I used to frequent my local North Indian restaurant a few times a month just to get my fix of butter chicken and naan. Their butter chicken is creamy, savory, hearty … all essential components in comfort foods. This $8 habit, however, was starting to add up, and a couple of months ago I decided to learn how to make it myself and save some money in the process. Making butter chicken is surprisingly easy, but the more time you put into slowly cooking and caramelizing the onions and tomatoes the better it will be. Since my family is South Indian, we don’t cook butter chicken or North Indian dishes at home, but we cook with similar spices, so I had most of the ingredients already on hand.
When I was researching butter chicken recipes, I found that no two were alike. Some pureed the tomato base for a smooth finish, some left it chunky. Some used thickeners, some ranted about how thickeners should never be used. The list goes on. I have made this recipe about 4 times now, and I have settled on a combination of techniques and ingredients that yield a fairly simple but amazing butter chicken recipe.
I prefer to julienne the onions and leave them intact, but I don’t like chunks of tomato in the butter chicken. Therefore, I either use pureed tomato or (more often) buy whole plum tomatoes and puree them myself before adding to the onions. Also, upon doing some research, a lot of people claim that using cream in butter chicken isn’t traditional and an adopted “western” way to make the sauce creamier/smoother. In my opinion, while cream does add a restaurant-vibe to butter chicken, it overpowers the flavor base and spices that you spend so long creating by caramelizing the onions, stewing the tomatoes, etc. I find that pureeing cashews and some water to create a “cashew cream/milk” adds the perfect amount of creaminess without muting the spices and keeps the dish lighter and healthier. With that being said, feel free to add cream in place of the cashew milk if you prefer a milder flavored curry, are allergic to nuts, or just feel like it.
I know, personally, my parents hate it when dishes are too creamy, so this got their stamp of approval. One of my first cooking memories with my family was when I was 11 or 12. My mom, sister and I were cooking a Thai-style soup for dinner, and the recipe called for 2 cans of coconut milk. At the time, I was a huge stickler for following recipes to the T, but my mom, appalled by the amount of coconut milk suggested, bought only one can from the market and planned to use water in place of the other can. Eleven year old me was furious. I got all doomsday and freaked out that the soup would be RUINED by the lack of coconut milk and dramatically left the kitchen. My mom still makes fun of me for this incident to this day (I made quite a scene at the time) but it is 7 years later, and from what I can remember I was right — the soup was noticeably watery. But now I know my parents better and know their cream-tolerance levels, and, as much as I hate to admit it, I think I am slowly learning to appreciate less cream in my dishes as well.
I made this batch of butter chicken to take to my cousins house for dinner, but one of my cousins and both of my grandparents are vegetarian, so I made a vegetarian variant of butter chicken as well — “butter potato”. It probably has another name but I can’t think of it right now. The sauce base is made the same except I substituted vegetable broth instead of chicken broth, and for the potatoes I simply diced them — skin on — added the same spices used in the marinade, ghee, and baked them in the oven for 15 minutes or so. I cooked both the potatoes and the chicken until slightly under done and finished cooking them in the sauce. Because the recipe is for both the veg and non-veg version, it might be kind of confusing, but just ignore the potato instructions if you are making the chicken and vice-versa. Also, I use very small amounts of chili powder in this recipe because my chili powder is OUTRAGEOUSLY spicy. The first time I used butter chicken I followed someone’s recipe online and used 1/2 tsp of chili powder and it was unbearably spicy. I’m assuming that chili powders that can be purchased in the US (we got ours from India) will be less hot, so you can probably add more chili powder than in the recipe, but be careful and know your chili powder.
- 2 large chicken breasts, diced
- 1/4 cup yogurt
- 1 Tbs vegetable oil
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp garam masala
- 1/4 tsp turmeric
- 1/8 tsp chili powder (more or less depending on your chili powder)
- 2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
- 1 pinch saffron (optional)
- Mix all ingredients and marinade chicken in the mixture for 2 hours or up to overnight in the fridge.
- 20 minutes before cooking, soak wooden skewers in water to prevent burning in the oven. Skew the chicken pieces kabob-style
- Preheat the oven to 400 F
- Line a 8×8 in. baking pan and lay skewers so that the chicken pieces do not touch the bottom of the pan
- Bake for ~15 min or until slightly under cooked.
- Set aside.
POTATO (for vegetarian version):
- 2 large yukon gold potatoes, diced (skin on)
- garam masala
- chili powder
- salt & pepper
- ghee // vegetable oil
- Preheat oven to 400 F
- Line a baking pan with foil. Sprinkle spices, salt, and pepper on potatoes. Use equal amounts salt and garam masala. Use less turmeric and chili powder (depending on heat of chili powder)
- Drizzle with ghee or vegetable oil
- Cook, flipping once, for 15-20 mins until slightly under cooked.
SAUCE/ CURRY BASE:
- 1/2 large yellow onion, julienned
- 1 Tbs ghee // butter
- 4 cardamom pods, crushed
- 1/2 tsp garam masala
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1/8 – 1/4 tsp chili powder (depending chili powder & preference)
- 1/4 tsp turmeric
- 2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
- 28 oz can crushed or whole plum tomatoes
- 1 3/4 cup chicken stock // vegetable stock
- 1/4 cup cashews & water (cashew milk) // heavy cream
- 2 Tbs butter
- 2 Tbs dried fenugreek leaves (optional)
- Cook julienned onions and ghee/butter on a low-med heat until onions are starting to caramelize, about 10-12 minutes.
- Add spices to onions to cook off raw taste. Stir for a few minutes. Season with salt generously.
- Add ginger garlic paste and cook for another 5-6 minutes on low. Onions should be very caramelized and broken down.
- Puree tomatoes, if using whole plum tomatoes, in blender until smooth. Add to the pan.
- Cook, uncovered, on medium heat for 30 minutes to reduce tomatoes and naturally sweeten dish. (Tomatoes caramelize and become naturally sweeter) The tomatoes should reduce down to a thick paste. Taste the tomatoes before simmering, and after the 30 minutes to ensure that they have sweetened to your liking.
- Remove the cardamom pod shells at this step.
- Add stock and cook for another 5-10 minutes, covered.
- Blend cashews and 1/4 c water together until cashews are completely broken down and a smooth paste/liquid is formed.
- Add cashew milk to the pot, 1 tbs at a time. Stir after each addition and stop when the color and taste of the sauce fits your liking. You may use less or need more cashew milk depending.
- Stir in 2 Tbs butter (solid) to add extra creaminess and flavor. Ghee can also be used here.
- Add in chicken // potatoes and cook for 5 minutes until chicken is cooked through and potatoes are tender.
- Place fenugreek leaves in palms of your hands and rub hands together over the pot. This crushes the dried fenugreek leaves and supposedly brings out their flavor more.