Recipe Spotlight

Murgh Makhani (Indian Butter Chicken)

Of course it should be rich and creamy. But for a version of this restaurant classic that’s vibrant and complex, there’s more to consider than the namesake ingredient.

Published Apr. 3, 2019.

My Goals & Discoveries

Chicken with tandoor-like char

Because the yogurt’s milk proteins and lactose brown quickly and deeply, coating chicken thighs—which are less prone to overcooking than leaner breasts—in yogurt and broiling them creates deep char on their exteriors, imitating the color and flavor of chicken roasted in a superhot tandoor.

Rich, creamy body

Whisking solid butter into the finished sauce gives it richness and viscosity, and heavy cream adds lush, velvety body. Pureeing the sauce makes it silky-smooth. 

Vibrant flavor

Swapping out liquid-y chopped or crushed tomatoes for a generous ½ cup of superconcentrated tomato paste and some water adds acidity and vivid color to the sauce without diluting its richness. Plenty of aromatics and spices lend the sauce fragrance and depth.

Murgh makhani, also known by its English name, “butter chicken,” is a wildly popular dish that has reached royal status in northern Indian cuisine. But according to most sources, the dish was originally intended to solve the rather pedestrian problem of preventing leftover meat from tandoor‑roasted chickens from drying out. The solution turned out to be magnificent: The charred meat was bathed in a lush tomato-based gravy that was enriched with butter (and often cream) and scented with ginger, garlic, and spices such as garam masala, coriander, and cumin. Butter chicken has since helped spawn a major restaurant franchise and become one of the most well‑known Indian dishes in the world.

It’s also a popular dish to make at home, as the sauce is a snap to prepare: Soften some onion, garlic, and fresh ginger in melted butter; add the spices to bloom their flavors; stir in chopped tomatoes (either fresh or canned); enrich the mixture with cream and possibly some more butter; and finish it with chopped cilantro for brightness and a pop of color.

The chicken poses a challenge because the most important element—the charred exterior that provides an essential point of contrast to the rich sauce—is difficult to achieve without the intense heat of a tandoor oven, the traditional beehive‑shaped vessel that can heat up to 900 degrees.

Some recipes skip the charring altogether and call for simply braising chicken pieces in the sauce, but the meat lacks the charred flavor that makes this dish not just rich but also complex. Other recipes approximate the tandoor’s effect by marinating the chicken (usually boneless, skinless breasts or thighs for easier eating) in yogurt and then roasting or broiling it. This seemed like a more promising method.

Take a Dip

Lean white meat would require careful monitoring in a hot oven to prevent it from drying out, so I started with thighs, which contain more fat and collagen and would thus be more forgiving.

Traditional recipes for Indian butter chicken marinate the meat in yogurt to help tenderize it, since acidity breaks down proteins on the meat's exterior. We prefer the texture of the meat without this soak. We do, however, coat the chicken in yogurt just before cooking, because yogurt is a rich source of protein as well as sugars, which participate in Maillard browning reactions: When yogurt is exposed to the broiler’s high heat, its water quickly evaporates, leaving a high‑protein, high-sugar mixture that encourages the meat to brown more quickly and deeply than it would on its own, which helps us mimic the charring effects of a superhot tandoor oven.

To be sure it was worth the extra step, I cooked two batches of thighs, one plain and one coated in yogurt (the Greek kind, since it’s a more concentrated source of milk proteins than regular yogurt), and the difference was clear: After about 15 minutes under the broiler (its intense heat would be the best approximation of the tandoor), the plain chicken was only spottily browned, while the yogurt-coated batch boasted fuller, more flavorful browning. (For more information, see “Yogurt Makes for Better Browning.”) Dunking in yogurt was the way to go, and to make the most of it, I stirred in a little salt to help season the chicken.

Yogurt Makes for Better Browning

Coating the chicken in Greek yogurt is a crucial step in our recipe for butter chicken, but not for the reason you might think. We don’t use it as a marinade, as traditional recipes do, because we don't prefer the texture of meat marinated in acidic ingredients. Instead, we use it as a coating that we apply to the meat just before cooking, since yogurt is a rich source of both protein and sugars, which undergo Maillard browning reactions when the chicken cooks under the broiler's intense heat. 

Butter Up

As for the sauce, it should be similar to the sauce for chicken tikka masala (a close relative of butter chicken) but richer and more concentrated—think of it as a tomatoey cream sauce rather than a creamy tomato sauce. The trick to making it well is adding enough richness so that it’s lush but not so much that it tastes cloying and the tomato’s vibrancy is obscured. Achieving that balance took some work.

The first consideration was how to incorporate the butter into the sauce. Melting a couple of tablespoons to soften the aromatics and bloom the spices was a fine way to start, but by the time I stirred in a can of juicy tomatoes, the sauce was neither rich nor creamy. Two additional tablespoons made the sauce richer, but only when half the butter was left solid and whisked in at the end of cooking did the sauce turn silky. Why? For the same reason we often finish pan sauces by thoroughly whisking in cold butter: Doing so allows it to emulsify as it melts, breaking into tiny fat droplets suspended in the liquid by casein proteins. Melting the butter before whisking it in lets the fat and protein separate, so it breaks into large droplets that don’t incorporate evenly.

But while the extra solid butter made it more luxurious, the sauce lacked its trademark creaminess. And yet, when I approached the richness that’s characteristic of the dish, the sauce broke. That’s because the emulsion can hold only so much fat. This made me realize why many recipes call for cream, too (see “About That ‘Butter Sauce’”). After a few tests, I’d worked in 1 cup of cream (a common amount for this recipe), though with every extra tablespoon the tomatoes’ brightness dulled. Adding more chopped tomatoes wasn’t the answer, since their juice would only thin the sauce’s creamy body. Instead, I switched to a combination of tomato paste—a whopping ½ cup—and water, taking advantage of the paste’s superconcentrated, punchy flavor and vibrant color, which gave the sauce an attractive rust‑red tint. I also added a little heat (a minced serrano chile and some black pepper) and sweetness (sugar) and buzzed the mixture with an immersion blender until the sauce was thick and silky-smooth (a regular blender would also work). 

At that point, all I had to do was cut the broiled chicken into chunks; stir them into the creamy, bright-tasting sauce; and sprinkle on some chopped cilantro. All told, the dish came together in about 30 minutes—faster than a takeout order from my favorite Indian restaurant—and could be made in half the time if I made the sauce in advance. Some nights, that might just leave me enough time to whip up our Indian Flatbread (Naan) for dipping.

About That “Butter Sauce”

Butter is more prominent in the name of this dish than in the sauce itself. While most recipes call for at least a few tablespoons of butter, the sauce owes its lush consistency to a generous amount of heavy cream. Emulsions such as cream are naturally thick and luxurious because their water and fat droplets move slowly around one another, which impedes the mixture’s flow so that it becomes viscous. Cream also effectively stabilizes the sauce; its high proportion of casein proteins surrounds the butterfat droplets so they don’t separate from the water.

Murgh Makhani (Indian Butter Chicken)

Of course it should be rich and creamy. But for a version of this restaurant classic that’s vibrant and complex, there’s more to consider than the namesake ingredient.  
Get the Recipe

Murgh Makhani (Indian Butter Chicken) for Two

Of course it should be rich and creamy. But for a version of this restaurant classic that’s vibrant and complex, there’s more to consider than the namesake ingredient.  
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