Murgh Makhani (Makhni) – or as you may know it – Butter Chicken

The first dish I want to write about is in fact a meat dish and I will be going into depth considering the preparation and cooking of the meat as for this dish I’m going to draw on the science of cooking to suggest some alternatives to the traditional methods.

Me on the train from Delhi to Goa

Me on the train from Delhi to Goa

As you will read in the Travel Posts section of the blog we took a train from Delhi to Goa. During this 33 hour long journey the couple that shared the same cabin with us offered us to share their food (I do not recommend you take food from strangers on the train as we have heard reports that people have been drugged and all their belongings stolen – but in this instance we were ok).  They came from the Punjab region of India and told us, slightly biasedly perhaps, that the Punjab region has the best food in India.  This was the second such claim I’d heard about Punjabi food, so I decided to focus on a Punjab classic which also happens to be Vicky’s favourite.

Murgh Makhani is a rich, buttery and creamy dish from the Punjab region (although other sources suggest that it originated in Delhi).   Other variations of the dish include Paneer Makhani, Vegetable Makhani, and Lentil or Dal Makhani.   A Dal Makhani takes 6-8 hours to cook, and is thus reserved for special occasions.  Makhani is generally served with a flatbread (naan or chapatis).

The standard recipe involves cooking the chicken in a tandoor or under a very hot grill first, then cooling and reheating in the sauce. My concern with this, is that it may make the chicken dry and increase the risk of food poisoning contamination if not handled correctly.

For the best results I would start preparing this dish several days in advance.  In my mind butter chicken must have chunky, juicy, tender lumps of chicken in a rich, creamy sauce.  So my first point of focus would be to get the chicken as succulent as possible.   I would start by brining the chicken.  I get criticized for brining the meat I cook (Shannon Altimari!)  but I’m not advocating the use of large amounts of salt in my cooking.  It simply works.  Let me explain a little of the science behind it.

– The salt will equilibrate between the meat and the surrounding solution.

– As it does so the chloride ions collect on the protein filaments.

– As the ions increase in number they generate a negative charge.

– This charge is where the magic happens.  It loosens and pushes the filaments apart, which in turn draws water into the resulting gap causing the meat to swell.

The end result is that the meat will hold more water even after cooking.

In order to brine the chicken I would place the whole boneless, skinless chicken breasts into a large bowl or container and cover with water.  Then weigh it and subtract the weight of the container.  The ratio of salt to water & chicken should be 1gram of salt to 100grams of meat and water combined.  I’d then soak this for 4 hours, remove the chicken from the brine and let it rest for a further 2 hours (keeping refrigerated at all times).

But of course this chicken dish should be marinated in yogurt and spices prior to cooking.  Common sense suggests that the best time to get flavor into the meat would be when the salt is doing its work.  The flavor will literally be drawn into the meat as it swells.  So add a hearty handful of the spices to the brine.



The next thing to determine is the cooking method and temperature.  If I’m not going to use the traditional methods then I’ve got to work out how to cook the chicken.  To get the result that I want (tender & juicy), I would recommend cooking it slowly and at a low temperature.  This is the complete opposite to the traditional method that uses a very hot Tandoor (a clay oven with hot coals inside that can reach temperatures of 480 degrees C).  So the challenge here is to get the flavor of cooking over flames but slowly and without drying the meat out.

The distinctive flavor of meat cooked over flames comes from the burnt areas on the outside of the meat.  However, when you cook meat quickly at high temperatures, the collagen that separates each individual muscle fiber contracts forcing the water out of the meat.  It’s the cooking equivalent of wringing out the meat.  Brining will go some way to preventing this from happening, but we do not want lose the water that is already in there.

At low temperatures of 40 – 50 degrees C the collagen breaks down and turns to gelatin, however cooking at this temperature presents a health risk as this temperature is insufficient to kill food poisoning bacteria.  It is possible to break down the collagen at higher temperatures it just requires more time.  So a balance is needed.

When meat is cooking the water content inside the meat heats up and eventually boils,.  As it boils it turns to steam and the steam forces its way out of the meat.  As we’ve worked so hard to keep the water content in the meat, we have to stop it from reaching boiling point.  Therefore for this dish I would want to try roasting the chicken for 35-40mins at about 90 degrees C.  This is high enough to kill the bacteria but low and long enough to break down the collagen.

We now need to get the flavor we want and to give the meat some colour, as the method outlined so far will not brown the meat at all.  I would now use either, the gas hob and a pair of tongs or, perhaps even easier, a blowtorch to very quickly brown the outside of the meat. A very hot grill could also work.  The key is that is should be very hot and very quick.  Now, and VERY importantly after cooking the meat must be allowed to rest for a further 30mins.  As meat rests the juices inside thicken so when you cut into the meat the juice is less likely to flow out.

This is the point where I should be giving you a recipe to follow but, as I’m travelling without even the means to make a cup of tea, I have nowhere to test and sample recipes outside of cookery courses. Here’s a recipe that I have found a recipe on-line that I like: I would follow the recipe described in this blog substituting the first marinade with the brine, and adding the lemon juice and chili powder to the second marinade.  Then where the recipe says to grill the chicken, roast it as I’ve described above.

Murgh Makhani

Murgh Makhani

I would be delighted to hear how you got on and if you thought my changes to this classic worked.

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