This Butter Chicken is the dreamiest creamiest Indian curry that you can make in the comfort of your own home, even down to the iconic bold orange-red color. It rivals your favorite restaurant's Chicken Makhani and is best when indulged with basmati rice or homemade garlic naan.
If you are new to Indian cuisine, you're probably guilty of ordering Butter Chicken with Garlic Naan and Mango Lassi. It's the typical, safe go-to order. Honestly, it's my takeout order, too!
However, I've been told that my Butter Chicken recipe is better than most restaurants. I've made it a million times and you can see that I also translated it into Butter Chicken Wings and Butter Masala Pasta right here on Masala and Chai!
This Chicken Makhani recipe is lightly spicy, full of flavor, and I'll walk you through all the steps to get a beautiful silky smooth bright red makhani! It's actually quite easy to make at home. However, you may need to check that you have a well-stocked spice cabinet before you make this recipe. No worries, nothing a quick trip to the Indian grocer can't fix!
I can't wait for you to blow your family and friends away by serving up this authentic, world famous dish! Serve it with Samosa Chaat to start and alongside a few other of my favorite dishes like Dahi Vada, Chili Paneer, and Aloo Methi Sabji. Just like a restaurant, each guest takes a little of each dish on their plate and enjoys it with rice or naan.
What is Butter Chicken?
Butter Chicken, also known as chicken makhani or traditionally as murgh makhani, is an Indian curry made with a base of a spiced tomato gravy with plenty of butter (makhan) and marinated chicken that's typically cooked in a tandoor. It's famous for its bold red-orange color, silky smooth creamy texture, and rich flavors.
You may think Butter Chicken is centuries old, but it really came about in the mid-1900s! In the 1950s, Kundan Lal Jaggi and Kundan Lal Gujral developed this world-famous dish at their restaurant Moti Mahal in Delhi, India. They actually made it on accident by combining leftover tandoori chicken and a tomato-based gravy with butter.
You may also know the vegetarian version, Paneer Makhani, which is prepared very similarly! The founders of Butter Chicken also created Dal Makhani.
Now, we see Butter Chicken served not only by itself but in burritos, on top of pizzas, in wraps, and more. This dish has truly become world famous for its richness and bold flavor.
Butter Chicken and Chicken Tikka Masala, although similar, are not the same dish! Butter Chicken has its origins in India and uses more butter, while Chicken Tikka Masala is a British dish with a more concentrated tomato flavor.
Ingredients - Notes and Substitutions
Whew, okay. The recipe has a hefty amount of ingredients, I admit it! Butter Chicken is, in my opinion, not that much effort to make. But to make it well, you need quite a few whole and ground spices. All of the ingredients are common to a well-stocked Indian kitchen. Let's go through them.
If, for some reason, the spices aren't accessible, then I'd highly recommend the MDH Butter Chicken Masala. Use a quarter of the box for the marinade, and another quarter for the makhani sauce. I adjust the MDH masala with an additional 1 teaspoon garam masala, ⅛ teaspoon ground cloves, ½ teaspoon cumin, ½ teaspoon freshly ground green cardamom, and ½ teaspoon coriander to the makhani sauce.
Lightly charred, flavorful marinated chicken thighs add half of the flavor to the makhani! The chicken is marinated in dahi, ginger, garlic, lemon juice, and spices and then baked in a tandoor, oven, or pan fried.
- Chicken thighs - Specifically, chicken thighs. Chicken thighs are more forgiving than chicken breast which can easily become dry and overcooked in hot curries. Since Butter Chicken already has so much fat, be sure to trim off as much of the fat as possible before cubing it.
- Dahi - Plain whole milk yogurt, like Indian dahi, is the best but you can use low-fat yogurt or Greek yogurt.
- Ginger garlic paste - Or as I call it, gigi paste! This is simply a 50/50 mix of ginger and garlic that's blended into a paste. You can easily make ginger garlic paste at home in a mortar and pestle or blender, or purchase it readymade.
- Green chilis - Thin green chili peppers or serranos add a bit of extra spice! I like to deseed mine and then use a mortar and pestle to grind them up into a paste. This can be omitted.
- Spices - For the spices, you'll need garam masala, ground turmeric, ground cumin, and kashmiri chili powder. Kashmiri chili powder adds the bright red color, but can be substituted with regular chili powder. Feel free to reduce the amount of chili powder. But this recipe is from an Indian kitchen! We love heat!
Butter Chicken Sauce
Arguably the best part, the makhani (butter and tomato-based gravy)!
- Butter - This is butter chicken. You need to use butter. Not a substitute like coconut oil. You can use unsalted butter (preferably) or ghee. Reluctantly, I'll also offer that you can use half butter and half oil as well.
- Whole spices - The whole spices are optional, but I add star anise, black cardamom pods, green cardamom pod seeds, a cinnamon stick, and cumin seeds at the beginning of the cook. It adds a ton of flavor to the dish and isn't the same without. You can omit the cumin seeds and use ground cumin instead.
- Ground spices - We use garam masala, coriander, kashmiri chili powder, and my secret is the teeniest bit of ground cloves. You can also use 2-3 whole cloves instead of the ground spice and add it in along with the whole spices. But I hate fishing out the cloves or biting into one.
- Sugar - Butter chicken has a whooole lot of savory things going on. A bit of sugar helps balance it out.
- Tomato paste / canned tomatoes - The base of the makhani sauce is, of course, tomatoes. I use a tablespoon of tomato paste for the concentrated tomato flavor, and canned crushed tomatoes. You can also use fresh tomatoes when they're in season.
- Heavy cream - For a creamy as heck sauce that also offsets some of the spice, use heavy cream! Substitute with coconut milk or a handful of soaked cashews.
- Kasuri methi - This is dried fenugreek leaves and is traditional to authentic butter chicken. It's ultimately optional.
How to make Butter Chicken
There's two parts to making Butter Chicken -
- Marinating and cooking the chicken
- Making the delicious makhani sauce that we all love!
I've broken it down even further into 5 parts to orchestrate the timing of all the moving parts.
1. The Marinade
The chicken thighs need to marinate for a minimum of 30 minutes, or ideally overnight. So plan ahead if you want maximum flavor! Trim the fat off of the chicken, and then cut them into 1-inch cubes.
To start, mix the ingredients for the marinade - the dahi, lemon juice, ginger garlic paste, chopped green chilis, spices, and salt in a baker or large mixing bowl that will fit the amount of chicken you're making. Give the marinade a solid whisk until it's smooth and uniform. Then, add the chicken thighs into the marinade and mix until the pieces are evenly coated.
It's best to throw on a pair of gloves and really massage the marinade into the chicken thighs, but you can also toss it together with a spatula for an even coating. Once that's done, cover the chicken with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of 30 minutes, and up to 24 hours.
This is a great point to start making the makhani sauce as the chicken marinates.
2. The Makhani Sauce
To start, melt 2 tablespoons of butter or ghee in a large pan or pot. While the butter melts, crush 4-5 cardamom pods with a mortar and pestle or the flat of knife and remove the black seeds. Toss the green shells or save for a cup of chai.
Once it's hot, add the star anise, black cardamom pod, cumin seeds, green cardamom seeds, and cinnamon stick for a minute to release their flavor. Then, add the aromatics - the onion and ginger garlic paste. Allow them to cook on a medium heat until the onion starts to fry up into a golden brown color.
At that point, add the ground spices - garam masala, coriander, cloves, and kashmiri chili powder. Give them a good stir, and then add the tomato paste and canned tomatoes. Add salt to taste and the sugar.
You can also add cashews if you'd like it to be extra creamy and for the extra flavor at this point.
Lower the stove to a low to medium heat and allow the spices and tomatoes to simmer until it thickens and darkens significantly. While it simmers - let's cook the chicken.
3. Cooking the Chicken
The chicken is traditionally cooked in a tandoor. To get a similar effect without one, heat a cast iron skillet on high heat with ghee or neutral oil - essentially any cooking oil with a higher smoke point.
Once it's screaming hot, add in the marinated chicken. Cook on each side for 3-4 minutes until the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165ºF and has crispy edges. Once cooked, set the chicken aside.
Alternatively, bake the chicken in a preheated oven at 350ºF for 16-18 minutes or until the internal temperature reaches 165ºF. Turn on the broiler for the last 5 minutes so the chicken gets crispy edges.
4. Blending the Curry
Back to the sauce!
We left off after lowering the heat to allow the sauce to thicken and darken significantly. You'll see some of the butter start to release on the sides and form small pools. This is exactly what you're looking for! Switch the heat off.
Carefully remove and discard the star anise, black cardamom pod, and cinnamon stick.
Once it reaches this point, transfer everything to a high-speed blender, along with the other 2 tablespoons of butter. Blend the sauce until completely smooth.
I've also tried using an immersion blender and the results weren't too great. The sauce was still chunky and it splattered everywhere. If you have a high quality appliance then go ahead!
Note: If you've tried blending the sauce and the texture is grainy, it may have too much onions. Just add a tablespoon of water at a time and continue to blend until you have a silky smooth sauce.
5. Finishing off the Butter Chicken
Return the sauce to the pot. Turn the heat on to a medium low.
Transfer in the cooked chicken with all of the juices from the pan. Toss it together with the sauce, and then continue to simmer the sauce for a few minutes until the butter releases on the side again and the sauce is thick.
Slowly add in the heavy cream while stirring. Remove the sauce from the stove and stir in a healthy pinch of kasuri methi. The Butter Chicken is ready to serve!
Serve Butter Chicken in a karahi serving dish for a traditional restaurant look that can be passed and shared amongst family and friends. Garnish it with cilantro, a swirl of heavy cream, and finely diced red onion.
Butter Chicken is best when paired with garlic naan or classic basmati rice.
It can also be made ahead and stored for up to 5 days in an airtight container in the refrigerator. The flavors will only deepen over time. Simply reheat on the stovetop by bringing it up to a simmer for 5-7 minutes, or until completely warmed through.
Tips and Tricks
Here are a few tips to achieving the beautiful bold sauce:
- Use chicken thighs. They are more forgiving than chicken breasts. I've found that chicken breasts get way too dry and overcooked with hot curries.
- Fry the onion. Properly fry the yellow onion in unsalted butter to a golden brown before moving on to the next step. It's key to getting the perfect flavor (trust me, I tried without doing this).
- Don't burn the spices. Do not leave the whole spices or ground spices alone in butter for more than a minute, otherwise they will burn.
- Knowing when to blend. The makhani sauce is ready to blend when it's dry-ish and the tomatoes will darken by several shades (refer to the process shot). It'll look like a thick gravy. There will be small pools of butter coming out of the edges.
- Glass blender? Be careful! If you have a glass blender, you'll want to let the unblended makhani sauce cool for a bit before transferring it otherwise the glass may explode.
- Grainy makhani sauce? If the makhani sauce is grainy after blending, it's probably because there was too much onion. Add a tablespoon of water at a time to the blender until the sauce is completely smooth like in the process shot above.
- Bland makhani sauce. If you taste the makhani sauce before adding the chicken, you may find yourself unimpressed! It could have a very strong tomato taste at this point. You'll want to taste the makhani sauce after adding the chicken and the residual juices and spices from the pan. This adds a TON of flavor and will round out the dish. Otherwise, you may want to start by adjusting the salt or adding small amounts of garam masala and ground coriander.
- Too heavy on spices. If the opposite is true, the spices may have simmered for too long. Add another tablespoon of tomato paste or more heavy cream.
- Why are cashews optional? Cashews are a great way to add creaminess and a bit of nutty flavor to this curry. In fact, you could even omit the heavy cream if you really wanted to. If you do, I'd recommend soaking unsalted and unroasted cashews in water for 30 minutes to an hour before making the curry.
- Avoid curdling heavy cream. Don't add the heavy cream in one go because it may curdle. Slowly stir it in.
More Indian Dinner Recipes to try
Butter Chicken (Murgh Makhani)
Butter Chicken Sauce
- 4 tablespoon butter, divided
- 1 small yellow onion, chopped
- 1 star anise
- 1 black cardamom pod
- 4-5 green cardamom pods
- 1 cinnamon stick
- ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon ginger garlic paste
- ½ teaspoon garam masala
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- ⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 tablespoon kashmiri chili powder
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 14 oz canned tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- salt, to taste
- 5-8 cashews, optional
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon kasuri methi
- cilantro, red onion, heavy cream, to garnish
- Trim the fat from the chicken thighs. Cube the chicken into 1-inch pieces.
- In a large bowl, mix together the items for the marinade - the dahi, lemon juice, ginger garlic paste, finely chopped green chilis, garam masala, turmeric, ground cumin, kashmiri chili powder, and salt. Once the marinade is ready, add the chicken into the bowl and toss so that it's fully coated.
- Cover the chicken with plastic wrap and marinate for a minimum of 30 minutes, up to 24 hours.
- Crush the green cardamom pods in a mortar and pestle or under the flat of a knife. Remove the black seeds inside the pod and discard the green part.
- Melt two tablespoons of butter in a pot on medium heat. Add the star anise, black cardamom, seeds from the green cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, and cumin seeds and allow the flavor to infuse with the butter for a minute.
- Add the chopped onions and ginger garlic paste into the butter. Sauté until the onions start to brown.
- Add the ground spices - the garam masala, coriander, cloves, and kashmiri chili powder. Give everything a good stir and let it cook for 1 minute so the spices can bloom in the butter. Don't let them sit for longer, otherwise the spices will burn.
- Stir in the tomato paste, canned crushed tomatoes, cashews (optional), sugar, and salt to taste.
- Switch the stove to low to medium heat, and allow the sauce to simmer. It'll start to thicken and darken significantly. This can take 5-10 minutes. The fat will start to release on the sides and form little pools. Switch the heat off.
- While the sauce is simmering in the step above, heat the cast iron skillet on high heat. Add a tablespoon of ghee or neutral oil in the pan and add in the marinated chicken. Cook on each side for 3-4 minutes until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 ºF and the chicken has browned. Set aside once done.
- Remove and discard the black cardamom pod, star anise, and cinnamon stick. Transfer the contents of the pot into a blender along with the rest of the butter. Blend the sauce until it's completely smooth. If it's too thick, add a tablespoon of water at a time. Add up to a ½ cup of hot water based off of preference if you’d like a looser curry.
- Transfer the sauce back into the pan and bring it back to a soft simmer. Add the chicken with all of the juices and spices into the pan. Stir to coat and simmer for an additional 5 minutes, until the fat begins to separate again.
- Slowly pour in the heavy cream while stirring. Continue to simmer for 2-3 minutes until the sauce is thick and creamy. This is a great point to taste and adjust for spices.
- Remove from heat and finish off the sauce with a pinch of kasuri methi.
- Garnish the butter chicken with heavy cream, cilantro, and finely diced red onions. Serve hot with rice or garlic naan.
- If you have a glass blender, be very careful adding the hot contents of the pan into it otherwise it may break! You may need to allow it to cool a bit before blending, or use an immersion blender.
- If, for some reason, the spices aren't accessible, I'd highly recommend the MDH Butter Chicken Masala. Use a quarter of the box for the marinade, and another quarter for the makhani sauce. I adjust the MDH masala with an additional 1 teaspoon garam masala, ⅛ teaspoon ground cloves, ½ teaspoon cumin, ½ teaspoon freshly ground green cardamom, and ½ teaspoon coriander to the makhani sauce.