Indian Butter Chicken (Murgh Makhani) features tender spiced chicken that’s marinated in yogurt and grilled, and then served in an aromatic spiced tomato-based sauce that’s velvety smooth and rich with cream and butter.
I have to share a secret…
This is my very favorite meal in the whole world. (And I’m excited because I only make it two or three times a year…after all it is butter chicken!)
I’ll admit this recipe may look intimidating at first glance because of the long ingredient list and drawn out instructions. But take a deeper look…a lot of the ingredients are probably things you already have in your fridge or pantry, and not including marinating the chicken, this dish only takes about two hours to prepare.
Think about it this way: you’re only two hours away from heaven. And on a Sunday afternoon, what could be better than the smell of Indian spices filling the house?
I invite you all to try my favorite dish and let me know how you like it. By the way, I’d love to hear what your favorite meal is!
Indian Butter Chicken and Where it Comes From
Murgh makhani (also known as butter chicken) is an Indian dish of chicken that’s marinated in a spiced yogurt mixture and typically cooked in a tandoor, which is a traditional clay oven. For us cooks at home, the chicken can be grilled or cooked in a hot oven. Once cooked, the chicken is combined with a richly-spiced tomato-based cream sauce that’s made even more luxuriously velvety with the addition of butter.
According to Wikipedia, chicken makhani was invented in the 1950s by three Indian restauranteurs in Delhi: Kundan Lal Jaggi, Kundan Lal Gujral and Thakur Dass. The story goes that they came up with the recipe by combining leftover chicken with a creamy spiced tomato gravy that was rich with butter.
What Ingredients are in Indian Butter Chicken (Makhani) Sauce?
In addition to butter, cream, onion, garlic, ginger, and tomato, makhani gravy has quite a few spices. It typically contains a spice mix called garam masala that’s a blend of the following: cloves, coriander, cumin, bay leaves, black and/or white pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and mace. I’ve occasionally seen variations that include star anise and/or fennel as well.
Along with garam masala spice mix, butter chicken usually has fenugreek (which has a pleasant almost caramelized sugar aroma) and turmeric (which adds color). Chili powder can also be added. You can customize your spice blend by adding more of any spice you like (I usually add a bit more cumin, coriander, and cinnamon).
How to Make Indian Butter Chicken
If you’ve never made butter chicken before, you’ll be pleased at how easy it is to make! For butter chicken, the chicken and gravy are cooked separately.
The thing to keep in mind when you want to make butter chicken is that the chicken needs to marinate in the fridge at least two hours before cooking (but overnight is better, and up to two days is fine). After being marinated, the chicken is cooked in a traditional clay oven called a tandoor, but at home, I either grill it or cook it in the oven (425F for about 12 minutes or so; remember, chicken is fully cooked when there’s no longer any pink inside).
Don’t rush the marinade; this is what lends not only flavor to the chicken, but helps tenderize the meat.
Onion, garlic, ginger, and jalapeno are cooked in oil, and then tomato products (like diced or crushed tomatoes, and tomato paste) are added along with a cooking liquid (like water or chicken stock). The spices are added and the mixture cooks a bit so the flavors can blend.
After a while, the gravy is blended until smooth, golden raisins are added for bursts of sweetness to help balance the spice, and then the cooked chicken is added. The dish is finished with butter and cream and typically served with basmati rice. The sauce should be thick enough on its own without the need to add flour of any kind.
Difference Between Indian Butter Chicken and Chicken Tikka Masala
The first difference is their place of origin; chicken mahkani is from India, but according to Tasting Table, chicken tikka masala is a British invention from the 1960s. Chicken makhani has butter, which chicken tikka masala usually doesn’t have, and makhani has more cream as well. Tikka masala is more heavily spiced.
I’m not sure if either of these are authentic differences, but I have personally noticed a couple of other differences at restaurants. Mahkani usually comes with golden raisins in the gravy, and tikka masala usually comes with sautéed bell peppers in the gravy.
Other Indian Recipe Inspiration:
- Dal Makhani (Indian Butter Lentils) from An Edible Mosaic
- Homemade Naan Bread from Budget Bytes
- Indian Rice Pilaf (Pulao) from Indiaphile
- Indian-Spiced Chickpea Curry (Chana Masala) from An Edible Mosaic
- 5 teaspoons garam masala
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
- ½ teaspoon ground fenugreek
- ½ cup (115 g) plain yogurt
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 3 cloves garlic, grated or crushed
- 5 teaspoons Spice Mix
- 1½ to 2 lbs (680 to 910 g) boneless, skinless chicken breast or thighs, cut into large bite-sized pieces
- 2 tablespoons light olive oil or avocado oil
- 2 medium-large onions, chopped
- 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced (optional)
- 4 cloves garlic, grated or crushed
- 1 tablespoon fresh-grated ginger
- 1 tablespoon sugar (I like to use coconut sugar)
- 5 teaspoons Spice Mix
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons hot sauce (more or less to taste)
- 1 (14.5 oz/411 g) can diced tomatoes, undrained
- ½ cup (135 g) tomato paste
- 4 cups (950 ml) chicken stock
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ cup (80 g) golden raisins (sultanas)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ½ cup (120 ml) heavy cream
- ¼ cup chopped minced fresh parsley or cilantro, plus more for garnish if desired (optional)
- Prepared basmati rice or prepared cauliflower rice
- For the spice mix, combine all ingredients in a small bowl.
- For the chicken, combine all ingredients in a large bowl; cover it and marinade in the fridge for at least 2 hours (or up to 2 days).
- For the sauce, heat the oil in a 5-quart pot over medium heat; add the onion and jalapeno and cook until softened, but not browned, about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and ginger and cook another 30 seconds, then add the Spice Mix and lemon juice and cook 30 seconds more. Add the hot sauce and tomatoes and cook 5 minutes, then add the tomato paste and chicken stock.
- Bring to a boil, then cover the pot and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally; cool slightly.
- Puree the sauce until completely smooth using an immersion blender or in batches using a regular blender.
- Return the gravy to the pan and add the bay leaf and raisins. Bring to a boil, then cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the butter until melted, then turn off the heat. Stir in the cream (don’t let it come up to a boil again).
- While the sauce is cooking, you can cook the chicken. The chicken can be skewered and grilled, cooked in a broiler, or cooked in a very hot oven until it’s no longer pink.
- Add the parsley (or cilantro) and the chicken to the sauce. Taste and adjust the seasonings as desired (you may want to add more salt, sugar, spices, hot sauce, lemon juice, etc.)
- Serve with prepared basmati rice or prepared cauliflower rice.
Update (May 16, 2018): I made this dish again and perfected the recipe and snapped a few pictures, so I decided to update both the recipe and the photos in this post. As a point of comparison to show how much my photography has evolved, I kept one of my original photos (below).