When you ask an average North American what they think of when you mention Indian food, quite a few will probably list butter chicken within their top three dishes. Creamy, slightly sweet, tangy, and undeniably comforting, butter chicken is the all-star of Indian curries. For many, it’s a gateway to Indian cuisine, as it’s full of familiar flavors that come together in an incredible new dish with explosive flavor.
Butter chicken is actually a much more modern dish than you may think. According to Menu magazine, butter chicken was first developed in the 1950s by three Punjabi restaurateurs working for the Moti Mahal restaurant in New Delhi, India. Since then, the tomato-based curry known as butter chicken has become a staple dish on the menu of Indian restaurants around the world.
Today, we’re here to teach you how to make this Indian restaurant classic a part of your home-cooked kitchen repertoire, with the easiest butter chicken recipe you can imagine.
Gather your ingredients for easy butter chicken
If you’ve shied away from making butter chicken at home because you thought it was complicated, this easy recipe is going to change your mind! All you need is a big pan, a few common spices, some simple ingredients, and you’re on your way to delicious homemade butter chicken.
Our butter chicken needs mostly common pantry ingredients to come together. Though the ingredient list seems long, you likely have all of this on hand! For spices, you will need turmeric, garam masala, cumin, and cinnamon. For a small boost of spice, you will use either chili powder or minced jalapeño pepper. Lemon juice, garlic, and ginger round out the seasonings. While you’re in the pantry, grab some chicken stock, oil, and tomato paste or canned crushed tomatoes. You can also substitute raw tomatoes if you don’t have the paste or canned versions.
For fresh ingredients, you will need one onion, full-fat Greek yogurt, cream, butter, and chicken. You may also incorporate chopped fresh cilantro at the end of the cooking process if you wish, though it’s understandable if you’re amongst the group that doesn’t care for cilantro. Traditionally speaking, butter chicken requires you to cook the chicken in a tandoor oven first, but we take a shortcut by using fresh chicken. As for the cut of meat, either chicken thighs or breasts will work. Thighs are more traditional and have a stronger flavor, but will need a bit longer to cook than breasts.
Prepare your ingredients for butter chicken
To make our easy butter chicken recipe even easier, we recommend you get all the dicing out of the way first. First, you’ll need to cut your chicken into 1-inch cubes. The best way to do this is to spread the chicken breasts or thighs on your cutting board and cut them into 1-inch wide strips lengthwise. Once that’s done, cut those strips into 1-inch sections to make cubes.
Once you have cubed the chicken, set it aside and take a minute to wash your hands. Then, mince the garlic and grate the ginger. If using fresh tomatoes, dice them into small pieces. Finely chop your cilantro in you plan to use it.
Marinate your butter chicken
The first step to making easy butter chicken that tastes like the real Indian restaurant deal is to marinate the chicken. Don’t fool yourself into saving that extra half hour by buying some store-bought marinade. Making your own is an easy task that can boost the flavor of your butter chicken to professional restaurant levels.
For the marinade, you’ll need full-fat Greek yogurt, lemon juice, turmeric, garam masala, and cumin. If you don’t have that specific type of yogurt on hand, you can use any natural, plain yogurt you can procure. However, keep in mind that the chicken flavor will be less rich and the sauce a bit more watery if you use a looser yogurt than the Greek version.
To make the marinade, thoroughly combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. Add the chicken and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and let the chicken marinate for at least 30 minutes.
Sauté onions for your butter chicken
When your chicken is marinating, begin to saute your other ingredients. Choose a large, heavy-bottomed pan like a Dutch oven or sturdy stockpot and set it to medium heat, then combine oil and butter in the pan. Using both is necessary because the butter adds a richer, sweeter flavor to the butter chicken, while oil raises the smoke point of your mixture and keeps the kitchen from becoming overly smoky itself. Add your minced onion to the oil and butter and saute it changes color, about 5 minutes.
When your onion has become translucent, add ginger, garlic, and ½ a tablespoon of ground cumin. Mix well to ensure the onion is fully coated in the seasonings. If you are using ground cayenne powder as the source of heat in this dish, add it to the pan at this stage.
Let the seasoned onions cook in the pan for an additional two minutes, stirring them often to ensure they don’t burn.
Make tomato sauce base for butter chicken
The other crucial part of making butter chicken is the tomato sauce base. You wouldn’t necessarily know it from the first taste, but tomatoes are an important component of authentic butter chicken. They provide the acidity and depth of flavor that makes this dish so special.
We recommend using canned crushed tomatoes in this dish. If you don’t have canned tomatoes, tomato paste will work as well. Fresh tomatoes will work in a pinch, but their quality and water levels vary and can greatly impact the flavor and consistency of the final dish. To ensure your butter chicken has just the right texture, use crushed tomatoes and you’ll be golden.
To make the tomato sauce, turn the heat down to low. Add the tomatoes and a bit of ground cinnamon to the pan along with the sauteed onions. If you chose to use diced fresh jalapeño peppers instead of ground cayenne powder, add the peppers to the pan at this stage.
Cook, stirring often, until the tomatoes lose their raw taste, about 5 minutes.
Add the butter chicken and marinade to the pan
Now that your tomato sauce is cooked and all the flavors have blended together, it’s time to add the chicken. Pour the entire contents of the chicken marinade bowl into the pan. Mix well to combine. Increase the heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes. This will help to seal the flavors into the chicken.
You should have a relatively dry mix of chicken, yogurt, and seasonings at this point. After the initial cooking, add the chicken stock to the pan. This will thin the consistency of the sauce considerably. Bring mixture to a boil, turn the heat to low, and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
Round out your butter chicken with cream and cilantro
To finish cooking this easy butter chicken, we’re missing just two ingredients: cream and the optional fresh cilantro.
Add the whole whipping cream to the butter chicken pan. Please note that for best results, you really do need to bite the bullet and go for full-fat cream. Making restaurant-worthy food at home usually means a bit more cream and butter than home cooks normally use. The full-fat whipping cream is what gives butter chicken its sweet flavor and creamy, velvety sauce. Using dairy with less fat, like half-and-half, just won’t yield the same results.
Once the cream has been added, continue cooking the butter chicken for an additional 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add in the majority of your chopped fresh cilantro, if you are using it. Mix well to combine.
Serve butter chicken with rice
Congratulations! You’re mere moments away from tasting the best Indian takeout dish you’ve ever made at home.
Serve our easy butter chicken with long-grain basmati rice for that authentic Indian high dining experience. Sprinkle it with additional chopped fresh cilantro. You can even take it to the next level by adding in warm naan bread, or some store-bought samosas. Tamarind dipping sauce and cilantro chutney are also amazing accompaniments to these carby side dishes.
Butter chicken also goes well with drinks like a traditional cold yogurt lassi or even a good beer. Wine also pairs well with chicken, making a chilled chardonnay or Riesling an excellent accompaniment that will also help balance the creaminess and slight spiciness of the sauce.
- 2 lbs chicken breasts or thighs
- 1 cup full-fat Greek yogurt
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon ground turmeric
- 1 ½ tablespoons garam masala
- 1 ½ tablespoons ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 large onion
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1-inch piece of ginger, grated
- ½ teaspoon chili powder OR ½ minced jalapeño pepper
- 2 fresh tomatoes OR 2 tablespoons tomato paste OR ¾ cup of crushed tomatoes (you can use 1 8-ounce can)
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ cup chicken stock
- 1 cup cream
- 1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
- Cut chicken into 1-inch bite-size pieces.
- In a large bowl, mix yogurt, lemon juice, turmeric, garam masala, and 1 tablespoon cumin. Add chicken. Marinade for at least 30 minutes.
- In a large pan set to medium heat, combine 2 tablespoons of oil and 4 tablespoons of butter. Sautée onion until it becomes translucent, about 5 mins. Add ginger, garlic and ½ tablespoon ground cumin. If using chili powder, add now. Sautée for an additional 2 minutes.
- Turn heat down to low. Add tomatoes and cinnamon and cook until tomatoes lose their raw taste, about 5 minutes. If using jalapeño peppers, add them along with the tomatoes and cinnamon.
- Add the chicken along with its marinade to the pan. Increase heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes. Add chicken stock. Bring mixture to a boil, lower heat, and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
- Add cream and simmer for an additional 5 minutes.
- Remove from heat. Sprinkle with chopped fresh cilantro.
- Serve with white rice and additional chopped fresh cilantro.