Butter Chicken

- Jenny

With so many fabulous recipes on this site sitting there out in the open, like free Hope diamonds waiting to be snapped up, I sometimes think my most added-value role here is to ferret out the hidden gems -- the ones you may have avoided because you didn’t quite understand them, or felt intimidated by the vessel they called for -- and to assure you that it will all be okay.

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So on that note, let’s talk about Butter Chicken. I stumbled upon this bad boy because I was in search, yet again, for something fresh to do with chicken. For the home cook, poultry really is like your family –- you can’t escape it, really, but you can make the best of it, and pair it with alcohol.

So, let’s deal with the possible impediments to enjoying butter chicken, which is, my friends, a deeply delicious dish. According to what I have read, butter chicken is a well known dish in India, also known as Murg Makhani. Most of the recipes I have read online subsequently call for yogurt, while this version is just a rub.

This is a dish that pauljoseph, our prolific recipe contributor from Kerala, India, wants you to make in a clay pot. I have no doubt that this is the proper method for making this dish, and it reminds me that I need to buy one. However, I made it in a cast iron pan with good results.

Let’s take the recipe itself step-by-step here, with my interpretations, beginning with ingredients. This is basically Indian Shake 'n Bake. It’s good.

Our recipe writer asks you to buy a pound of chicken pieces. I suggest you use a few legs with their thighs, and a drumstick if you come up short. He says you need a cup of tomatoes, but later you will see as you get cooking, they are actually sliced. Just buy the biggest, nicest tomato you can afford. If that is in a grocery store, and they have put your $4-a-pound heirloom in the cold section, take an extra minute to fume in vain to the produce manager, who will no doubt shrug and go back to his onions. Your kids, if they are with you, might say something at this point like, "Why do you always do stuff like that?" Ignore them. They will understand the price for mealy fruits in their own due time.

You mash your ginger, garlic, and chili powder together, preferably with mortar and pestle, and from here on it is referred to as “ground masala.” There is no heat specified here: do your butter and tomatoes over a medium flame, then add your chicken, sprinkle the sugar, and turn it the heck down to low and cover it. Turn your chicken after about 15 minutes. Cook until tender means about 35 minutes give or take. He doesn’t say to, but take the chicken out and platter it, then add the cream to your sauce.

Yes, you do want the cilantro.

Butter Chicken

By pauljoseph

Serves 4

  • 1-inch piece ginger, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 pound chicken pieces
  • 1/4 teaspoon garam masala
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 cup tomatoes
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh cream
  • Fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves (optional)

1. In a mortar and pestle, grind together the ginger, garlic and chili powder -- this is called masala. Marinate the chicken with ground masala, garam masala, lime juice and salt and set aside for 1 hour.

2. In a clay pot, heat the butter, fry the sliced tomatoes for few minutes, and then add the marinated chicken and sugar. Cover and cook till tender.

3. Add the cream and serve hot. If you like cilantro, garnish with fresh leaves.


By day, Jennifer Steinhauer, aka Jenny, is the Los Angeles Bureau Chief for The New York Times. By night, she is an obsessive cook.
Jennifer Steinhauer
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A C. June 24, 2010
I'll have to compare your recipe with mine. Bravo! I made it from scratch with my students. Then we did it at catering Club and sold it for lunch to the entire school. One of the Punjabi teachers came and asked ME for my recipe as she had always used a bottled sauce.
This is a deeply complex and wonderful dish. YUM!
pauljoseph June 24, 2010
Curries made from freshly ground pastes Is always better. The flavors of a good, homemade paste is 100 % better than a very best pastes you buy from a super market. Try my GARAM MASALA recipe.
AppleAnnie June 21, 2010
Here is another wonderful and authentic butter chicken recipe and family story, Making butter chicken with Dad, from NPR Kitchen windows vhttp://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127853185
Tamio888 June 21, 2010

I am just beginning to explore curies. Can you wax wise on 'coconut milk', 'coconut cream', and coconut juice? In the US all we have that is not the sweetened cocktail additive is called coconut milk, usually from SE Asia. Do you use a thickened version of this in your cooking?
pauljoseph June 21, 2010
You can find the answer for coconut milk,Coconut, and coconut in this web site below. we use both thick and thin coconut milk .http://www.answers.com/topic/coconut-milk
AntoniaB June 20, 2010
coconut cream is inspired. You can also use shortening instead of butter - I would use both shortening and olive oil (the olive oil will add flavor).
Rhonda35 June 15, 2010
I will let you know when I return from vacation. :-)
coffeefoodwrite June 15, 2010
I wonder how this would be without the cream?......
pauljoseph June 15, 2010
Instead of Cream, Try thick Coconut Milk
Denise June 15, 2010
Butter Chicken, here I come. Now you have me perusing pauljoseph's recipes and craving Unnakkai while I should be busy elsewhere...
Jestei June 15, 2010
oh good. please comment on the other ones you try!
AntoniaJames June 15, 2010
Jenny, I really appreciate your ferreting out of these hidden jewels, and sharing your cook’s notes. I can totally relate to the grocery store scene, too, by the way, except that instead of ignoring my teenagers, I usually say something like, “Remind me when we get home to write a letter to the President of [name of store] and their Chief Operating Officer.” If I know someone on the board of the company, they’ll get a CC, too. But only if I know them personally. ;o)
Jestei June 15, 2010
it was really beyond!
drbabs June 16, 2010
It's because of people like you that grocery stores are changing their ways. The large chain store that I shop in NEVER puts tomatoes in the cold section.
monkeymom June 15, 2010
Hi there. When I think of butter chicken I think of masala sauce. But the 'shake and bake' imagery doesn't give that impression. Does this turn out saucy? Also, how do you think going with tomato sauce versus fresh tomato would work? Thanks!
pauljoseph June 15, 2010
If the gravy seems to be drying out add a little hot water before adding the cream. Fresh and juicy tomato is always better
pauljoseph June 15, 2010
If you want strong masala sauce marinate the chicken with 1 tsp coriander powder together with ginger, garlic and chili powder
monkeymom June 15, 2010
thanks pauljoseph! sounds delicious.
Jestei June 15, 2010
I think the author probably covers you but I would say that it is a bit saucy due to the not-small amount of butter and addition of cream at the end. however it is not swimming in sauce as is the case with some recipes, and i think tomato sauce, rather than a fresh tomato would make it perhaps a bit too much so. plus the sauteed tomato really adds to the overall flavor.
mrslarkin June 14, 2010
Yum. This with a squirt of Cholula and I think Sconeboy might actually eat it. Thanks for plucking out another winner for us, Jenny.
Jestei June 15, 2010
let me know how scone boy reacts.
mrslarkin June 20, 2010
Made this for dinner last night - with some substitutions: Used ras el hanout instead of garam masala, threw in a few cardamom pods, and a spoonful of plum chutney. (sorry, I am physically incapable of following a recipe exactly & didn't have time to make garam masala.) Served with cardamom basmati rice, to soak up the sauce. I loved it. Sconeboy, not so much. :-)
Jestei June 14, 2010
How does your recipe differ? Super curious.
Kelsey B. June 14, 2010
This is a recipe I wouldn't necessarily have tried and now I am dying to - thanks for ferreting it out! Yes, we have a similar relationship with chicken...
Jestei June 14, 2010
please tell me how it turns out!!
tslubner June 14, 2010
Jenny, you are so right about what can keep someone from cooking a recipe - an intimidating ingredient, unfamiliar method or utensil. Thank you for breaking this down into manageable portions for this not-so-inexperienced but time-pressed cook.
Jestei June 14, 2010
i give in to fear most often. but not always!
drbabs June 14, 2010
Once again, great writing (Chicken is like your family? So funny and true!) and thanks for digging this out for us.
Jestei June 14, 2010
its really good! i hope you try it.
drbabs June 14, 2010
I would have to make it with oil. (Oil chicken? Probably not.) Husband grew up keeping kosher and is grossed out by butter with meat.
pauljoseph June 15, 2010
without butter and fresh cream You can make Tomato chicken in coconut cream I will post the recipe soon
drbabs June 15, 2010
pauljoseph June 21, 2010
drababs you can try this recipe CORIANDER CHICKEN (Without Dairy Products ) from this site http://poornimastastytreats.blogspot.com/2009/05/coriander-chicken.html
Rhonda35 June 14, 2010
I love, love, love Butter Chicken! Can't wait to try this and see if it beats out my ol' stand-by recipe from Madhur Jaffrey.
Jestei June 15, 2010
my reply got weirdly injected above but i was wondering what jaffrey calls for?