Butter Chicken and Masala

Butter Chicken and Masala

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I’ve been hearing about butter chicken everywhere. During a break between classes in cooking school. At the grocery in the spice aisle.  My family, neighbors, and friends have mentioned it.  

Yes, this recipe phenomenon from India has piqued the interest of cooks all over our country.  

So just what is butter chicken? Are you as intrigued as I was when I first heard about it? What came to my mind was something like chicken slow-cooked in a luscious, smothering butter sauce.  

The interesting twist, though, is that not every version of butter chicken uses butter. Even the ones that do may not use a lot. The recipe I’m sharing doesn’t use butter at all. It’s the coconut milk in the recipe that gives a creamy, rich taste to this beloved Indian meal. What I love is that the coconut milk’s flavor does not overwhelm. It marries well with the other flavors, creating a silky sauce that you’ll want to spoon right up. 

Butter chicken has a spicy kick to it, but it’s not too hot. This colorful dish literally bursts with flavor. As butter chicken cooks, the aroma escapes the kitchen and wafts through the house. Get ready to answer questions like, “Is it done yet?” or “How much longer?” 

Butter chicken is that kind of dish.  

The seasoning, garam masala, includes healthful spices like cinnamon, bay, and cumin. So many virtues to this recipe! 

I made the chicken in a slow cooker. I’ve given instructions for stovetop cooking, too.  


The onion you use should be a regular yellow onion, not sweet, but the regular generic yellow cooking onion. I used chicken breasts in this recipe. They cooked in about four hours. If you use thighs, count on a little more cooking time. 

I like to use basmati or converted long-grain rice. Jasmine is nice, too, and cooks up stickier than the other two. 


  • Olive oil 
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced 
  • 1 generous tablespoon minced garlic 
  • 3 tablespoons grated ginger 
  • 1 tablespoon garam masala 
  • 6 oz. can tomato paste 
  • 1 teaspoon salt 
  • 3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts, cut into 2-inch pieces 
  • Juice of 1 lime 
  • 1 cup coconut milk (unsweetened) 
  • ½ cup low sodium chicken broth or more if needed 
  • Cilantro or parsley leaves, for garnish (optional) 
  • Cooked basmati, converted long-grain or jasmine rice, for serving 
  • Naan or pita for serving  


  1. In a skillet, film pan with olive oil over medium heat.
  2. Add onions to skillet, and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, add garlic and ginger, and cook another 2 minutes.  
  3. Add garam masala, tomato paste, and salt; cook and stir 2 minutes. 
  4. Place chicken pieces in a sprayed slow cooker, then add tomato paste mixture, lime juice, coconut milk, and chicken broth. Stir everything together, cover, and cook on low heat setting for 4 to 5 hours, until the chicken is cooked through. (Cooked longer, it may tend to get softer and shred easily.) 
  5. Garnish with cilantro and serve with rice, and naan or soft pita bread. A side of chutney is yummy, too. 

To Cook on Stovetop 

You’ll need a fairly large, heavy or non-stick cook pot for this. 

  1. Follow instructions up to adding the garam masala, tomato paste, and salt.  
  2. After cooking the mixture for 2 minutes, add chicken pieces, and stir to coat.  
  3. Stir in lime juice, coconut milk, and chicken broth.  
  4. Cover and cook on medium heat until chicken is cooked through. I like to cook it at what I call a gentle boil, just above a simmer. 
  5. That takes about 30 minutes or so.  
Basmati rice on the left, converted long-grain rice on the right.


Follow directions on the package for proportions of rice to liquid. I like to use broth to cook rice. 

  1. Boil liquid and add a bit of salt.
  2. Pour in rice and stir just to separate any clumps. Too much stirring releases starch and makes rice too sticky. 
  3. Cover pot tightly. Simmer according to package directions.  
  4. Fluff with a fork.  
  5. If rice is done too soon, put a folded towel over the rice and put the lid back on. Excess moisture will be absorbed so that the rice doesn’t continue to cook. 


What is coconut milk? 

It’s the liquid that comes from the grated meat of the coconut with added water. Do not substitute cream of coconut, which is sweetened coconut milk used in drinks and desserts. 

Substitute for freshly grated ginger 

Use ginger paste, but start with one tablespoon and go from there.  

What is masala? 

Masala means “blend.” Garam masala is a special spice blend. It is used throughout Southern Asia. Generally, garam masala is added in a small quantity at the end of cooking to add a subtle flavor to the dish. (In the recipe above, though, it’s added at the beginning.) 

It should be added in small quantities, or else it will overpower the dish. Many different kinds of garam masala are found depending on the region and the cook’s personal taste.  

Store in freezer 

  • Store garam masala in the freezer for longer shelf life.  
  • When you first open the jar, label it with the month and year. Most blends last about a year. To be sure, give the blend a sniff, checking for a good aroma. If the aroma is gone, so is the flavoring quality. 


Except for the dried powdered turmeric, whole dried spices are the key here. I use an inexpensive electric coffee grinder to grind spices.  


  • ¼ cup coriander seeds 
  • 2½ teaspoons cumin seeds 
  • 1 teaspoon each green cardamom seeds and cloves 
  • 3 large or 4 small bay leaves 
  • Up to 1 tablespoon hot red pepper seeds (or to taste) 
  • 2 pieces cinnamon bark, about 4” long each 
  • 1 teaspoon powdered turmeric  


  1. Working in batches, grind spices in coffee grinder until you get a fairly fine powdered product.  
  2. Stir in the turmeric. 
  3. Store in freezer for long term use.  

Tip for cleaning the coffee grinder 

  • After grinding spices, pour a little baking soda into grinder. Whirl for a few seconds, dump the baking soda out, then wipe clean with a dry paper towel. 

Originally published in the June/July 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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