This Chicken Tikka Masala recipe rivals your favorite restaurant and is easy to make at home with accessible ingredients – you will be blown away at the explosion of flavor!
Chicken Tikka Masala is a must-make, astonishingly easy recipe, made with local grocery store ingredients! The lusciously rich and creamy, bronze-orange tomato-cream curry sauce is earthy, smoky, packed with spices and of course juicy, marinated, charred chicken. This Tikka Masala recipe has been perfected from the spices, to the cooking techniques, down to which tomatoes you use for the best recipe out there! Now, just load your chicken curry over hot rice with a showering of cilantro and a side of naan to mop up the silky sauce, and prepare for downright deliciousness!
Watch HOW TO MAKE Tikka Masala Recipe
Chicken Tikka Masala FAQS
The word tikka is a Persian word, meaning “bits” or “pieces.” Masala means mixture. It refers to the pieces of chicken cooked in a tandoor, then simmered in a mixture of tomatoes, cream and spices.
There are several theories and claims as to the exact origin of Tikka Masala, the most popular being from either the South Asian community in Great Britain or a restaurant in Glasgow, Scotland.
During the British Raj, a period from 1858 to 1947, the British Empire ruled over the Indian subcontinent. During this time, many South Asians migrated to the U.K., and opened restaurants. Food historians Peter and Colleen Grove adamantly believe the dish “was most certainly invented in Britain, probably by a Bangladeshi chef.” The two foodies point the finger towards Balbir Singh’s Shahi Chicken Masala recipe, published in 1961 in Indian Cookery.
The other theory is that Tikka Masala originated in the 1970s in the authentic curry house, Shish Mahal, in Glasgow, Scotland by Ali Ahmed Aslam. The story goes that a truck driver ordered Chicken Tikka, but complained that the dish was too dry and sent it back to the kitchen. So, Ali took a nod from Brits love for gravies and sauces and created the dish with a can of tomato soup, spices, and a dab of yogurt.
No matter who invented this iconic dish, it is a global favorite spanning countries, continents and can now be made in your own kitchen!
While the exact origins of Tikka Masala are contested, it is widely accepted to have originated somewhere in Great Britain and is the considered the national dish, even more so than Fish and Chips! In fact, in 2001, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook mentioned the dish in a speech, hailing the Chicken Tikka Masala as a symbol of modern multicultural Britain, and how Britain celebrates external influences. In the speech, the Secretary offered his own simplified explanation of how the dish evolved: “Chicken Tikka is an Indian dish. The masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.”
Chicken Tikka Masala and Butter Chicken are two of the most popular curries and look strikingly similar with their creamy orange sauce and chunks of chicken. They are made with many of the same ingredients including chicken, yogurt, tomatoes and garam masala, so it can be difficult to tell the two apart by appearance alone. With one taste, however, you will see that the two favorite curries differ significantly in flavor.
Tikka Masala has a pronounced smoky flavor from the chargrilled chicken and an overall more complex flavor profile than Butter Chicken. Butter Chicken, however, is not chargrilled and just simmered with the sauce. It has a less pronounced tomato flavor and is also richer due to the generous addition of butter which also adds a subtle sweetness.
Tikka Masala is a tomato and cream-based curry sauce made of sautéed onions, tomatoes, ginger, garlic and many Indian spices such as garam masala, turmeric, coriander and cumin and paprika. The sauce is simmered, pureed, then cream (either in the form of heavy cream, yogurt or cashews) is stirred into the sauce to make it creamy.
Tikka Masala is a tomato and cream-based sauce that’s smoky from the chargrilled chicken, rich and creamy, with a slight sweetness and tanginess with mild heat (although we like it hot!) punctuated by earthy spices, ginger and garlic.
The spices in the Tikka Masala vary depending on the region and from cook to cook; there is no such thing as an authentic version. While there is no standard recipe for Tikka Masala, garam masala is a key ingredient, a traditional Indian spice blend that may contain cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper, and sometimes also coriander and cumin. Chicken Tikka Masala also often include ginger, garlic, turmeric, paprika, coriander, and cumin.
Tikka Masala is a mildly spicy, earthy, curry dish with a creamy tomato sauce. Traditionally, it contains Kashmiri chili, which is a type of chili pepper grown in the Kashmir region of India. It’s bright red in color and has a very mild spice level. Many restaurant versions, however, offer mild, medium or spicy curry.
Chicken Tikka Masala is traditionally paired with basmati rice in order to soak up the rich sauce and offer a neutral textural component. It is also usually paired with naan to mop up the leftover sauce. Other sides to compliment the rich and earthy spices are raita, a creamy yogurt cucumber dish, and mango chutney.
Chicken Tikka Masala is high in protein thanks to the chicken but high in calories due to the heavy cream. To reduce the calories, evaporated milk can be used in place of the heavy cream. It won’t taste as rich, but still delicious and extremely flavorful.
There are widespread adaptations of Tikka Masala made with different proteins such as pork, paneer, tofu, chickpeas, and vegetables such as peas, cauliflower, and/or carrots.
Yes! Paneer Tikka Masala is a popular vegetarian alternative made with paneer cheese instead of the chicken. Paneer is an Indian, non-melting cheese, traditionally made from curdled buffalo milk, or a mixture of buffalo and cows’ milks and some sort of fruit or vegetable acid like lemon juice. The cheese is mild and milky in flavor, soft and spongy, ideal for soaking up the flavor of the marsala sauce. The paneer is usually cut into cubes for curries and can be grilled, or cooked on skewers without melting.
Yes, Tikka Masala can be made vegan by using extra firm tofu instead of the chicken, diary free yogurt, and coconut milk instead of heavy cream. Drain the tofu first by placing in a bowl then placing a plate on top, then topping with a heavy object for 10 minutes or so.
No, Chicken Tikka and Chicken Tikka Masala are not the same dish, but they start as the same dish.
Both Chicken Tikka and Chicken Tikka Masala begin by marinating small chunks of chicken in a mixture of yogurt and spices. The chicken is then skewered and grilled in a special clay oven called a tandoor. At this point, the grilled chicken is Chicken Tikka. It becomes Chicken Tikka Masala by adding the chargrilled chicken to a masala curry sauce made with tomatoes, cream, onions and spices, particularly garam masala.
Yes, Chicken Tikka Masala recipe as written is gluten free.
Chicken Tikka Masala Ingredients
This Chicken Tikka Masala recipe is made with easy-to-find ingredients but boasts big, bold, exotic flavor. I have divided the ingredients into three sections 1) the chicken marinade, 2) the spices, 3) the sauce. Let’s take a closer look at what you’ll need (full measurements in the printable recipe card at the bottom of the post):
For the chicken marinade
For the SPICE BLEND
Tikka Masala is intensely flavorful due to the plethora of seasonings. I know it is a lot of spices, but they each play a crucial role in the complex flavor profile and only take a couple minutes to whisk together. You will need:
For the SAUCE
How to Make Chicken Tikka Masala
To make this easy Chicken Tikka Masala recipe, chicken is marinated in a spiced yogurt sauce, seared in a skillet then finished in a tomato-cream based curry sauce. After the chicken has finished marinating, the dish comes together in 30 minutes! I’ve given detailed step-by-step instructions below (full measurements in the recipe card at the bottom of the post):
Step 1: Make the Spice Blend
- Whisk together all of the spices; set aside.
Step 2: Marinate the Chicken
- Remove 2 ½ tablespoons of the Spice Blend to a large bowl (whatever you are going to marinate the chicken in).
- Whisk in the yogurt, lemon juice, half of the garlic and half of the ginger.
- Add the chopped chicken and stir to evenly coat. You want every piece of chicken coated in the marinade!
- Marinate the chicken for AT LEAST 30 minutes at room temperature but the chicken is very best if marinated for at least 3 hours in the fridge, ideally overnight.
Step 3: Make the Chicken Tikka Masala Sauce
- Sauté onions in a large braiser or Dutch oven until softened, about 5-7 minutes.
- Add the remaining ginger, garlic and Spice Mix and sauté for 1 minute.
- Stir in the crushed tomatoes.
- Bring to boil then reduce to gentle simmer and cook for 10 minutes, while stirring often and scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. You can cook the chicken while the sauce simmers.
Step 4: Cook the Chicken in Batches
- Heat a high smoking point oil (like vegetable or canola) in a large cast iron skillet over high heat.
- Working in batches, add the chicken to the skillet and cook until charred on each side (creates that signature flavor!). Transfer the chicken to bowl. Note that the chicken will not be fully cooked at this point but will finish cooking in the sauce.
Step 5: Blend the Sauce (optional)
- Transfer the tomato mixture to a high-powered blender and purée until smooth, leaving a corner of the lid open and covered with a paper towel so steam can escape and it doesn’t explode. Alternatively, transfer to a bowl and use an immersion blender to blend, then return back to the pan.
Step 6: Combine
- Stir the heavy cream into the blended sauce followed by the chicken. Cover and gently simmer for a few minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Season to taste. Depending on the tomatoes you used, you may need to add 1-2 teaspoons sugar to balance the acidity. Add additional cayenne pepper for more heat if desired.
Step 7: Serve
- Serve over basmati rice with optional cilantro.
Tools Used in This Recipe
Chicken Tikka Masala
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Chicken and Sauce
- 2 pounds boneless chicken thighs, cut into large bite-sized pieces (about 1 1/2-inches)
- 1 cup plain or Greek yogurt, fullfat is best
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger, divided
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic, divided
- neutral, high smoking point oil such as canola or coconut, see notes (do NOT use olive oil for chicken)
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 28 oz. can FIRE ROASTED crushed tomatoes (see notes)
- 1 1/3 cups heavy cream (use evaporated milk for lower calories)
- 1 teaspoon sugar, optional, as needed
- Mix spices: Whisk together all of the Spice Blend spices in a small bowl; set aside.
- Marinate chicken: Remove 2 ½ tablespoons Spice Blend to a large bowl or freezer bag (whatever you are going to marinate the chicken in). Add the yogurt, lemon juice, 1 tablespoon grated ginger and 1 tablespoon minced garlic. Whisk to combine. Add the chopped chicken and stir to evenly coat. Marinate for 30-45 minutes at room temperature, but BEST if refrigerated overnight.
- Make sauce: Stir in the crushed tomatoes. Bring to a boil then reduce to gentle simmer and cook for 10 minutes, stirring often and scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. (You can cook the chicken while the sauce simmers, see Step 6).
- Blend sauce (optional but recommended): After simmering, transfer the tomato mixture to a high-powered blender and purée until smooth, leaving a corner of the lid open and covered with a paper towel so steam can escape and it doesn’t explode. Alternatively, transfer to a bowl and use an immersion blender to blend, then return back to the pan. Season to taste. Depending on the tomatoes you used, you may need 1-2 teaspoons sugar to balance the acidity.
- Cook chicken: Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large cast iron skillet over high heat until smoking. Working in batches, add the chicken in a single layer and cook until charred on each side, about 2 minutes per side (it will not be cooked through). Transfer chicken to a bowl; set aside. Scrape out the skillet in between batches and add more oil to cook the next batch.
- Combine: Stir the heavy cream into the blended sauce followed by the chicken. Cover and gently simmer for a few minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Season to taste with additional salt, sugar and/or cayenne pepper.
- Serve: Serve over basmati rice with optional cilantro.
Tips and Tricks
- Chicken: Please do NOT use chicken breasts. The high temperature required to char the chicken will overcook it and cause it to dry out. Chicken thighs are dark meat and will not dry out, are inherently more flavorful and will become melt in your mouth tender.
- Garam Masala: This is a common spice blend and can be found with the spices at every grocery store.
- Spice level: 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper is medium, leaning towards medium-hot spice level, which should be perfect for those who like heat, but not fiery heat. If you don’t like heat, reduce the cayenne pepper. You can always add more to taste after the sauce is complete.
- Oil: You must use a high smoking point oil and NOT olive oil. Use canola, vegetable, coconut, grapeseed or other neutral flavored oil with a high smoke point.
- Fire roasted crushed tomatoes: The type of tomatoes is crucial and makes a huge difference in the taste of the entire dish! Please use fire roasted crushed tomatoes instead of regular tomatoes. These tomatoes have been roasted which gives them a complex smokiness, deeper flavor and lower acidity. In fact, they are so balanced and sweeter than regular tomatoes, you shouldn’t even have to add any sugar to the sauce! I highly recommend getting good quality such as Cento Marzano®, Carmelina Marzano Italian®, or Muir Glen®.
- Make it lighter: Use half and half or evaporated milk in place of the heavy cream. You may also use full fat coconut milk for coconut infused sauce.
- Vegetarian Tikka Masala: Swap the chicken with chickpeas, extra firm tofu, paneer (detailed below) or your preferred blend of vegetables such as cauliflower, mushrooms, carrots, bell peppers, etc. To use tofu, start by draining excess moisture from the tofu by placing it in a pie plate, topping with a heavy plate and weighing down with 2 heavy cans (to release water). Set aside for 10 minutes then cut into ½-inch cubes.
- Paneer Tikka Masala: Substitute the chicken for paneer cheese. Paneer is a fresh Indian cheese that holds its shape and doesn’t melt, even after being cooked. It’s similar to halloumi, but softer and not as squeaky.
- Vegan Tikka Masala: Choose your preferred vegetarian protein substitute above and use dairy free yogurt and coconut milk instead of heavy cream.
- To clean your blender: If you blend the tikka masala sauce in a blender, be aware it will stain due to the turmeric. You will need bleach to get it clean.
- To clean your cast iron enamel: Cleaning cast-iron enamel is a breeze! Fill it a little over halfway with water. Bring the water to a simmer then add 2 tablespoons baking soda. Using a long-handled dish brush, clean the skillet – any residue will come right off!
- Storage: Leftovers should be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 5 days. You may also freeze the Tikka Masala for up to 3 months, then thaw overnight in the fridge before reheating.
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