Tandoori Chicken

published Jun 22, 2024
Tandoori Chicken Recipe

The key to the best tandoori chicken? Marinate it twice.

Serves4

Prep30 minutes

Cook30 minutes to 1 hour

Jump to Recipe
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overhead shot of four pieces of tandoori chicken on a white plate, with lemon wedges around the plate
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: Spencer Richards

Tandoori chicken is a dish that was born out of desperation. After independence from the British in 1947, when the country was partitioned into India and Pakistan, many Punjabis left the Pakistani part of Punjab, drifting first into Indian Punjab, and then onwards to Delhi, the capital city of India. 

Amongst these refugees was Kundan Lal Gujral, an extraordinary man with links to the restaurant business in Peshawar. He too left from what was to become Pakistan, and ended up sinking his roots in Delhi. It was here that he set up his tandoor (clay oven), and started doling out tandoori chicken and naan bread from a small, dilapidated restaurant he called Moti Mahal. Soon, the fame of his tandoori chicken spread, bringing with it waves of hungry customers from Delhi and elsewhere. In this way, the dish became an indelible part of Indian cuisine. 

In this recipe, I offer two ways to cook it: in an oven or on a hot grill. It’ll be delicious either way. Serve it with roti (unleavened flatbread), thinly sliced rings of raw red onion, and a lemon or lime wedge for squeezing over the top.

Why You’ll Love It

  • You can prep it days in advance. Once you’re ready to eat, just cook and serve. It couldn’t be easier!
  • The magic lies in the flavorful marinade. There’s no complicated cooking technique here because the marinade does all the hard work; the longer you let the marinade sit, the juicier and more tender the chicken will be. It may be the traditional tandoor that gives the chicken its dark, smoky charred skin, but it’s the double marination technique that really helps the flavor seep in and keep the chicken moist.  
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: Spencer Richards

Key Ingredients in Tandoori Chicken

  • Chicken legs: Although you can use the tandoori masala for meat or paneer, chicken is the most commonly used protein.
  • Ginger and garlic paste and lime juice: These are very basic ingredients in most Indian cooking. Here, they work together to add depth of flavor, while also tenderizing the meat. Lime also helps counter the heat of the chile.
  • Red chile powder: This is what gives the chicken its signature deep red color.

How to Make Tandoori Chicken

  1. Make the first marinade. The very first step is to make a few gashes in the chicken, then marinate it with lime juice, a little salt, and a ginger-garlic paste, which you can make at home or just buy from any South Asian specialty store.
  2. Make the second marinade. After letting the first marinade sit for at least an hour, you can start working on the second marinade. This is a mixture of hung curd (or Greek yogurt), cream, mustard seed oil, some more lime juice, and a handful of powdered spices (red chile, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric and black pepper). Once you’ve massaged this vigorously into the chicken, you let it rest for at least two hours.
  3. Cook the chicken. Your final step is to roast or grill the chicken until it is tender. Just make sure that the marinade isn’t dripping off the meat, as this is a dry dish, made without gravy. Plus, it will avoid dangerous flare-ups on the grill.

Helpful Swaps

Traditionally, a tandoori chicken marinade uses hung curd, but that can be fiddly and time-consuming. Try unsweetened, creamy Greek yogurt instead; although it might not be as thick as the original curd, it’ll work almost as well.

Storage and Make-Ahead Tips 

The chicken can be marinated up to 2 days ahead, or marinated and frozen for up to 1 week. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator before cooking. Any leftovers can last up to three days in the fridge.

What to Serve with Tandoori Chicken

You may add thinly sliced rings of one raw red onion and lemon or lime quarters as a garnish. Tandoori chicken is traditionally eaten with roti.

Tandoori Chicken Recipe

The key to the best tandoori chicken? Marinate it twice.

Prep time 30 minutes

Cook time 30 minutes to 1 hour

Serves 4

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

For the first marinade:

  • 1 (1 1/2-inch) piece

    ginger, or 1 tablespoon ginger paste

  • 3 to 4 cloves

    garlic, or 1 tablespoon garlic paste

  • 1/2

    medium lime

  • 2 teaspoons

    kosher salt

  • 4

    whole bone-in chicken legs

For the second marinade and cooking:

  • 1/2

    medium lime

  • 1/2 cup

    plain whole-milk Greek yogurt or hung curd (see Recipe Notes)

  • 1/2 cup

    light cream, amul cream, or 1/3 cup heavy cream plus 2 tablespoons whole milk (optional)

  • 1 tablespoon

    Kashmiri red chile powder

  • 1 tablespoon

    mustard seed oil

  • 2 teaspoons

    ground coriander

  • 2 teaspoons

    ground cumin

  • 1 teaspoon

    ground cardamom

  • 1 teaspoon

    ground cinnamon

  • 1 teaspoon

    freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 teaspoon

    ground turmeric

  • 1 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 1 tablespoon

    unsalted butter, if roasting

  • Vegetable oil, if grilling

  • Serving options: Thinly sliced rings of red onion, lime or lemon wedges, and/or roti

Instructions

Make the first marinade:

  1. Peel and finely chop 1 (1 1/2-inch) piece ginger, then continue to mash the ginger into the cutting board with the flat part of a knife and chop until a paste forms. Transfer 1 tablespoon of the paste to a large bowl. Repeat chopping and mashing 3 to 4 garlic cloves until a paste forms, then add 1 tablespoon of the paste to the same bowl. Discard any remaining ginger and garlic. Juice 1/2 medium lime into the bowl. Add 2 teaspoons kosher salt and stir to combine.

  2. Remove and discard the skin from 4 whole chicken legs. Use a knife to make 4 to 5 long slashes about 1/2-inch deep into the meat of each leg (do not cut all the way through to the bone). Add the chicken to the bowl and massage the seasonings into the chicken vigorously with your hands. Let sit at room temperature for 1 hour, or cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days.

Make the second marinade:

  1. Juice 1/2 medium lime into a medium bowl. Add 1/2 cup plain whole-milk Greek yogurt, 1/2 cup cream of choice if using, 1 tablespoon Kashmiri red chile powder, 1 tablespoon mustard seed oil, 2 teaspoons ground coriander, 2 teaspoons ground cumin, 1 teaspoon ground cardamom, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon black pepper, 1 teaspoon ground turmeric, and 1 teaspoon kosher salt in a medium bowl. Whisk to combine.

  2. Add to the bowl of chicken and massage the seasonings into the chicken vigorously with your hands. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 2 days. The more time the chicken marinates, the more flavorful it will be.

Option 1: Roast the chicken.

  1. Let 1 tablespoon unsalted butter sit at room temperature until softened. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 400ºF. Letting the excess marinade drip back into the bowl, place the chicken legs on a rimmed baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Roast for 15 minutes. Flip the chicken and brush with the butter. Roast until cooked through and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers at least 165ºF, 15 to 25 minutes more.

Option 2: Grill the chicken.

  1. Heat an outdoor grill for direct, medium heat (about 350ºF). Clean the grill grates if needed and lightly oil with a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil. Letting the excess marinade drip back into the bowl, place the chicken legs on the grill. Cover and grill, flipping the chicken every 10 minutes, until cooked through and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers at least 165ºF, 30 to 40 minutes total.

  2. Serve with thinly sliced rings of red onion, lime wedges, and/or roti if desired.

Recipe Notes

Ginger and garlic pastes: Ginger and garlic pastes can found in Indian or south Asian markets.

Hung curd: Line a fine-mesh strainer or colander with a double layer of fine cheesecloth. Spoon 1 1/2 cups plain yogurt into the cheesecloth. Gather up the excess cheesecloth and tie together to form a bundle. Place the strainer over a bowl. Refrigerate until the whey drips out and the yogurt thickens, 4 to 5 hours. Save the whey for smoothies or soups. Refrigerate the hung curd in an airtight container for 2 to 3 days.

Make ahead: The chicken can be marinated up to 2 days ahead, or marinated and frozen for up to 1 week. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator before cooking.

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.