Authenticity is not actually the greatest good in cooking. In fact, it is inauthenticity that breeds innovation and variation in the culinary landscape, and it has done great things. For instance: almost none of the “Chinese” food that what we eat in America is authentically Chinese. The chimichanga is not authentically Mexican, nor is the combination of sauerkraut and bratwurst eaten by actual Germans. And that’s ok! Those dishes have a history and story and tradition of their own that is worthy of respect and admiration.
Perhaps chief among the list of inauthentic dishes that have taken on their own life is the nominally Indian dish, chicken tikka masala. In all likelihood invented in a restaurant in London, chicken tikka masala is one of the most famous and best-loved curries in the world. And why shouldn’t it be? It has a rich, tangy, creamy sauce and spiced, charbroiled chunks of tender chicken. It’s perfect just the way it is. Today we bring you a version that you can cook using your grill or even better, if you have one, your Kamado-style ceramic cooker. With the high temps we’ll be operating at, we’ll be spot-checking our chicken regularly to make sure it’s properly temped and doesn’t shoot past our target temperatures. So grab your Thermapen® Mk4 and let’s get grilling, even if you have to clear the last bit of snow off your grill to do it.
What is chicken tikka masala?
The term tikka masala refers to the two main components in the preparation: the tikka and the masala. In Indian cuisine, tikka is a term for small pieces of marinated meat that are skewered and cooked either over a charcoal brazier or in a clay tandoor oven. Masala simply means a blend or mixture, and in this
Note that while we are using chicken for this dish, lamb tikka masala (or even shrimp) is every bit as delicious, if not more so!
The Tikkas: tandoor cooking
As I mentioned above, chicken tikka masala is traditionally made from char-broiled chicken, and getting that delicious fire-roasted flavor from grilling is really the way to go. Skewer up your chicken pieces and cook them over a hot grill until they reach 160°F (71°C), turning them occasionally. The charred bits contribute greatly to the flavor of the final dish.
But if you really want to turn things up to 11 and you have a kamado-style cooker, you can go full tandoor! The tandoor of India is a clay vessel with a partially closed top and has a fire built in the bottom of it. The oven reaches temperatures up to 900°F (482°C)—far more intense than your average grill!
Using an egg-style cooker for a tandoor takes some extra time, lots of fuel, and plenty of airflow, but it is loads of fun. We loaded our ceramic cooker with lump charcoal and lit as much of it as we could and used a small blower fan positioned in the intake vent to feed the fire. Leaving the lid open for a few minutes, too, helped to get a raging fire going. Once all the charcoal was burning, we closed the lid to allow the cooker to heat. The heated ceramic walls radiate into the chamber, keeping the temperature up and cooking the chicken from all sides. To be sure, it’s hard to keep the temp above 700°F (371°C) without proper preheating, and a lot of our cooking actually took place at around 550–600°F (288–316°C). We know that because we used a ThermaQ and a Hi-Temp Flexible Ceramic Fiber-Insulated Probe with a temperature range up to 2,200°F (1204°C) to track the temperatures.
Note that if you’re cooking tandoor style, you need skewers that are long enough to extend from the top vent diagonally to the junction of the grill and the wall (ours were 18”, just barely long enough). When you cook the chicken, lower the skewers in through the top hole of your kamado cooker and prop the tip in the gap between the wall and grill. You will also need serious heat resistant gloves to move and turn them! Because we were shooting for temperatures that were higher than the rating for the ChefAlarm or Smoke, we couldn’t probe the meat while it was cooking. Instead, we periodically removed each skewer to check the temperatures with our trusty Thermapen Mk4.
(For those without a grill, you can still make the dish. Just cook you chicken on skewers in a 425°F (218°C) oven.)
The Masala: seasoned sauciness
To make the thick, rich “gravy” for the curry, start with a base of onions and seasonings. Indian food is very particular about how spices are handled, and the particularity pays off with big, bold flavors. In this case, onion is sautéed in butter until browned and then spices and other fresh flavorings are added to the hot pan and cooked to toast them and awaken their aromas. The process only takes a few seconds but is very important. Adding the spices to the liquid later does not result in the same flavor.
Once the spices are toasted, crushed tomatoes are added and the whole dish is simmered to soften the onion completely. Once everything is cooked and partially thickened, cream is added to combat the tartness of the tomatoes and balance the whole dish.
Make the sauce while your chicken marinates so that it’s ready to go as soon as the chicken is cooked. It can be lidded and kept warm while you’re at the grill. Also prepare the rice while the chicken marinates, if you’re serving it. Warm some flatbreads for a complete, delicious meal that will truly impress.
Chicken Tikka Masala Recipe
Based on the recipe found in The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook
Note: We altered the recipe for the marinade some to bring it closer to the vivid red/orange color of the restaurant dish and to heighten the flavor, in case you want to just make these kebabs to eat without the sauce!
For the chicken tikkas
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp ground cumin
- ½ tsp ground coriander
- ½ tsp cayenne pepper1
- ½ tsp paprika
- ½ tsp turmeric
- ½ tsp garam masala
- 2 lb. boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1” cubes
- 1 C whole milk plain yogurt (a thick variety like Greek yogurt is best)
- 1 Tbsp minced or grated fresh ginger
- 2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh cilantro stems
- 2 medium garlic cloves, minced
For the masala sauce
- 3 Tbsp butter or vegetable oil
- 1 medium onion, minced
- 1 Tbsp garam masala
- 1 Tbsp tomato paste
- 2 medium garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tsp minced or freshly grated ginger
- 1 serrano chile, minced (remove seeds and ribs for less heat)
- 1 28-oz can of crushed plain tomatoes
- 2 tsp sugar
- ½ tsp salt
- 2/3 C cream
- ¼ C fresh chopped cilantro, plus more for garnish
Flatbread and basmati rice for serving
If you’re using a kamado-style cooker as a tandoor, preheat it at least a half hour before preparing the food. Run it with vents wide open for maximum oxygen flow and heat production.
Marinate the chicken
- Mince the aromatics: cilantro stems, ginger, and garlic.
- Mix the yogurt with the spices, salt, ginger, and garlic together in a large bowl.
- Add the chicken pieces and stir gently to fully coat the chicken.
- Cover and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Prepare the sauce
- Heat the butter over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven.
- Add the onion to the butter and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion begins to brown, about 10 minutes.
- Add the garam masala, tomato paste, ginger, serrano, and garlic and cook, stirring, until very fragrant, about 45—60 seconds.
- Add the crushed tomatoes and stir everything to combine. Be sure to scrape up and nice brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
- Reduce the heat to a low simmer and cover the pot. Simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring from time to time. Now is a good time to prepare the rice. If you’re not doing a tandoor-style cook, preheat your grill or oven to 425°F (218°C).
- Once the sauce has simmered, add the cream and stir to combine. Return to a simmer, kill the heat and cover the pot until the chicken is done cooking.
Cook the chicken
- Thread all the chicken pieces onto your skewers.
- If using the kamado tandoor as we did, lower the skewers in through the top vent hole of the cooker, angling the tip of the skewers so that they wedge in the gap between the grill and the wall of the cooker. You can put a few in at a time if you’re careful with the angles.
- Turn the skewers every 5 or 6 minutes.
- Cook the chicken until it’s internal temperature reaches 160°F (71°C)—at this temperature, the chicken is safe to eat after 16.9 seconds. We found that at the ~600°F (316°C) temperature we were able to maintain it took about 12-15 minutes to cook.
- Check the temperature of each skewer in a few places with your Thermapen Mk4.
- As each skewer reaches the pull temp, remove it from the cooker.
- When all the skewers are done cooking, remove all the meat from the skewers to the masala-sauce pot. Add the chopped cilantro and stir to combine.
- Serve over fragrant basmati rice with warmed flatbreads and garnish everything with more cilantro.
Once you taste this dish, you’ll understand how it became one of the most popular dishes in the world. The charred flavor of the succulent chicken pieces, the tangy orange sauce—yum. And though the ingredients list looks long, assembling the recipe is really only as difficult as making your own dry-rub for some ribs. Plus, the fun of cooking at 600–900°F (316–482°C) is its own reward!
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