Why It Works
- If you don't have a grill, the chicken tikka can just as easily be cooked under the broiler in the oven.
- A flavorful yogurt marinade creates a charred, smoky crust on the chicken as it cooks and ensures a juicy and tender interior.
- Without being excessively rich, both butter and cream give the tomato gravy a silky, full-bodied texture.
- A final addition of toasted and ground fenugreek imparts a complex, floral sweetness to the finished dish.
Floyd Cardoz wasn't just an Indian chef—he was one of New York's best Indian chefs. So, back in 2012, we were pretty excited for a chance to watch him make his version of chicken tikka makhani, the "butter chicken" that's the sweeter, creamier version of chicken tikka masala, at the New York Culinary Experience.
Long ingredient lists and some unfamiliar techniques can make cooking Indian food at home daunting, but Chef Cardoz showed just how easy this kind of home cooking can be. He gave boneless, skinless chicken thighs an overnight marinade in a purée of yogurt, chile, ginger, garlic, and some basic spices, then cooked them simply on the grill. Stop there and you have some damn good chicken tikka for summer. But it doesn't take much to make the buttery tomato gravy—an easy mix of tomatoes, onions, butter, cream, and a couple spices and aromatics—for a ridiculously luxurious Indian meal.
Making the Marinade
The chicken got marinated in yogurt with spices and aromatics. Here, Chef Cardoz blended chiles, garlic, ginger, lime juice, and neutral oil to make a smooth paste. He salted his chicken for 15 minutes before adding the marinade, but you can also add salt during this step.
He whisked the paste into yogurt and added three spices: paprika, garam masala (a warm, punchy blend of black pepper, green cardamom, mace, cloves, and cinnamon), and cayenne pepper.
The chicken got mixed in and refrigerated for four to six hours, or overnight. Chef Cardoz insisted on using chicken thighs in this recipe: "They just have more flavor."
On the Grill
Although chicken tikka is traditionally cooked in a tandoor oven, it does pretty well on the grill. You can also cook it under a broiler, as our recipe instructs.
The chicken should be cooked until just done. The yogurt develops a charred, smoky crust but the interior stays plenty juicy.
And there you have it: chicken tikka. Add a squirt of lime juice and a salad for an easy summer grill session. But it doesn't take much work to make the buttery tomato gravy.
Making the Gravy
Whole tomatoes (Chef Cardoz was insistent on Muir Glen roasted tomatoes for their superior flavor; "No, I don't get paid to say that"), onion, butter, chile, garlic, ginger, and cinnamon stew together in a pot. The mixture bubbles away for about half an hour at a hard simmer to concentrate the flavors.
Butter chicken wouldn't be butter chicken without a big lump of butter and a slurp of cream. It's rich, but not overkill. You can also add the cream after the sauce reduces to preserve its fresh dairy flavor.
After the gravy has reduced and everything is tender, the sauce gets puréed until velvety smooth.
Finishing the Gravy
Black pepper, some honey, and more salt add complexity and punch to the sauce.
The secret to this dish, if there is one, is the fenugreek. It's a maple sweet, slightly bitter herb that's common in the Indian pantry. It gives the sauce a floral, deep flavor and a complex sweetness. Head to your Indian grocery and pick up some dried leaves (not the seeds; those are used for other applications). Your sauce won't be the same without it.
The fenugreek leaves are toasted in a dry pan until aromatic and darker in color.
They're then crushed into a powder and added to the sauce.
Chicken, Meet Sauce
When the sauce is ready, add the chicken whole or in bite-sized pieces.
And there you have it: slightly sweet, gorgeously spiced, luxurious butter chicken, only slightly more involved than pasta with red sauce.
For the Chicken Tikka:
4 medium cloves garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 jalapeno chile, seeded and chopped
3 tablespoons juice from 3 limes
3 tablespoons neutral oil (such as vegetable or canola)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon garam masala
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 cups yogurt
2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs
For the Sauce:
2 (28-ounce) cans roasted tomatoes
2 cups water
1 large onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
3 medium cloves garlic, peeled
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh minced ginger
1 jalapeno chile, seeded and chopped
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons fenugreek leaves, toasted until darker in color and crushed
1 tablespoon black pepper
1/2 to 3/4 cup heavy cream, to taste
For the Chicken Tikka: In a food processor, combine garlic, ginger, chile, lime juice, oil, salt, and spices. Process until a rough paste forms, then add yogurt and process until smooth. Transfer to a large zip top bag or leakproof container and add chicken. Marinate 4 to 6 hours, or overnight.
Set broiler rack 4 inches from heat source and preheat broiler to high. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Remove chicken from zipper lock bag and wipe off excess marinade with hands. Lay out in a single layer on baking sheet and broil until color darkens and some dark blisters form, about 5 minutes. Flip chicken, rotate sheet pan, and broil until color darkens on other side, about 5 minutes. Repeat once or twice until chicken registers 170°F (77°C) on an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part, and one side has significant charring on edges. Set aside to rest. Alternatively, cook chicken thighs on a barbecue or grill pan until chicken registers 170°F on an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part.
For the Sauce: In a large, heavy pot, combine tomatoes, water, onion, garlic, ginger, chile, butter, cinnamon, and 1 teaspoon salt. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium and cook uncovered at a hard simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens to about 2 1/2 quarts, about 30 minutes.
Transfer 1/3 of sauce to the jar of a blender. Starting with low speed, gradually increase to high. Blend until smooth, about 30 seconds. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean large saucepan. Repeat with remaining two batches. Keep sauce warm over low heat and stir in fenugreek, black pepper, honey, and cream to taste. Season with salt to taste, then chop chicken tikka into bite-sized pieces and add to sauce. Serve with rice and a garnish of julienned ginger.
Rimmed sheet pan, food processor, blender, fine-mesh strainer
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 39g||50%|
|Saturated Fat 18g||91%|
|Total Carbohydrate 34g||13%|
|Dietary Fiber 7g||26%|
|Total Sugars 21g|
|Vitamin C 46mg||232%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|