Like most Westerners, Butter Chicken is my favourite Indian curry. Although they vary from bad to good to exceptional, I rate the best butter chicken dishes as the ones that are a bright, sunset orange, and creamy. I can’t stand butter chicken that doesn’t have cream or yoghurt in it and is more like a tomato sauce. To me, that’s not authentic butter chicken.
I always see recipes for butter chicken with reviews that say “Oh my god! So amazing!! Just like the butter chicken from my local takeaway!!”. Those people are either lying, or they have a terrible local Indian takeaway run by people who must not be Indian.
The essential ingredient in an authentic butter chicken is kasoori methi, or fenugreek leaves.
If you see a recipe that doesn’t have fenugreek leaves, don’t cook it. It also shouldn’t contain ingredients like paprika, and no Indian chef I have ever seen uses it. I once cooked a slow-cooked butter chicken that smelt DIVINE – exactly like the best Indian takeaway I’ve ever had. I was bitterly disappointed upon eating it though because it just tasted like a nice tomato simmer sauce made by Continental.
I think with this recipe I have finally cracked it. It’s a combination of 3 recipes, and I’ve tried to make it as simple as possible for a home cook. This is a very mild recipe so if you want it hotter, add more chillis or chilli powder (just be careful because if you add a lot of raw spice it won’t taste very good).
- 1 quantity of tandoori chicken (it can be cooked the day before)
- 2lbs ripe tomatoes, roughly diced (if you can’t get sweet tomatoes, use 1lb tomatoes and approx 14 oz can tomato puree)
- 1 onion, chopped
- 6-8 green cardamoms
- 2 blades of mace (use 1 tsp ground if you can’t find the blades)
- 1 tbsp chopped garlic*
- 1 tbsp chopped ginger*
- 2 oz raw unsalted cashew nuts, chopped (soaked overnight if possible)
- 2 oz butter + 1 tablespoon for cooking
- 3 green chillis, deseeded and chopped
- 1 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
- 1 tbsp dried fenugreek leaves, lightly crushed
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1/2 tsp tandoori colouring
- 1/2 tsp garam masala
- 2 tsp honey
- 1 cup cream
*You can also use 2 tablespoons of pre-blended ginger-garlic paste which you can buy at most Indian supermarkets.
Heat some oil and a tablespoon of butter (or use a big tablespoon of ghee) in a pan. Add the cardamom and mace and saute for 1 minute. Add the onion, garlic and tomatoes with a pinch of salt and saute over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Add the cashew nuts, ginger and green chillis, and continue to cook until the tomatoes break down and become pulpy. Stir it occasionally and make sure it doesn’t stick.
Cool the mixture slightly, then put it in a blender and blend until it resembles a loose, smooth puree.
**NEW Tip: Blog reader Emily noted that the final texture can be a little grainy. She tested a few things and recommends straining the mixture twice. It is probably easiest if you strain it once into a bowl straight out of the blender, discard what is left in the sieve, then strain it again directly into the pan. If you only want to strain it once, use either a muslin cloth or drum/fine sieve to strain it. Thanks, Emily for helping to improve the recipe!!
Add the 2 oz of butter to your pan, then strain the tomato mixture into the pan and discard what is left in the sieve. Add in the Kashmiri chilli powder, fenugreek leaves, and salt (you can season it to taste), and cook for about 15 minutes on medium heat.
If your gravy is too thick, add water to thin it – you can keep adding water until you get your desired consistency without affecting the flavour. It should be silky and loose.
Place your tandoori colouring powder in a small bowl with a tablespoon of water. Mix until the powder dissolves and you have nice red water. Add the mixture, a teaspoon at a time, to your butter chicken gravy until you reach your desired colour. Remember that it will lighten again when you add the cream, so if you want it nice and orange, make it just a bit too red at this stage.
Add the garam masala and honey and stir well to combine. At this point, I found it won’t taste very nice – the flavours need time to develop. After 15 minutes, taste and adjust seasonings, especially the sweetness – you can add more honey if you like. Simmer gently for 30 minutes and taste again. If you don’t want the texture of the fenugreek leaves in there, simply blend it again at this point.
Like most Indian and Asian dishes, balance is key. Don’t be put off if your butter chicken doesn’t taste perfect the first time, as it’s not as simple as just adding specific amounts of ingredients and getting a result that’s as good as the chef makes at your local takeaway. Things like the sweetness or sourness of your tomatoes play a big role, as well as how much chilli powder you put in, how much fenugreek, etc. The only thing you need to remember is that the flavours must have time to develop – either by simmering or by sitting overnight in the fridge. Raw spices like chilli powder and garam masala need time to cook on the heat, so don’t take it off the stove until you’re happy with the flavour.
Add the cream to finish, then add the tandoori chicken pieces and simmer gently for 5 minutes or until it’s heated through.
If you’re making the sauce in advance, you can always add the cream when you reheat the sauce (on the stovetop, not the microwave!).
Serve with garlic naan and rice sprinkled with black cumin (they go really well with the sauce). We also had some delicious cumin popadums that were amazing!