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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

When I was a kid, I used to perform my own version of "recipe development" on my 3rd grade lunch tray. This usually involved adding shredded yellow cheese to various non-taco items on taco day ("Everything's better with my famous Zesty Cheese Tidbits!" was the marketing tagline). Or occasionally pouring my tomato soup over my cut up hot dog.

This latter experimentation comes pretty close to what the most apocryphal of sources say is the origin of Chicken Tikka Masala; a British patron of an Indian restaurant in Punjab complained their chicken tikka was too dry, so the chef responded by taking it back to the kitchen, adding some spices to a can of Campbell's Tomato Soup, and pouring it over the tikka.

His creation fared a bit better than my Soupy Wiener Chunks ever did.

Whether chicken tikka masala is a dish of actual Indian or British-Indian origin is a point up for contention. Certainly the tikka part of the dish—chunks of chicken marinated in spiced yogurt and cooked rapidly in a coal-burning 900°F tandoor oven until charred and tender—is Indian in origin. It's the act of combining it with a masala sauce—a spiced sauce that generally contains pureed tomatoes and cream—that is up for debate.

In any case, the dish is most likely around 50 years old, and whether it was created in Punjab, London, or Glasgow (as has been variously claimed), two things are certain: first, it's the most popular dish in the United Kingdom, and second, It's bloody delicious.

Chicken Tikka on the grill

When done right, the sauce should be a multifaceted affair; a balanced blend of intense spice flavors with a gingery kick rounded off by the richness of cream and butter, with a splash of freshness and acid from tomatoes and citrus. As you bite into a chunk of chicken, the smokey char should work its way though to the forefront, to be slowly replaced by a new layer of spicing, this time intensified by its time on the grill. The chicken chunks should be juicy, moist, and tender.

More often than not, you get a chicken tikka masala in which bone-dry chunks of white meat chicken have been simmered to death in a sauce whose only merits are a chef who understands the first rule of Professional Cooking Hackery: When in doubt, add more cream.

I wanted to figure out a way to make it right.

The Chicken

I've already discussed the finer points of re-creating a restaurant-style Chicken Tikka at home by using a pumped up charcoal grill in lieu of a 1,000°F tandoor oven, which means that we already have the first part of the recipe licked.

Here's the shorter version for the lazy:

  • Key To Great Chicken Tikka #1: Use the grill. The grill is the best way to approximate the intense, meat-charring heat of a tandoor oven at home. If you don't have one, a grill pan is the next best bet, followed by a broiler.

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  • Key To Great Chicken Tikka #2: Add plenty of salt to your marinade. Despite what folks will tell you, there are actually only a few ways in which a marinade works to improve your meat. Salt is one of them. The muscle protein myosin will dissolve and loosen up when exposed to a salty liquid, allowing for better flavor penetration, and for better juice retention when the bird is cooked.

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  • Key To Great Chicken Tikka #3: Don't over-marinate. Chicken tikka marinades contain both yogurt and lemon juice, two acids that will cause the muscle proetins in your chicken to denature and chemically "cook," the same way a lime-juice marinade works in a traditional ceviche. Marinate for too long, and your meat will dry out just like you had overcooked it, resulting in dry, stringy, chalky meat. Keep marinating time to 5 hours or less.

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  • Key To Great Chicken Tikka #4: Use a smaller bird. A grill or tandoor oven is intensely hot, meaning that by the time a large chicken cooks through to its center, the outer layers will be hopelessly overcooked and dry. Scoring the meat deeply with a knife helps this problem, but a better solution is to use a smaller bird to cut down on cooking time. I use small chickens or Cornish hens for my chicken tikka.

Everyone got that? Good! Let's move along.

The Sauce

The basics of masala sauce are simple: start with a base of aromatics—onions, garlic, and ginger are common—cooked in oil, ghee, or butter. Add a simple spice mixture, largely based on cumin, coriander, and chilis, throw in some canned tomatoes, cook them down, then puree the whole deal with heavy cream and fresh cilantro.

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I saw no need to stray from these basics, though I found that cooking my onions, garlic, and ginger until blackened and charred in spots added a hint of smokiness and a sweet complexity that complemented the smoky flavor of the chicken tikka better than just plain sauteed aromatics did.

As for the spice mix, I already had a balanced blend going into my chicken tikka marinade, why not just double it up and reserve some for the sauce? Asides from picking out shoes for my wife's birthday, I can think of few cases where simpler isn't better.

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Finally, adding in half of the fresh cilantro leaves along with the tomatoes and reserving the other half to stir in at the end along with a good squeeze of lemon juice made for a sauce that was both complex and rich, while remaining bright and fresh.

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With sauce and chicken in hand, the rest seemed like a straight shot to the finish line.

Putting It Together

My first thought was to do what they do at restaurants: cut up the chicken tikka, toss it with the sauce, and call it a day. That worked well enough, but there were two problems: First, cornish hens are small. I missed the big chunks of tender chicken you get in the best restaurant versions. Secondly, it was tasty enough, but I really wanted to figure out a way to get the sauce and the chicken to marry a bit better, enhancing each other and playing off each others skills like WilyKit and WilyKat, not just peacefully coexisting.

Simmering them for a brief period in the sauce helps solve this problem, but you end up with the buffet-table effect: the chicken has already been cooked once, so simmering it in sauce only seres to overcook it.

In an effort to get larger chunks, I cooked up a few new batches of chicken tikka; One using a whole butterflied skinless chicken, one using bone-in skinless chicken breasts, one with boneless/skinless breasts, and one with skinless legs.

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None of them worked the way I wanted to. In every case, the high heat necessary to get good charring left my chickens dried and stringy by the time they cooked through to the center, even when I tried finishing them off on the cooler side of the grill.

Reversing the process by starting them low then moving them to the hot side to finish provided marginally better results, but the meat was still chalky.

Here's the rub: with regular old non-marinated, skin-on chicken, you can safely grill it using a two-stage (hot then cold or cold then hot) method and achieve skin that's crisp and charred, and meat that remains juicy and tender. Take off the skin, and you've got a problem, as the chicken loses both a protective layer of insulation, as well as a good source of fat. Add to that an acidic marinade which gives the process of protein denaturation (I.E. cooking) a jump start, further compounding the problem.

One solution was to separate the brining steps and the marinating steps into two separate events by soaking the chicken in salt water first (to help it retain moisture), followed by a very brief soak in the yogurt/lemon juice/spice blend just to flavor the exterior, but this was more trouble than it was worth.

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Then I thought to myself, wait a minute—perhaps we can kill two birds with one stone here. I had two problems: a) my chicken wasn't cooking through on the grill without drying out, and b) the sauce and the chicken weren't marrying together sufficiently.

The solution? Just undercook the chicken on the grill.

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I grilled off whole skinless marinated chickens (you can use just breasts or just legs if you like) just long enough to develop deep char on the grill, at which point, the interiors were still at a cool 100°F—that's essentially raw. By pulling the chicken off the grill then, letting it rest, then removing it from the bone, I ended up with large chunks of chicken that were deeply smoky on one side, but still pretty much completely raw (A.K.A. not overcooked).

This allowed me to then add the chicken to my sauce and finish it at a gentle simmer on the stovetop. Not only did my chicken come out perfectly moist and tender, but it resulted in chicken that was more flavorful, as well as a sauce that was gently perfumed by the smoky flavor of the grill.

Best of both worlds!

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Next project: perfect Soupy Wiener Chunks. They will one day take over the world, I swear.

Get The Recipe!

The Best Chicken Tikka Masala »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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