There are a few things in life that everyone should experience. First and foremost is rolling in snow then jumping in a hot tub. It'll alter your life, or at the very least your circulation. But coming in a close second is watching a skilled Indian tandoor cook do his magic. There are few things more awesome than seeing bright red hunks of raw marinated chicken threaded onto massive four-foot long metal skewers, seeing those skewers lowered down into the fiery inferno of a 900°F clay tandoor oven, then emerging 15 minutes later charred, smoky, tender, and juicy.
You'd be surprised at how many Indian restaurants will happily let you take a peek into the kitchen if you ask nicely (I've never been turned down). Indian cuisine is largely spice and sauce-based, but tandoori-style chicken relies more on its intriguing cooking technique than, say, a carefully balanced curry.
See, tandoor ovens—those are the large, bell-shaped coal or wood-fired ovens used in traditional Indian baking—were traditionally used only for making Naan (see my recipe for that here). It wasn't until the early 20th century that an enterprising Punjabi restaurateur named Kundan Lal Gujral created culinary history by saying to himself, "hey, I wonder what happens when I stick a chicken in there?"
It's a phrase I've used on many occasions, none of which has had as happy an ending as it did for Kundan. The dish would eventually go on to spawn the now equally-famous Chicken Tikka, which would in turn beget the British classic Chicken Tikka Masala (essentially hunks of tandoori chicken cut up and served with a spiced tomato-cream sauce).
These days, pretty much every Indian restaurant in the United States prominently features Tandoori Chicken on their menu in varying degrees of quality. At its best, it's incomparably juicy, mildly spiced, with an intense hit of smoke. Served simply with sliced onions and a squeeze of lemon or lime, it's good, honest, simple cooking. But more often than not, you end up with dry, stringy breast meat reheated in the oven—chicken so dry that even the sizzle platter it's served on can't save it.
My goal this week: figure out how to make this Indian classic in my own backyard.
The Basics: Chicken Prep
For reasons that should be readily obvious to anyone, we're not going to be making our chicken in a tandoor oven. Luckily, a backyard charcoal grill will do just fine (yeah, you can go with gas, although it won't get quite hot enough for what we're after).
With a traditional tandoor oven, the chicken gets cut into halves or quarters before being stuck onto skewers. On a grill, it's much easier to butterfly them. They stay flat, they're easy to flip, and the cook more evenly.
The easiest way to butterfly a chicken is to cut out its back with a pair of kitchen shears (see our recommendation here). A few snips through the ribs, a quick push down on the breast to flatten it and break the wishbone, and you're done.
Tandoori chicken is traditionally cooked with the skin off. While for most methods of cooking chicken this would be a bad idea (skin is an insulator that prevents dry breast meat from becoming tough or stringy), with tandoori chicken, the thick yogurt-based marinade helps to prevent the meat from drying out.
The easiest way to get your chicken ready for the grill is to twist the legs up so that they're pointing upwards int he same direction of the breasts, then to make sure everything stays flat and flippable by keeping everything in place with a couple of metal skewers (wooden ones will work, but don't expect them not to burn in the high heat needed for this type of cooking).
Once you get the chicken skewered, it's time for the marinade...
Do Marinades Really Work?
Of the various restaurants I've visited and recipes I've perused, there are only a few very minor variations in the cooking technique, and all of them start with a yogurt and citrus juice-based marinade seasoned with garlic, ginger, a few spices, and a bit of red food coloring. This last ingredient is one that many restaurants actually seem embarrassed to admit to using.
I'll hear chefs say, "oh, the color comes from the cayenne pepper," but take a glance around, and you'll see the telltale jug of red food coloring sitting right there on the spice rack.
Simple fact: if you want your tandoori chicken to be the deep red shade you find at Indian restaurants, food coloring is the way to do it. I use powdered achiote, just because I have it on hand and it somehow feels more "natural" to me, but there ain't nothing wrong with a bit of the red dye #2.
Back when I was in college, I was still of the mindset that in order to work, a marinade needs to, well, marinate, which meant time. I still know many people—well respected cooks even!—who think that as far as marinades go, longer is better. This is emphatically not the case, and is one of the greatest marinade myths. There are a few ways in which marinades do act.
- Fats and liquids transfer flavor. Aromatic compounds from spices, herbs, and whatever else you stick in the marinade will dissolve in fat (if your marinade has oil in it, for example), while other compounds will dissolve in water or in alcohol. This can help to distribute that flavor evenly around a piece of meat or vegetables. Note: this is essentially a surface treatment. Oils and fats will not penetrate into the meat at all.
- Salt will loosen muscle fibers. I always put a good healthy dose of salt into my marinades, as its one of the few ingredients that can actually penetrate the meat beyond the very outermost layers. Muscle fibers actually dissolve and loosen up in the presence of a salty liquid, allowing them to retain more moisture during cooking (see more on the science of brining here
- Acid will "cook" meat. And herein lies the problem with most marinades, particularly those containing acidic ingredients such as wine, vinegar, or citrus juice. Acid can denature muscle protein in very much the same way that heat can (see more on the science of acids and meat in my article about ceviche here). Given enough time in an acidic marinade, your meat will dry out, turning stringy and chalky just as if you had overcooked it.
It's this last factor that I believe seriously destroys most bad restaurant tandoori chicken: chicken that's been allowed to sit in its marinade for too long so that it's already "cooked" before it even hits the oven.
Here's another fact about marinades: they don't really penetrate very deeply into the meat. Try marinating a piece of chicken or beef in a marinade with an intensely colored dye (such as a tandoori chicken marinade), and you'll find that even after 24 hours, it'll barely have penetrated beyond a few millimeters.
I've found that any more than 6 to 8 hours of marinating in an acidic marinade and your chicken or beef will become hopelessly mushy and chalky in the exterior. I prefer the texture of a five-hour marinade.
So if a marinade is really essentially a surface treatment for meat, what's the best way to increase its effect on flavor?
How about we just increase the surface area of the chicken? By slashing it with a sharp knife at regular intervals along its surface (make sure to slash against the grain), you greatly increase the area in which the marinade can flavor it.
With my chicken done marinated, it came time to cook it. Now, if there's one thing I know about chicken, it's that I don't like it when it's overcooked, and the FDA's recommended 165°F internal temperature for chicken breast is well beyond the pale of what's acceptable to my palate. I much prefer my chicken cooked to a more reasonable (and still reasonably safe) 145°F. A temperature at which it still retains plenty of juiciness.
You hear a lot of fuss in recipes about how chicken legs need to be cooked a good 20°F higher than chicken breast, and how much of a problem this causes. The first part is true. Because leg meat contains more connective tissue, you do want to cook legs hotter—to at least 165 to 170°F or so, if not more. It's the latter part that completely ceases to be a problem once you start cooking your chickens butterflied.
Because the legs and thighs are thinner than the breasts, I find that they naturally end up about 20°F hotter than the breast when the whole thing is finished cooking, even without flipping, chilling, separating, or any of the other fussy techniques that have been developed over the years to deal with the problem.
TL/DR: Butterfly your chickens all the time, and you'll never have unevenly cooked breast and leg meat again. (here's my recipe for butterflied roasted chicken.)
There is, however, another problem with cooking chicken over high heat on the grill: the exterior begins to dry out before it's completely cooked through. Granted, this is not a huge deal—I even know some folks who like that slight leatheriness to the exterior of a piece of juicy grilled chicken breast. I, on the other hand, prefer my chicken to be juicy through and through.
The problem arises because the chicken simply takes too long to cook. The entire time it's on top of the coals, the exterior is slowly losing moisture. In the 15 to 20 minutes it takes for the very center to reach 145°F, the outer layers of meat have lost nearly 30% of their weight in water.
The easiest way I know to fix it? Use a smaller chicken. The smaller the bird, the faster it'll cook through, and the less time it'll have to dry out. Better yet, just use a Cornish game hen. These young birds, defined as a 5 to 6 week old chicken that's a cross between a Cornish hen and another bird are small, tender, and cook up really fast, resulting in meat that's significantly juicier than a larger chicken would be.
Isn't that cute?
Once I'd decided to make the switch from chicken to hen, my tandoori-style chicken (er, hen) jumped up in quality by leaps and bounds. Insanely juicy, charred, smoky, and tender, it's quite honestly better than any I could remember having at a restaurant.
Don't want to fire up the grill? Don't worry, this works too:
At least, it's a decent approximation of working. Just don't expect any smokiness.
Next life goal: to eat awesome tandoori-style chicken whilst rolling in the snow next to a hot tub. Next winter, here I come!
Don't Forget the Naan!
In case you missed it, read this guide to making naan.