How to cook restaurant-style butter chicken?
November 28, 2008 3:55 PM   Subscribe

How do you cook butter chicken like in Indian restaurants?

Butter chicken tends to vary a bit between restaurants, but the one I'm after has a reddish-orange color, a nice thick consistency, and a sweet, smooth flavor that I haven't been able to replicate.

The way I'm making curry now is starting with onions, garlic, ginger, various spices (cumin, coriander, turmeric, etc.), then making a sauce with tomatoes and adding garam masala and cream at the end. It tastes good, but the flavor isn't anything like butter chicken, and the color is completely off - my curries tend to be medium to light brown most of the time.

I'm not so interested in how to cook the actual chicken; it's the sauce I'm after - what's the secret? How do they get it so orange, and where does the sweetness come from? Can anyone point me to a good recipe or share your tips? Thanks!
posted by pravit to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I should also mention I've tried many random butter chicken recipes from the net and they usually don't come anywhere close to restaurant-style butter chicken.
posted by pravit at 3:58 PM on November 28, 2008

You can now buy spice kits with recipes prepared by real Indian chefs on ebay, every dish is there. Probably your best bet if you want authenticity at home.
posted by fire&wings at 4:03 PM on November 28, 2008

Your recipe sounds pretty good to me! Are you starting with tandoori chicken?
The color in restaurants is usually through the addition of red food coloring. I don't think you can replicate it without that.
posted by peacheater at 4:07 PM on November 28, 2008

The sweetness comes from caramelized onions as well as tomatoes and/or a little sugar.
posted by peacheater at 4:19 PM on November 28, 2008

Are you using ghee or just regular butter? It makes a huge difference in my own experience. Also, I've found that starting with a real (or rather, homemade) tandoori, cooked with a hot broiler and using a yogurt/tomato/saffron/garam masala sauce and a several hour (or overnight) marinade, works best.
posted by luriete at 4:39 PM on November 28, 2008

The bright orange is definitely synthetic -- many a masi has made me her own butter chicken and it is usually brownish like yours.
posted by randomstriker at 4:47 PM on November 28, 2008

Have you tried cardomom? And a LOT of butter. Real butter.
posted by John of Michigan at 5:22 PM on November 28, 2008

I don't know about this dish specifically, but I have read that a major flavor difference is that most non-Indian cooks don't know to slice the onions really thin and fry them in the oil until they turn dark brown. It sounds like you have other flavor elements missing or not quite right still, but that might be one of them. I also am baffled by the differences between restaurant Indian foods that I love and the results of the recipes I've tried. I would drop you a link to the cooking blog that mentions the onions, but it looks like it's been hacked.
posted by Tehanu at 5:46 PM on November 28, 2008

Yeah, you need ghee.
posted by softsantear at 6:00 PM on November 28, 2008

Yeah if you're not using ghee, definitely do that.
posted by Tehanu at 6:12 PM on November 28, 2008

you need ground cashews; they provide thickening, richness, and the sweetness you can't place.
posted by heeeraldo at 10:34 PM on November 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Nthing, ghee, and the marinade as key elements. The coulour is added not natural usually.
posted by Wilder at 1:45 AM on November 29, 2008

a sweet, smooth flavor that I haven't been able to replicate

possibly because no recipe that you've ever seen published would dare to include the sheer quantity of butter that a good Indian cook will use when they know you can't see what they're up to.

Restaurant food in general, and Indian restaurant food in particular, contains mind boggling amounts of fat, because fat tastes good.
posted by flabdablet at 5:29 AM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Restaurant food in general, and Indian restaurant food in particular, contains mind boggling amounts of fat, because fat tastes good.

That reminds me of this recipe. It calls for 500 grams of butter (17.6 oz) for 2.2 kg of chicken (~4.4 lbs). The recipe is intended to feed 10 people, but over a pound of butter in one dish, which also includes sour cream and yogurt is an intimidating amount of fat to think about eating. Of course, now that I've reminded myself of this recipe, and now that I finally have some fenugreek leaves, I may have to try making it this week.
posted by andeluria at 11:58 AM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

The key to getting the sauce/curry/gravy right, as someone pointed out in the thread, lies in the onions. Yes, you have to caramelize the onions, but that's just the half of it. Once you have the onion a deep golden brown, add your "masalas" and the tomatoes and once the onions and tomatoes have formed a slightly homogeneous slush with the tomatoes starting to lose their moisture, you take the mix and blend/puree it a food processor to a thick paste like consistency.

Once that's done, you can put the paste back in your utensil and resume cooking as normal, adding the chicken (if you used grilled or tandoori chicken instead of raw, the taste will be even better and you'll notice that the flavor permeates the meat to a greater extent. ) pieces etc.

As for the bright orange color and the sweetness, they come from a spice called "deghi mirch" and full fat cream respectively... restaurants never use actual butter....The deghi mirch is basically a kind of a pseudo paprika powder (and is DIFFERENT from the normal chilli powder) that endows the dish with a bright red color and added flavor.....the amount you need to use would depend on the potency of the brand you buy and the amount of heat you normally enjoy....and do remember that if you use deghi mirch, then adjust the amount of chilli powder that you use in the normal spice mix accordingly.

Once you notice that the curry has taken a dark red color and is almost ready, add the cream... again the amount will depend on your taste....the cream will reduce the spiciness of the curry and turn in into the orange that you are looking for. If you want a little variation, you can add a 3 to 4 pinches of dried "kasuri methi" leaves along with the cream, right at the end, before a final simmer. The aroma and flavor is unbelievable..
posted by sk381 at 9:49 PM on November 29, 2008 [13 favorites]

Nthing the suggestion about caramelizing the onions - I find this is one of those things that isn't really spelled out though. 'Brown the onions' has a different meaning to western cooks. In Indian food you need to do it *really* slowly - do it on a low heat and make it take half an hour or more.

I don't know if it applies to Butter Chicken, but I had a eureka moment following an Indian recipe that directed to add jaggery (a kind of sugar - it does have a distinctive taste but maybe you could just use dark brown sugar instead if you can't find it?) and tamarind paste at the end to taste. As you describe, all my curries tasted good but vaguely inauthentic and just not as flavourful as restaurant food until then. When I added these suddenly it tasted *right*. So maybe give that a go? Start with teaspoon-ish amounts (you'll probably need a fair bit more) and keep going til it's tasty and balanced.
posted by Emilyisnow at 5:22 AM on November 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is more of a general suggestion than a response to your specific inquiry, but I have found Julie Sahni's cookbooks to be the hands-down best Indian cookbooks I've ever used. She gives lots of information on the various spices, tools, and techniques that go into making authentic Indian food and every single thing I've made from her recipes has been fantastic. Her Classic Indian Cooking includes a recipe for butter chicken and yes, it does include a mind-boggling amount of fat (I've never made it because she insists you make Tandoori chicken first and I've simply never had the energy).
posted by fuzzbean at 10:47 AM on November 30, 2008

I cook this one fairly regularly. I don't know if it has the "restaurant-style" you want, but it tastes excellent.
posted by knapah at 7:12 PM on November 30, 2008

After carmelizing the onions (I use sweet yellow onions) and cooking the chicken with all the spices, I add a boatload of butter and a can of tomato sauce along with some cream. This always gives me that orangey color--I have never heard of adding food coloring and I doubt restaurants would actually bother to do this. Maybe try using a can of tomato sauce along with your diced tomatoes? As I think others have said, the sweetness comes from carmelizing the onions as well as the butter.
posted by Polychrome at 7:31 AM on December 1, 2008

Another trick to use is to purée the onions instead of slicing them and then caramelize the purée. Yum...
posted by Arthur Dent at 10:59 AM on December 1, 2008

I know it's been a long time, but as a followup, here's what helped me get closer to the restaurant flavor and color:

1) Slicing the onions very thinly and cooking them until caramelized. I'm sure pureeing would help even more, but I'm too lazy to do this.
2) Using paprika! I couldn't find deghi mirch, unfortunately, but using paprika gives my curry a really strong red color which becomes that intense orange color once I mix in yogurt or cream. It also gives a bit of sweetness, I think.
3) Not using coriander powder or garam masala. Garam masala in particular tends to turn my curry from red to dark brown even when used in small amounts.
4) To date, I haven't been able to bring myself to use both full fat yogurt AND heavy cream in the same dish, but I have a feeling this would get closer to the restaurant flavor, so I'm going to have to try it at some point. The ultimate would be to use full fat yogurt, heavy cream, AND butter!
5) Sanjeev Kapoor's butter chicken recipe actually calls for using a bit of honey. Haven't tried it yet, but it sounds interesting.
posted by pravit at 9:42 PM on May 8, 2009

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