Although chicken tikka masala is more British than Indian, you'd be hard-pressed to find an Indian restaurant that doesn't have this creamy, bright orange dish featured prominently on its menu. But if you do, you're welcome to come to my house, where chicken tikka masala is on our regular monthly meal rotation. It's surprisingly easy to pull together, and I promise it's just as good as anything ordered off the take-out menu.
There are probably as many recipes and versions of chicken tikka masala as there are cooks who make it. Even the Wikipedia page on the dish notes that in a survey of 48 recipes, the only common ingredient was chicken. My version probably looks similar — and different — than many other recipes you may have come across, but this is the one that I've made my own.
Because the chicken gets double-cooked, once under the broiler and again in the simmer sauce, I like to use chicken thighs instead of chicken breasts. Besides having a richer, more satisfying flavor, chicken thighs stand up to this kind of cooking much better without becoming stringy or dry. I've used chicken breasts from time to time when they were what I had in the fridge, and they do just fine — but if you have the choice, go for thighs.
You may have zeroed in on my mention of using the broiler. Yes! I live in a small apartment without the space for a grill, so I turn to my broiler for the kind of high heat cooking needed for this recipe — a broiler is, after all, basically an upside-down grill. If you have a grill, you can quickly grill your yogurt-marinated chicken thighs over high heat; for the rest of us, the broiler does an excellent job. Elevate the thighs slightly by cooking them on top of a wire rack. This allows hot air to move under the meat as it cooks and also keeps the meat from getting soggy in its own juices.
The perfection of the tikka masala sauce comes from its combination of Indian spices, diced tomatoes, and cream. This threesome is unbeatable. They make a brilliant orange-colored sauce that has the perfect balance of warm spiciness, acidic tang, and satisfying richness. This is also one of the quickest "curry" dishes that I've ever made, requiring negligible sautéing and simmering time. If you're ok with multitasking while the chicken is under the broiler, the whole dish takes at most 20 minutes.
Do you love chicken tikka masala, too? Do you have a version that you love? Even though this recipe earns my own stamp of approval, I'm always eager to hear what other people do in their own kitchens. Please share!
Chicken Tikka Masala
Serves 4 to 6
For the chicken:
1 to 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1/2 cup whole-milk yogurt
Juice from 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
For the sauce:
1/2 tablespoon ghee, butter, or olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, diced
1-inch ginger, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 to 2 tablespoons garam masala
1 teaspoon paprika
Pinch cayenne, optional
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup roughly chopped cilantro, plus extra for garnish
3 cups cooked basmati rice
Trim the chicken thighs of any large piece of fat and lay them in a shallow dish. Whisk together the yogurt, lemon juice, cumin, and coriander. Pour the yogurt mixture over the thighs and stir to fully coat each piece. Chicken can be used immediately or marinated in the refrigerator for up to 6 hours. Chicken will become more tender and flavorful the longer it marinates.
When ready to cook, line a baking sheet with foil and set a wire cooling rack over the baking sheet. Turn on the oven broiler to high with a rack positioned 6 inches below the broiling element.
Remove the thighs from the yogurt and shake off any extra marinade. Lay the thighs, spaced an inch or so apart, on the wire rack over the baking sheet. Transfer the thighs to the oven and broil for 6 minutes. Flip the thighs and broil for another 6 minutes. Check that the thighs are cooked through and register at least 165°F on an instant-read thermometer; broil in additional 2 minute intervals if necessary until the thighs are cooked. Remove the thighs from the oven and set aside to cool.
→ Multi-Tasking Tip! Start the rice on the stovetop while the chicken is cooking. Set a second timer to monitor the cooking of the rice.
Warm a half-tablespoon of ghee, butter, or oil in a large skillet. Add the onions and cook until the onions are soft and translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger, and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the tomato paste, 1 tablespoon of the garam masala, paprika, and cayenne and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Pour the tomatoes and their juices and reduce the heat to low. Simmer until the sauce is slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, dice the cooled chicken into bite-sized pieces.
Stir the cream and chopped chicken into the sauce, and simmer until the chicken is warmed through and the sauce is just starting to bubble, 1 to 2 minutes. Taste and add salt, pepper, or other seasonings to taste. Depending on the potency of your masala spice mix, you may want to add up to another tablespoon of spice. Stir in the cilantro just before removing the sauce from heat.
Serve immediately with rice. Top each serving with another sprinkle of cilantro. Leftovers will keep refrigerated for up to a week.
(Images: Emma Christensen)