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Help with Indian cooking?

My husband and I love Indian food, and I've spent several years working on home versions of our favorite dishes. The one I absolutely cannot get right is chicken tikka masala (and yes, I know this isn't an authentic Indian dish, but it's one of our favorites).

Every time it turns out the same: a lumpy, thick, overly-spiced gravy. I have tried literally a dozen different recipes, from the Internet (Epicurious, All Recipes, Food.com, etc.), and from the two Indian cookbooks I own. While some of the versions I have made have been pretty good, they taste absolutely nothing like what you get in any Indian restaurant.

I use good quality spices. I use ghee for sauteing. I stir fry the spices to make them fragrant. I guess what I'm saying is, I'm pretty sure it's not my technique, but the recipes that are off.

So my question is, does anyone know the secret to making tikka masala that tastes like it does at a curry house?

And, in addition to taste, do you know how they get the texture to be perfectly smooth? Every recipe I have made calls for onion (usually lots). I always end up blending or food processing the sauce to try to make it smooth, but it always ends up lumpy.

Help would be greatly appreciated!

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  1. I think to analyze the problem you would need to post at least one of the recipes (or a link to one).
    Food processers do not reduce sauces to a very smooth consistency a blender would do a better job.
    In India most modern cooks have electric grinders that can reduce wet and dry ingredients to almost a perfectly smooth paste.
    Many restaurants use Tandoori cooked chicken tikkas which adds a smokey flavor to the chicken itself which may be part of what your missing.
    A couple of other common mistakes that novice Indian cooks make, browning onions and old spices

    1. Try blending the onion with a little oil before you start to fry it. I'm assuming that is is the only item in the recipe that has "bulk" and everything else is either liquid or spice that you've reduced to a powder. If need be, blend again when you finished cookind the sauce.

      Of course, if you're finding the sauce over-spiced after a long cooking, simply reduce the spicing next time.

      As you say, tikka masala is an invented dish (based on murgh makhani). But it is possible that, by following the recipes, you are getting a more "real" style of spicing and presentation than you would get in a restaurant. However, I understand you are wanting to try and replicate the restaurant dish. This is a bit tricky as, with no real standard recipe, it will vary from country to country, region to region, chef to chef - so the tikka masala in my local place may not taste or look the same as in your local place. However, a book I find useful in replicating the general style in the UK, is Kris Dhillon's "The Curry Secret" - it may available where you are.

      1. If you can get your hands on the America's Test Kitchen version, it's absolutely the best I've eaten, including in restaurants, and it's VERY simple. My hack of it (which is a bit spicier and has more sauce) just kills my local Indian joint's chicken tikka masala.

        Before I stir the chicken into the sauce, I always blitz the sauce with a stick blender to get it perfectly smooth. You can't make the sauce without onion -- it would be insipid and flavorless -- but yeah, go ahead and run it through the blender. Unless your blender's WAY worse than mine, you ought to be able to get it smooth in under a minute. Maybe press it through a sieve if you're still not happy with the texture?

        I also grill the chicken whenever I can. The ATK version has you doing a dry rub of spices and salt and then a quick dip in yogurt before the meat goes under the broiler, but the grill gives it that tandoor-ish flavor.

        Also, do make sure that you're really salting it enough. Lots of recipes don't call for anywhere near the amount of salt you'd find in a restaurant dish.

        5 Replies
        1. re: LauraGrace

          Would you be so kind as to post it, LG?

          Denverkate, are you looking for the yogurt one or the cream one?

          1. re: jvanderh

            The versions I have made use yogurt to marinate the chicken and cream in the sauce. I have tried coconut milk in the sauce to change it up, which is a nice substitute, but still nothing like the restaurant.

            1. re: jvanderh

              jvanderh, I found the recipe she mentions on Google. You have to register to see it, so I'll post it in full:

              Chicken Tikka Masala

              From Season 8: Indian Favorites, Simplified

              * Print Page
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              Why this recipe works: Chicken tikka masala is arguably the single most popular Indian restaurant dish in the world. Turns out, it’s not an authentic Indian dish—it was invented in a London curry house. Without historical roots, there is no definitive recipe. The variations we found had mushy or dry chicken and sauces that were unbearably rich and/or overspiced. We wanted an approachable method for producing moist, tender chunks of chicken in a rich, lightly spiced tomato sauce.

              To season the chicken, we rubbed it with salt, coriander, cumin, and cayenne and refrigerated it for 30 to 60 minutes. Then we dipped it in yogurt mixed with oil, garlic, and ginger and broiled it. And since large pieces don’t dry out as quickly as smaller ones under the broiler, we cooked the chicken breasts whole, cutting them into pieces only after cooking. While the chicken was cooking, we made the masala sauce. Masala means “hot spice,” and the ingredients in a masala sauce depend on the whim of the cook, although tomatoes and cream are always present. We added onions, ginger, garlic, chile, and a readily available commercial garam masala spice mixture. A little tomato paste and sugar gave our sauce color and sweetness. (less)

              Why this recipe works: Chicken tikka masala is arguably the single most popular Indian restaurant dish in the world. Turns out, it’s not an authentic Indian dish—it was invented in a London cur...(more)

              Serves 4 to 6

              This dish is best when prepared with whole-milk yogurt, but low-fat yogurt can be substituted. For a spicier dish, do not remove the ribs and seeds from the chile. If you prefer, substitute 2 teaspoons ground coriander, 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom, 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper for the garam masala. The sauce can be made ahead, refrigerated for up to 4 days in an airtight container, and gently reheated before adding the hot chicken. Serve with basmati rice.
              Ingredients
              Chicken Tikka

              * 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
              * 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
              * 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
              * 1 teaspoon table salt
              * 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts , trimmed of fat
              * 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt (see note above)
              * 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
              * 2 medium garlic cloves , minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
              * 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

              Masala Sauce

              * 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
              * 1 medium onion , diced fine (about 1 1/4 cups)
              * 2 medium garlic cloves , minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
              * 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
              * 1 fresh serrano chile , ribs and seeds removed, flesh minced (see note above)
              * 1 tablespoon tomato paste
              * 1 tablespoon garam masala (see note above)
              * 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
              * 2 teaspoons sugar
              * 1/2 teaspoon table salt
              * 2/3 cup heavy cream
              * 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves

              Instructions

              * 1. FOR THE CHICKEN: Combine cumin, coriander, cayenne, and salt in small bowl. Sprinkle both sides of chicken with spice mixture, pressing gently so mixture adheres. Place chicken on plate, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 to 60 minutes. In large bowl, whisk together yogurt, oil, garlic, and ginger; set aside.
              * 2. FOR THE SAUCE: Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until light golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, chile, tomato paste, and garam masala; cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes, sugar, and salt; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in cream and return to simmer. Remove pan from heat and cover to keep warm.
              * 3. While sauce simmers, adjust oven rack to upper-middle position (about 6 inches from heating element) and heat broiler. Using tongs, dip chicken into yogurt mixture (chicken should be coated with thick layer of yogurt) and arrange on wire rack set in foil-lined rimmed baking sheet or broiler pan. Discard excess yogurt mixture. Broil chicken until thickest parts register 160 degrees on instant-read thermometer and exterior is lightly charred in spots, 10 to 18 minutes, flipping chicken halfway through cooking.
              * 4. Let chicken rest 5 minutes, then cut into 1-inch chunks and stir into warm sauce (do not simmer chicken in sauce). Stir in cilantro, adjust seasoning with salt, and serve.

              1. re: denverkate

                Just saw this. Thanks so much for taking the trouble!!

            2. DenverKate!

              I love making chicken tikka masala. Though it isn't really pure Indian, it does taste super yummy. The good news is I can fix your problem! The recipe I use is from Vikas Khanna, it's really really good and he is a world class Indian chef. He converts his version for home chefs so it doesn't make massive amounts of chicken.

              The bad news is it's in video form so you'll have to watch it and write down ingredients. You'll also have to add some ingredients by feel as amounts aren't always mentioned, but I've never had a problem. I had them in a text file but it's gone now :(.

              BTW, to make the chicken, I just broil the marinated pieces in an oven on both sides to sub for the tandoor, draining as necessary.

              Here is a link to the video: http://www.ifood.tv/video/chicken_tik...

              make sure you watch it and write rather than try find a text version! :D

              Also, there is NO raw onion iirc, though you could add some granulated or minced onion if you wanted to. People go crazy when I make this. I've even substituted cream with milk blended with OO and still had good results, so it's fairly forgiving. Also, I don't usually put in the cashews so don't feel like you have to to get a good result. The sauce is very smooth as only pastes and spices/granulated stuff are used when I make it.

              Just search google for a garam masala recipe, usually buying it in stores is a ripoff. I found that I had most of the ingredients already, and the recipe only calls for a pinch.

              edit: Also, you'll never really find two identical recipes for chicken tikka masala, so if you had a really good one somewhere it might be hard to replicate. I don't think this one will disappoint though, it's really good.

              This recipe is definitely worth it, Vikas is the man. Trust me on this one. :D

              1. The original comment has been removed
                1. Sorry, but Tabla in NYC and Bombay Cafe in LA do/did not serve "authentic regional Indian cuisine". I can't speak of the others as I have not been, but while both of these restaurants are/were good, they were not traditional or authentic. I also have the Bombay Cafe cookbook, and many of the recipes in there are not true indian dishes, but are more of a play on indian cuisine, or a fusion. Neela Paniz says in he book that she made up most of the recipes, and that they were created to cater to the clientele here in LA.

                  I agree with what kayalten said about most indian restaurants in the US loading the food up with ghee and cream. It's an easy way to make it taste good. But "everyday" indian home food is not cooked that way at all. I cook punjabi food but with a south indian flair sometimes (Singaporean influence). A typical home meal for us would be masoor dal, chicken prepared in a dry masala and rice. Minimal oil, no ghee or cream. But if I went to an North Indian restaurant, they would have Dal Makhani, or dal made with butter (or cream, depending on the restaurant) -- that is the typical restaurant dal offering. south Indian restaurans would have sambhar as their dal offering. No one ever offers the other doezen types of dals. Same with chicken -- people think of chicken tikka masala as the quintessential indian restaurant chicken dish. It's not even indian -- it's a British invention, and most people don't make it at home.

                  I do agree with the expired product at the indian store. I frequent 3 stores in my area, depending on what I need or what part of town I'm in. I check the dates on everything, especially items like dry snacks, and packaged instant mixes and foods. Oftentimes they will be expired or close to expiring. I don't worry about spices, but if I'm buying a pack of gits Dosa Mix, I don't want one that expired 3 months ago. One store here had a problem with crossing out expiration dates with a black marker so you couldn't tell what it said. I stopped going there.

                  1. re: boogiebaby

                    I am not saying that that bad Indian food does not exist or that the majority of restaurants in the USA serve good or authentic Indian food. She did not say "most" and to paint a whole ethnic group and it restaurants with statements like,
                    "Profit making with least investment is the biggest thing for Indians, particulary when pursuing the American Dream."
                    "The Indian restaurant food in US is a joke."
                    "The restaurants use a pre maid sauce-one for vegetable, one for chicken, one for lamb, end of story!"
                    is not only ludicrous but offensive and bigoted.
                    As for authenticity Indian cuisine is alive and evolving all the time. I met with ,cooked with many Indian chef and home cooks all over western India and I can tell you that there is no one way to do many of the dishes I learned. Each family, village,ethnic group, area have their way of doing things. Just like everywhere else people are looking for "new" dishes and chefs and cooks inside and outside India invent and innovate that does not make their dishes not authentic. Singaporean food draws from all over the place it does not make Chai tow kway or Kari Lemak Ayam not authentic.

                    1. re: boogiebaby

                      kayalten, ghee and cream are expensive; thus, your thesis of the supposed "greed" of proprieters contradicts facts.

                      plus, the indian resto we go to does not load up with cream and ghee.

                      i just find your multiple gross generalizations to be over the top. please give us a break already; we're not unsophisticated dunces here (or at the vast majority of us ;-).

                      PS, if our indian resto EVER uses a pre-maid sauce, i'm suing them. that's also a reportable offense -- a level one felony, maybe.

                    2. Indians may buy spice mixes, but we start off with separate ground spices, and of course whole spices.

                      I can't imagine any Indian kitchen without, at the very least, turmeric, chili powder, ground coriander, cumin powder, some sort of garam masala (a mix, but not a "store mix"), and several more basic ground spices - regionally dependent. They are stored in round tins - it's very colorful.

                      1. re: fadista

                        fadista, i'm pretty. darn. sure. that mr. barnes is quite aware of this.

                        1. re: fadista

                          I don't think we're in disagreement. My primary focus was on the use of the word "all." As in kayalten's admonition to "buy **all** your spice powder separate." I don't dispute for a moment that most South Asians in the US use individual spices. It's just that many or most of them use spice mixes, too.

                          And then there's the implied assumption that spices should be bought in powdered form. While it makes sense to pre-grind anything that will get used up quickly, the shelf life after grinding is fairly short. Spices that are going to sit around for very long will do better if left whole until just before use.

                          1. re: alanbarnes

                            Besides, you use a lot of whole spices in Indian cooking. Or at least I do.

                            1. re: ZenSojourner

                              True dat. But then you can economize by buying in larger quantities. No matter how much you spice your food, a 1-pound bag of cumin lasts more than a few weeks unless you're cooking for an army.