I never tried Indian food until my mid-20s in Lakeland, Florida. The menu at this hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant was a bit foreign to me but I was told to, “Just order the butter chicken.” Surprisingly, the smells coming out of the kitchen were head and shoulders better than I imagined. Once my food arrived my eyes were as big as saucers! The chicken was swimming in a boat of a fragrant, creamy, buttery, orange sauce. One bite and I became an Indian food fanatic. The flavor was full and the sauce was dreamy. The best part was sopping up the sauce with salty, garlicky, buttery naan. Hungry yet? Instead of high-tailing over to your nearest Indian restaurant, just stay put. I’m sharing with you exactly how to make butter chicken from scratch!
What Is Butter Chicken?
Butter chicken is a gateway to Indian food. Up there with tikka masala (which is very similar, but attributed to the British). Butter chicken’s subtle spice level makes it approachable for newbies. It’s traditionally made with leftover, cooked tandoori chicken. You’ll also see different variations from home cooks using either cooked chicken or raw chicken. The chicken is then cut into pieces and finished off in a smooth and slightly sweet sauce made with butter, tomatoes, spices, and cream.
How Was Butter Chicken Invented?
The history is surprisingly short. It was created in the ’50s in a restaurant named Moti Mahal in Delhi, the capital of India. The restaurant owner, Kundan Lal Gurjal and his cooks always had leftover tandoori chicken that needed to be used up. So they would chop up unsold, cooked tandoori chicken and simmer it in leftover marinades with butter and tomatoes. The dish blew up and became a huge success. Now butter chicken is one of the most popular dishes in the world!
Are Butter Chicken and Tikka Masala the Same?
This is a question that often comes up because the recipes you see may have a lot of overlap. Some recipes online may even be identical. Although there’s overlap, butter chicken and tikka masala are two different dishes. One difference is butter chicken is traditionally attributed to India while chicken tikka masala is credited to England. After searching for hours to find other differences, I just couldn’t find one solid answer to my question. So, I decided to email someone I knew would have the answer.
It was a long shot emailing Chai Pani Restaurant Group. They’re a pretty big deal in the South with executive chef and founder Meherwan Irani having received a whopping FOUR James Beard nominations. The restaurant group’s handful of restaurants have garnered national attention in Asheville, NC and Atlanta, GA. Chai Pani is their flagship Indian restaurant in Asheville serving up Indian street food. They had to have the answer to my question. I knew my email would probably not be on their radar, but I sent my question anyway. To my surprise, I was put in touch with Meherwan Irani. Crazy, right?!
I got a call from Meherwan where he so generously explained the difference between chicken tikka masala and butter chicken. From a recipe standpoint, he explained the addition of yogurt in tikka masala sauce is the main difference you can bet on. There are a few other differences, like tikka masala sauce having similarities to a tomato gravy. More chunky, tart, and less sweet. As far as butter chicken, there’s no addition of yogurt in the sauce. It’s also sweeter, smoother, and more luscious than tikka masala sauce. At Meherwan’s restaurant, Chai Pani, they sweeten their butter chicken with jaggery, which is an unrefined sugar. They also only serve butter chicken, not tikka masala, because they “want to keep it OG,” Meherwan says.
It’s not easy finding the difference in chicken tikka masala and butter chicken on the Internet. I hope Meherwan’s answer has helped clear the air if you’ve been on a serious hunt to find the difference. I’m so grateful he carved time out of his busy day to share his insight with me and you! At the bottom of this article, I’ve included links to their amazing restaurants if you’re ever passing through.
Can Butter Chicken Be Made Ahead Of Time?
Why, yes! Since butter chicken was traditionally invented with leftover cooked chicken, the whole concept is making things ahead of time (i.e. the chicken). This is one of those meals you can throw together on a weeknight if you have enough leftover chicken. With that said, you can always start from scratch if you don’t have leftovers.
Leftover Cooked Chicken OR Raw Chicken?
There’s no right or wrong way when it comes to the chicken in this recipe. I’ve used raw chicken plenty of times, but it does take longer because the chicken needs to marinate for several hours, and overnight for best results.
One easy and yummy way to make butter chicken is to use leftover chicken from my chicken adobo tacos recipe. You may be thinking, “But isn’t that a Mexican-ish marinade?” Yes, but it doesn’t matter! In my opinion, the concept of butter chicken is using leftover chicken. So if I have leftover cooked chicken adobo you bet I’m using it, sister.
Here’s another example if you need it. The other day I marinated a bunch of chicken for my chicken adobo tacos. It was way too much chicken so I only cooked half of it and put the leftover raw chicken in the fridge to keep marinating. Leaving chicken in a marinade for a few days in the fridge isn’t gonna kill anyone. When I decided to make butter chicken one night I grilled my raw chicken adobo and threw it in the recipe. I made it work for me, honey.
Like I said in the beginning, there’s no right or wrong way to do the chicken. The concept is simple: use whatever chicken you have leftover and if you don’t have any just start from raw chicken. I’ve included a marinade in the recipe below if you’re using unmarinated, raw chicken.
Make the Sauce in Advance (if you want)
The sauce can be made ahead of time and refrigerated for up to 3 days. This would be something easy to meal prep. Even if you have a few extra minutes to spare at night after the kids are in bed, make the sauce.
Pro tip: You can make your life easier with these plastic restaurant containers I own. They’re stackable and come in three different sizes. Perfect for meal prepping and storage!
What Do I Need To Make Butter Chicken?
This recipe does require a few spices you may not have in your pantry. The good thing is they’re probably at your local grocery store. I shop at Publix and Ingles most days and I was able to find all the spices in this recipe. Here’s a list of the spices in this recipe:
- ground cinnamon
- smoked paprika
- garam masala
- ground coriander
- ground cardomom
You’ll want to make a smooth sauce so a blender or food processor is needed. A blender will hold more so you’ll blend it all at one time. A food processor will work, but you may need to puree the sauce in several batches. If you’re looking for a great blender, check out my best blenders here.
You may be wondering what you eat butter chicken with, right? I like my butter chicken over jasmine or basmati rice. If you want to get really authentic, you can make some buttered, garlic naan to dip into the sauce. The naan takes it to a whole new level. If you want an easy recipe for naan, you can click here for Food & Wine’s recipe.
Why Should I Make Butter Chicken?
It’s something you’ve probably never had before, and it’s always fun to try new things. I never knew I’d like Indian food until I tried butter chicken. The sauce sends it right over the top with its tangy, spiced, sweet, buttery goodness. It’s so simple and delicious and makes you feel like you know how to cook Indian food, even though you probably have no clue. But if you make this recipe, at least you can say you can cook a mean butter chicken. Try it, y’all!
Butter Chicken Recipe
For the Chicken Marinade
2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 inch piece ginger, minced
2 tsp salt
1/2 c buttermilk
For the Sauce
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1 large onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 inch piece ginger, minced
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp turmeric
1 Tbsp smoked paprika
1 1/2 Tbsp garam masala
1/2 tsp coriander
1/4 tsp cardomom
1 Tbsp salt
1 tube tomato paste
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1 (35 oz) can whole peeled tomatoes
1/3 c heavy cream
1/2 stick unsalted butter
For the Marinade
On a sheet pan lined with parchment paper or foil, season chicken thighs generously with salt on both sides and set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together garlic, ginger, salt, and buttermilk. Add chicken and move around to coat each piece. I use tongs but you could always use your hands to make sure every piece is coated with the marinade.
Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for 2 hours, or overnight (for best flavor).
Cooking the Chicken
*See recipe notes below
Remove chicken from fridge 30 minutes before cooking.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 Tbsp of canola or vegetable oil to the pan and swirl to coat. Place 1/2 of the chicken in hot pan skin side down (there’s no skin on the chicken but you know what I mean). Don’t overcrowd the pan. You will have to work in several batches. Let cook, undisturbed, until the edges begin to look cooked (you’ll notice them starting to turn white). Use a sturdy spatula to flip chicken thighs. Cook until internal temperature reads 160 degrees.
Remove chicken from pan to cutting board and let sit for at least 10 minutes. Use a sharp knife to cut chicken into chunks. Cover with a sheet of foil and set aside.
For the Sauce
In a large sauce pan or dutch oven (don’t use a cast iron skillet), melt butter over medium high heat. Add onions, garlic, and ginger and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add all the spices and salt and cook for a minute or two, stirring frequently. Add tomato paste and cook for a minute, stirring frequently.
Add whole peeled tomatoes and stir. Using the edge of the spoon, gently break up the tomatoes (they may squirt everywhere) until they’re chunky. Cover the saucepan or dutch oven with a lid and turn the heat down to low. Let simmer for 15 minutes.
Remove pan from the heat and carefully ladle sauce into a blender. Blend until smooth. Return sauce to saucepan or dutch oven and heat over medium-low heat. Add heavy cream and butter. Stir until butter is melted. Add chunks of chicken to sauce and stir to coat. Let everything warm up for a few minutes in the pan. Season with more salt if needed.
Serve over rice and garnish with cilantro. Serve with buttered, garlic naan if you want to take it to the next level.
- If you’re using leftover chicken, disregard the chicken marinade steps
- Plain yogurt can be substituted for buttermilk
- Garlic paste can be substituted for garlic
- You can also substitute ginger paste for ginger
- To cook chicken, you can grill it or cook it in a skillet. I’ve only grilled once in my life so I’m not the one to teach grilling just yet. If you’re comfortable with grilling, go for it. You’ll get a nice, smoky flavor and some charred bits. Yum!
- Don’t use a cast iron pan. The metal reacts with acidic foods (the tomatoes) and can impart a weird, metallic taste into your food.
- If you can’t find a tube of tomato paste you can use a small (4 or 5 oz) can of tomato paste
- Any sweetener can be substituted for the brown sugar. I’ve used sorghum before. You could also use cane syrup, honey, molasses, etc.
- Butter chicken is delicious served over basmati rice.
- You can also serve with a piece of garlic butter naan using this recipe I found from Food & Wine.
Chai Pani Restaurant Group is based out of Asheville, NC and led by Meherwan Irani and his wife, Molly. They’re the geniuses behind a handful of uber successful restaurants in Asheville and Atlanta. Here’s a list of their restaurants if you’re ever passing through these areas:
- Chai Pani in Asheville, NC
- MG Road Bar & Lounge in Asheville, NC
- Buxton Hall Barbecue in Asheville, NC
- Botiwalla in Atlanta, GA
- Chai Pani in Decatur, GA
Click here for the garlic naan recipe from Food & Wine.
If you’re looking for a high-quality blender, click here to read about my favorite blenders.