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There’s almost nothing quite like tikka masala. Its rich, buttery tomato sauce is practically worth drinking all by itself — and makes a great vehicle for tender bites of chicken served over naan, rice, or both.
We’ve made no secret of our lifelong desire to master this classic dish. Luckily, Indian-American chef Preeti Mistry was awesome enough to give us the lowdown.
Mistry was born in the United Kingdom, grew up in the United States’ Midwest, appeared on Season 6 of “Top Chef,” and owned Indian restaurant Juhu Beach Club in Oakland, California. Though the restaurant closed in January 2018, you can still get a copy of The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook.
In the meantime, you can get Mistry’s dynamite chicken tikka masala recipe right here, plus Mistry’s top tips on making it extra delicious.
Mistry is clear on one crucial point about CTM (yes, we’re giving it its own acronym): It’s a dish that’s easy to master.
You’ll begin by marinating boneless, skinless chicken breasts in lemon juice and yogurt, before grilling and briefly simmering the bite-size pieces in a rich sauce of cream and tomato with Indian spices.
But we won’t just leave you to your own spicy devices. Mistry has even more in-depth guidance to offer.
Here are four key tips for making delicious chicken tikka masala.
1. Marinating is for more than flavor
In Mistry’s chicken tikka masala recipe, there are two separate marinating steps for the chicken. One involves lemon juice and salt, the other uses yogurt, oil, and spices.
“That happens a lot in Indian cuisine,” says Mistry about the double-marinating action. “You want to give the chicken flavor, but mostly, you want to change the texture, letting the fibers relax and get super tender.”
With that in mind, try not to skip the marinating steps — and be prepared for them to take some time. The first will take at least 30 minutes or as long as 3 hours, while the second marinade should last at least 3 hours or up to overnight.
One easy option for simpler cleanup: Make the yogurt marinade, then scrape it into a large zip-top bag before adding the chicken. You can easily flip the chicken over halfway through the process so the marinade evenly coats everything.
Bonus tip: Mistry recommends an extra-tangy Greek yogurt, like this one from Straus Family Creamery. If using another brand that’s not as tart, up the acidity by adding a teaspoon of lemon juice to the yogurt in the marinade.
2. Experiment with different cuts
At Juhu Beach Club, chicken tikka masala was on the kids’ menu under the name butter chicken. Since kiddos tend to like the familiarity of chicken breasts, Mistry made the dish with this part of the bird.
If you’re cooking for more adventurous eaters, try another part of the chicken with more flavor: The legs. “If I were cooking this for grownups, I’d probably use chicken thighs and leave them whole.”
3. Keep it fresh
You can make the yogurt marinade and the sauce a day or two ahead, but don’t even think of taking any shortcuts with the fresh ginger and garlic — peel and chop them immediately before using. “Garlic really loses its joy once it’s been chopped or blitzed in the food processor,” Mistry says.
4. Get toasted
Whole spices should be lightly toasted before grinding. Heat brings out the spices’ natural oils, making all the flavors fragrant and bright.
You can toast spices lightly in a dry skillet or spread them out on a baking sheet in the oven. Just keep a careful eye on them so they don’t brown or scorch. (They’ll start to taste bitter when that happens).
To cool the spices down once they’re at the right degree of toasty, Mistry suggests keeping a metal bowl nearby. Toss the spices in, and once cool, grind them in a spice mill.
See Mistry’s garam masala recipe for more pointers on that front (plus, what additions to make if you use a store-bought spice blend).
The quintessential Anglo-Indian dish, chicken tikka masala is a combo of chicken in a creamy, tomato-accented gravy that’s highly spiced without being spicy. “It’s traditional curry-house fare,” says Mistry. “It hits that comfort-food spot.”
Chicken tikka masala is also very similar to another favorite, butter chicken, aka chicken makhani. Chicken makhani is a Northern Indian dish that tends to be milder and sweeter, with a creamier, richer consistency and actual butter in the sauce. Tikka masala, on the other hand, has a more acidic and complex flavor.
According to Mistry, at Juhu Beach Club, chicken tikka masala and butter chicken were referred to interchangeably.
“The dishes both involve chicken marinated in yogurt and grilled or roasted, served simmered in a creamy tomato sauce. Often, chicken tikka has less butter and is spicier than butter chicken. Really, there are so many different variations and recipes that it’s hard to say the dishes are so drastically different.”
Now that you know the key components and commandments, it’s time to get cooking! Try not to feel daunted by the number of ingredients in Mistry’s recipe. Though this dish may require quite a few spices, it’s not actually that difficult to put together. Its creamy, buttery deliciousness might have you making it time and again (naan in hand for dipping).