will deliver a tenfold better curry! It will give you a foundation to try different spices and marinade combinations to help build and personalize butter chicken to your standards. Overall it is a lot lighter because the little cream I used is to purely lighten up the color of the sauce. I found it can be omitted completely if you’d like.