A SPICY MARINADE AND QUICK CHAR MAKE CHICKEN EXCITING
Tandoori chicken is arguably India’s best-known culinary export. Lightly charred pieces of juicy chicken are infused with smoke, garlic, ginger, and spices for a dish that manages to be both exotic and homey.
Authentic versions call for a 24-hour marinade and a tandoor, the traditional beehive-shaped clay oven that fires up to 900 degrees—requirements that keep this dish mainly in the realm of restaurants, even in India. But if we could develop a workaround for the tandoor, this recipe would be a welcome addition to the usual chicken rotation, especially if the 24-hour marinade was no longer essential.
The most obvious alternative might be the grill, but the yogurt-spice mixture that coats the chicken pieces burns very easily. Although a tandoor oven is very hot, the chicken is not exposed directly to the flames so there’s little risk of a conflagration. As any novice griller knows, chicken parts and the grill don’t always work well together. The oven is a more reliable tool for making tandoori chicken at home, especially if used in combination with the broiler.
As for the yogurt marinade, mixing the spices with salt and then rubbing the chicken with this mixture is the best way to get the spice flavor deep into the meat. Thirty minutes does the trick and there’s no risk of the acid in the yogurt making the meat mushy. When it comes to the yogurt (which helps create a distinctive crust on the chicken pieces), it’s best tossed with the chicken right before it goes into the oven. Adding more spices to the yogurt reinforces their flavor. Serve the chicken with raita, the bracing yogurt sauce, to create an Indian classic without the fuss.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Start with a Spice Rub
We trade a long soak in the traditional yogurt marinade for a spice rub—it flavors the chicken without turning the meat spongy. We use the same spices traditionally used in the marinade—garam masala, ground cumin, and a little chili powder—as well as some ginger, garlic, and lime. To intensify their flavors, we bloom the spices and garlic in oil. Two steps help the rub permeate the chicken with flavor: First we remove the skin (this also eliminates the risk of flare-ups under the broiler) and then we make shallow slashes into the meat so the rub can penetrate deep into the chicken pieces.
Don’t Abandon the Yogurt Altogether
It will take about 30 minutes for the spice rub to penetrate the chicken. Afterward, give the chicken a quick dip in yogurt seasoned with the same spices in the rub—it will add an appealing tang to the exterior of the meat that is a hallmark of this dish.
Use Your Oven, Not a Tandoor
It’s not possible to replicate the intense heat of a tandoor oven with your home oven—but that’s OK. For nicely charred yet still juicy meat, start the chicken in a moderate oven (arrange the chicken on a wire rack set in a baking sheet so the chicken doesn’t stew in its moisture) and then finish the chicken under the broiler.
The chicken finishes cooking under the broiler and emerges with a crisp crust (from the yogurt)—but only if you make sure the oven rack is positioned 6 inches from the heating element. If the rack is too close, the chicken will burn and if the rack isn’t close enough, you’ll be waiting (and waiting) for the exterior to crisp, risking dry meat. Don’t leave the partially baked chicken in the oven while you heat the broiler—only a fully heated broiler will crisp the exterior and finish cooking the meat in sync.
A gentle oven method partially cooks the chicken without burning the yogurt crust. Only when the chicken is nearly done is it time to use the broiler.
- 10 minutes to make yogurt basting mixture and salt-spice rub
- 10 minutes to slash chicken and rub with salt-spice mixture
- 30 minutes to let spices flavor chicken (make raita while waiting)
- 20 minutes to coat chicken with yogurt and bake
- 10 minutes to heat broiler (remove chicken from oven while doing this)
- 15 to 20 minutes to broil and rest chicken
- 10-inch skillet for cooking spice paste
- Sharp paring knife for slashing chicken
- Rimmed baking sheet fitted with wire rack (line pan with foil to facilitate clean up)
Substitutions & Variations
We prefer both the chicken and raita made with whole-milk yogurt, but low-fat yogurt can be substituted. Nonfat yogurt will make the raita taste hollow and bland and should not be used.
Serve with basmati rice pilaf and a few chutneys or relishes (see here–here for two options) as well as Raita (recipe follows). If using large chicken breasts (about 1 pound each), cut each breast into three pieces. If using smaller breasts (10 to 12 ounces each), cut each breast into two pieces.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
- 1 tablespoon garam masala
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons chili powder
- 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
- ¼ cup lime juice (2 limes), plus 1 lime, cut into wedges
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 3 pounds bone-in chicken pieces (split breasts cut in half, drumsticks, and/or thighs), skin removed and trimmed
- Heat oil in 10-inch skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in garam masala, cumin, and chili powder and continue to cook until fragrant, 30 seconds longer. Transfer half of garlic mixture to medium bowl, stir in yogurt and 2 tablespoons lime juice, and set aside. In large bowl, combine remaining garlic mixture, remaining 2 tablespoons lime juice, and salt.
- Using sharp knife, make 2 or 3 short slashes into skinned side of each piece of chicken. Transfer chicken to large bowl and gently rub with salt-spice mixture until all pieces are evenly coated. Let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Set wire rack in aluminum foil–lined rimmed baking sheet. Pour yogurt mixture over chicken and toss until chicken is evenly coated with thick layer. Arrange chicken pieces, scored side down, on prepared wire rack. Discard excess yogurt mixture. Roast chicken until breast pieces register 125 degrees and thighs/drumsticks register 130 degrees, 15 to 25 minutes. (Smaller pieces may cook faster than larger pieces. Remove pieces from oven as they reach correct temperature.)
- Adjust oven rack 6 inches from broiler element and heat broiler. Return chicken to prepared wire rack, scored side up, and broil until chicken is lightly charred in spots and breast pieces register 160 degrees and thighs/drumsticks register 175 degrees, 8 to 15 minutes. Transfer chicken to serving plate, tent loosely with foil, and let rest for 5 minutes. Serve with lime wedges.
RAITA MAKES ABOUT 1 CUP
- 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- Cayenne pepper
Mix all ingredients together and season with salt and cayenne to taste. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
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