murgh makhani (butter chicken)

Butter chicken is a pretty common offering at Indian restaurants, and is a good way to ease into Indian food if you haven’t tried much of it yet – it is leftover tandoori chicken in a luxuriously creamy and spicy tomato sauce. The name is a bit deceptive, and makes it sound like a pretty boring meal of chicken cooked in plain butter. A lot more than butter goes into the sauce, but for some reason it is named after the butter swirled in at the very end, which adds an extra bit of creaminess to the sauce.

Butter chicken isn’t difficult, but it is time-consuming, since you need to first make tandoori chicken. Tandoori chicken is traditionally cooked in a tandoor, a clay oven that will get as hot as 900 degrees F. Most recipes for the home cook simply instruct you to heat the oven to its highest setting (generally around 500F). The recipe I ended up using for the tandoori chicken recommended baking it at a much lower temperature – the justification for this was that you can’t really recreate tandoori chicken at home, and cooking it at 500 degrees ends up drying the chicken out, so why not just admit the inadequacies of your oven and enjoy tender chicken instead? I was pleased with the results; I’ve had butter chicken from restaurants and that I have made myself with dried-out chicken. Baking the chicken at a lower temperature solved that problem, as the chicken stayed nice and tender, though it did seem a little less authentic.

I broke the recipe down a bit by baking the tandoori chicken the night before I planned to eat it, and then completed the rest of the recipe the next night. In any case, this is an ideal weekend cooking project, as it makes a lot of food, so you can eat the leftovers for several days. I served this with a gingered carrots and peas recipe from another Indian cookbook I have – I liked the vegetables, but I don’t think I was blown away by them enough to post here. I do recommend the green beans with onion paste that I posted months ago – as with butter chicken, the flavors are way more complicated than the title suggests, and the green beans by no means taste purely of onion. And, of course, you should also serve with a big pot of fluffy basmati rice. The only thing that was lacking was naan to mop up the extra sauce, and I should say that the sauce was really exquisite – I scraped every last bit of it up with my fork.

Murgh Makhani

In the sauce portion of the recipe, if you aren’t able to grind spices, feel free to just start with ground cumin and coriander – I bought a cheap coffee bean grinder ages ago to use as a spice grinder, but then ended up using it as a coffee grinder, and so now I have no way to grind spices. Someday I will remedy this by buying a nice coffee grinder. I just added the ground cumin and coriander to the heated butter with the cinnamon stick and cloves. Some of the spices (namely, the fenugreek leaves) may be hard to find in conventional Western grocery stores, so you should try to find a local Asian grocery (where, as an added bonus, spices will also be a lot cheaper). If you can’t find a store that carries these spices, you can also order online. Kalustyan’s, where I go for all my spices (and if you are in the NYC area, you should definitely check it out in person as it is amazing), is a good option; they have just about any kind of spice you could possibly want, and they ship to all of the U.S. If you do find a local store, you may see fenugreek seeds, fenugreek leaves, and ground fenugreek. Ground fenugreek comes from the seeds, which have a different flavor profile than the leaves – make sure you buy the leaves. The amount of cayenne I used below yielded a medium-spicy sauce. You can add more or less, depending on your tastes.

Serves 6-8


For the tandoori chicken:

2 tablespoons olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon garam masala
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 cup plain whole milk yogurt
1/4 cup lime juice (about 2 limes)
2 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 – 3 pounds bone-in chicken pieces (thighs, legs – I recommend using all dark meat, as it is less likely to dry out)

For the murgh makhani:

5 tablespoons butter, divided
2 medium-sized cinnamon sticks
4 whole cloves
2 teaspoons cumin, toasted and ground
2 teaspoons coriander, toasted and ground (see note above on this and the cumin)
1 28 oz. can tomato puree
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1 batch tandoori chicken
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons dried fenugreek leaves
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons garam masala
Salt to taste


For the tandoori chicken:

In a small skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add garam masala, cumin, and chili powder and cook for another 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, and put half of the garlic mixture into a medium bowl; stir in yogurt and 2 tablespoons of the lime juice. Set aside. In a large bowl, combine the rest of the garlic mixture, the rest of the lime juice, and the salt.

Using a sharp knife, make 2 or 3 slashes into the skin of each piece of chicken – try not to cut into the chicken itself. Place the chicken in the large bowl, and rub the spice mixture into and underneath the skin of the chicken. Let the chicken sit at room temperature for half an hour.

Place an oven rack in the upper-middle position and preheat over to 325 F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil (do not skip this step – the yogurt will end up charred and stuck to the pan otherwise!). Pour yogurt mixture over chicken and toss until each piece is well-coated. Place chicken pieces, scored side down, onto baking sheet; discard extra yogurt mixture. Roast chicken for 25 minutes.

Remove chicken from oven and heat the broiler on high. Return the chicken to the oven, scored side up, and broil until chicken is charred in spots and cooked through, about 10-15 minutes. Remove chicken from oven and allow to cool. At this point, if you are making the tandoori chicken ahead of time, you can refrigerate it. Otherwise, let the chicken cool until you can touch it, then remove the skin and cut into bite-size pieces. Discard the skin and bones. Now you are ready to move on to the sauce.

For the murgh makhani:

Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a Dutch oven or large saucepan over medium heat. Add the cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, and ground cumin and coriander, and cook for a minute, stirring constantly, until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, and cayenne – stand back and look away at this part, as the oil will splatter. Bring the sauce to a simmer, then lower heat to medium low and simmer for 10-15 minutes, until sauce begins to thicken.

Add the chicken, honey, fenugreek leaves, and cream and simmer for another 10-15 minutes. Add the garam masala and salt, stir to combine, and remove from heat. Discard the whole spices (cinnamon sticks and cloves), or leave them in if you wish. Stir in the last tablespoon of butter, and serve over basmati rice. Enjoy!

Tandoori Chicken adapted from The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook. Sauce adapted from Closet Cooking


One Comment on “murgh makhani (butter chicken)”

  1. Kim says:

    Ooooh that looks delicious! Been looking for a good home friendly tandoori chicken recipe for a while, so will be giving this a try!

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