Our attempt to cook all of Heston’s Perfection recipes continues with the Fat Duck Chef’s Perfect Chicken Tikka Masala recipe. It’s easier than you might expect, but very bloody long.
Let’s not waste time talking about the “authenticity” of the original Chicken Tikka Masala dish. Heston Blumenthal takes care of all that in the In Search of Perfection book & TV show.
Instead we’re going to focus on cooking Heston’s Perfect Chicken Tikka Masala recipe, as it appears in the In Search of Perfection book. You know the drill by now.
Special Equipment: Pressure Cooker, Spice Grinder, Blender, Metal Skewers, Barbecue, house bricks, Special Ingredients: Melon seeds, black cardomon pods, chickpea flour, Kashmiri chilli powder
Time: 3 days
Serves: 4 (but we made double, to provide some extra to freeze)
Here’s what we’re hoping to achieve. The finished dish in Heston’s In Search of Perfection book:
And here’s Heston making his Perfect Chicken Tikka Masala recipe on the show:
In truth this isn’t a difficult recipe to make (apart from the idiotic barbecue bit), just a very time consuming one, using a long list of obscure ingredients.
To make this recipe properly you won’t be able to rely on the world food aisle at your local Tesco Extra. Kashmiri Chilli Powder, Black Cardamom Pods and Chermagaz Melon Seeds all required a trip to an dedicated Asian Grocer. We went to Worldwide Foods in Manchester’s Rusholme area.
This is a fantastic place. Not only did me and my mate Ben get the puerile joy of walking around singing “Mr Worldwide” at each other (the Limmy Newswipe version, not the Pitbull version), but we also managed to pick up every single one of the rare spices required, plus a few other household staples, all at bargain prices.
If you ever get the chance to shop at any kind of Asian wholesaler instead of a supermarket then please do so, the savings are worth it. Although we didn’t buy any of the paneer, or the yoghurt, because when we picked them up they felt significantly warmer than the ambient temperature of the store! In fact even the shelves were warm to the touch in their “refrigerator”.
Step 1: Brine the Chicken (Day 1)
You ought to prepare the garam masala first, but since the chicken is going to be out of commission for the next 8 hours we’d advise doing this step, then attending to the spice mix afterwards.
Heston’s Perfect Chicken Tikka Masala recipe dates back to a distant past when Pixar made good films, people still listened to music by La Roux and Miley Cyrus was a wholesome teenage role model. We’re talking about the year 2007.
This was also a time when submersion brining still seemed like a good idea. Brine, through various bits of science better explained by Modernist Cuisine, helps meat hold on to more water, giving it a more succulent texture (though a more watery, diluted flavour).
Nowadays we’d inject our brine, saving time and hassle. But to try and stick as closely as possible to Heston’s In Search of Perfection Chicken Tikka Masala recipe we’ll be following his instruction for submersion brining.
It’s an awkward business. You need a container large enough to hold all the chicken and the brine, and after 8 hours of submersion there’s a further 2 hours of rinsing to remove excess salt.
The recipe uses only chicken thighs (the meat is naturally more succulent). Since we’re making double this meant having to skin and de-bone 2 kilos of chicken thighs before we could start this step. This actually left us with about a kilo of leftover skin and bone. I am incredibly proud that I thought to make a stock out of these bits rather than binning them. A small victory against the normally wasteful Heston Blumenthal.
This step is best done 1 – 2 days in advance of cooking the dish.
Step 2: Garam Masala (Day 2)
There’s a whole heap of history and philosophy behind garam masala that I’m not even remotely qualified to talk about. Heston, who likes to go to ridiculous lengths for his latter perfection recipes, is going to ask us to make ours from scratch.
Start by assembling your assorted spices, in their whole and unprocessed form. Coriander seeds, cardamom pods in green and in black, cinnamon quills, bay leaves, the whole production. You’ll notice that there’s an awful lot of stuff in our photos. What you can see here is exactly half the amount of ingredients the book asks for. We didn’t think we’d need over a full kilo of Heston-spec garam masala that the original recipe would yield.
Your spices get roasted in the oven for ten minutes to bring out their flavours.
They are then going to need grinding into a fine powder. Given the vast amount there is to deal with I thought that instead of our tiny little spice ginder we’d use the mini food processor that came with our Kenwood HB724 blender. I absolutely love this gadget and I’m very attached to it.
It ground through the spices pretty well, but those harsh coriander shells and rough cinnamon quills left the inside of the Perspex chopping bowl covered in thousands of tiny scratches. This was heart-breaking as the mixer is still pretty new. Also, you still have to use the mini spice grinder to blitz the remaining chunks and bits to a very fine powder.
Remember to sieve the mixture, as this will get rid of any lingering lumps of cinnamon bark and the like.
You will end up with an awful lot of Heston’s Garam Masala recipe. Like we said, this is only half the recommended amount from the recipe, and still enough to fill a 750g jar. Would you believe that the recipe only requires a few tablespoons.
Step 3: Roasted Garlic (Day 2)
Heston’s Perfect Chicken Tikka Masala recipe uses a staggering amount of garlic. About 6 whole bulbs. You’ll want to roast half of these. Amazingly we’d never done this before. At least not without me burning the garlic.
It’s really easy. Slice the top off each garlic bulb and drizzle olive oil onto it.
Wrap each bulb in an individual foil parcel, and roast in the oven for 20 – 25 minutes.
The garlic will have a smooth, creamy texture, captivating smell and a magnificent flavour.
Step 4: Ginger & Garlic Rub (Day 2)
A frankly incredible amount of ginger is what you need next. Think two-or-more of the biggest gnarly pieces you can lay your hands on.
Add this to a food processor along with half of the roasted garlic, a comical excess of raw garlic and olive oil. Blend like crazy until it’s a rough paste. (Note: we made our garam masala after this step, which is why you can’t see all the horrendous scratches on our food mixer).
Slash the skinless chicken thighs to ensure the rub penetrates into the meat, then smother it on. Leave all this for another few hours. We began the recipe Friday night, to allow for brining. By the time we’d removed the rub it was already early evening Saturday.
This rub might seem like an excessive step, but we found the intense added flavour really is worth it. Be sure to remove most of the rub before proceeding with the next step.
Step 5: Yoghurt Marinade (Day 2)
Another step to increase the flavour in the meat, as well as to tenderise it.
First, fry the chilli powder. Then make a roux using ghee and chickpea flour. This was slightly infuriating. – we bought an entire 1kg bag and the recipe only needs a couple of tablespoons.
This roux will help the other ingredients stick to the chicken. Combine everything in a bowl and then smother over the chicken.
This needs a further 7 hours (we went for overnight, taking us through to Sunday daytime). Brush off most of the marinade before the next, utterly preposterous step of building your own makeshift tandoor oven to cook the chicken.
Step 6: Cooking the Chicken (Day 3)
Part of what makes Heston’s TV shows so entertaining are the daft lengths he’ll go to when trying to achieve “perfection”. You can’t deny the fun of watching a load of giddy chefs blow up a stack of cakes using coke and Mentos, or cooking a pig in a hot tub.
On a smaller scale, but just as idiotic, is the trick of creating your own makeshift tandoor oven using a barbecue and a small pile of house bricks.
The principle behind this is to both cook the chicken quickly, as the “traditional” recipe requires, and as a nod to authenticity in the cooking technique.
On a practical level it’s a pain in the arse. You have to pause your kitchen antics and transfer activity to the outside, praying for decent weather while you set fire to not one but three bags of charcoal, then wait two hours, for the sake of just 5 minutes cooking. It’s even more excessive than the time we had to build a makeshift cage to hay-smoke haddock fillets for Heston’s Perfect Fish Pie recipe.
But, rules are rules. Before cooking you need to thread the chicken on to long metal skewers (easily available during barbecue season). Since we all know how accident prone I can be, I decided to play it safe by corking the end of each skewer with a small potato. The idea being that they’d stop the chicken sliding off, and perhaps make a mid-prep snack (the chicken didn’t slide off, but the burned, ash-coated potatoes aren’t pleasant eating!).
Build up a load of coals, then stack the bricks to make a triangular chimney. You should ideally bank more coals around the edges of the bricks to create a spectacularly intense heat. (Though as you can see here I’m using our small 2-person barbecue and extra coals would be at serious risk of spilling onto the new paving stones).
The chicken doesn’t take long to cook. But if you can’ be bothered with all this hassle then we’d say just grill at as high a heat as you can. It’s not authentic, but it’s a damn sight easier.
Allow the chicken to cool then store in an airtight container for the final step.
Step 7: Naan Bread Dough (Day 3)
We like rice, but Heston prefers to serve his Perfect Chicken Tikka Masala recipe with naan bread. As gluttons, we’ll be having both.
Making the dough is simple, it’s mostly milk and self-raising flour. Mix these together with the sifted dry ingredients.
The dough will be incredibly sticky. Good luck getting it all out of your mixer.
Flour your hands very, very well before attempting to roll it into a ball.
Finally create individual naan bread portions. Cover them with plastic and allow to rise at room temperature for about two hours. They won’t grow an awful lot.
Step 8: Toasted Melon Seeds (Day 3)
We’re getting close to the end of Heston’s In search of Perfection Chicken Tikka Masala recipe, so it’s best we sort out all the garnishes now, so we don’t embarrass ourselves by being caught out later.
Just fry the melon seeds in a small amount of oil until golden, about 5 minutes, then sprinkle with salt. For such tiny things they really do make a huge impact on the finished dish.
Step 9: Cashew Butter (Day 3)
Heston, Heston Heston… why must there always be butter? It’s a constant theme with his In Search of Perfection recipes, whether it’s saffron butter to finish his Risotto, bloody mary butter to add to his Chilli Con Carne, or melted butter to fry his Baked Alaska sponge in.
This is really easy to make. Just roast some cashews, then blitz them to a puree in your garam masala-scented spice grinder.
I was gonna lie and say this is one finishing butter you curiously don’t need to add actual butter to. But the cashews don’t puree easily, and you’re best off adding some melted ghee to help them along (Modernist Cuisine would advise you soak the cashew nuts in water overnight, which would work better to soften them up).
Step 10: Tomatoes (Day 3)
With all the components fully prepared we can finally begin making the iconic sauce for Heston’s Perfection Chicken Tikka Masala recipe.
This starts quietly enough – core out some ripe tomatoes to form the base for the sauce.
Then toast some more coriander and cumin seeds, and tie them up in a little muslin bag. Add the spices and cored whole tomatoes to a pressure cooker, bring up to full pressure over a high heat, then turn the temperature down and cook for about half an hour.
Depressurize the cooker under cold running water and when you lift the lid you’ll have a thin tomato sauce, delicately flavoured with cumin and coriander, with bits of tomato skin floating about.
You can deal with the skins, and the bag of spices, by pushing everything through a sieve. We have wrecked so many, many sieves thanks to Heston’s love of this technique.
Step 11: Masala Sauce (Day 3)
En-mise your place and get to work.
Begin by frying the distinctive Kashmiri Chilli Powder in melted ghee.
And then, add an incredible amount of onion and cook slowly. Heston wants translucent, but we accidentally-on-purpose took them to lightly caramelised. We really like slow-cooked onions.
And then, add your fresh garlic, roasted garlic and the tomato puree. Cook for longer than you’d expect in order to get the raw flavours out of the tomato.
And then, add the reserved, sieved tomatoes, and heat through.
And then, some of the chickpea flour, and the equipment-destroying garam masala. You can see here just how little of the massive batch is actually required in the final sauce.
And then, coconut milk. You should add this to taste, but we like a really creamy result so we used the full amount allowed by the recipe.
Stirring this through drastically changes the colour.
And then, add the reserved pieces of chicken, stirring them in and ensuring they’re heated through (65°C for ten to fifteen minutes, food hygiene fans).
And then, the cashew nut butter. Again this is “to taste” but we added the lot. Party to obtain that creamy finished dish, partly out of spite and to avoid wastefulness.
And then, because Heston Blumenthal literally cannot help himself, add a load of unsalted butter. (Heston’s excuse: “this dish is based on the original Butter Chicken, after all”).
Finish the dish with some chopped green chilli (we keep frozen ones handy) and scatter over the toasted melon seeds.
Step 12: Cooking the Naan Breads (Day 3)
These are so unexpectedly easy to make that there’s no reason to ever buy those preservative-laden bath sponges from the supermarket ever again.
You have to do these one at a time. Stretch each risen portion of dough out until you have a naan bread-sized naan bread.
To cook them, you’ll want a furiously hot grill (ideally preheated for about 10 minutes) and a pizza stone. Heston would like this to be two square-shaped pizza stones, set on the diagonal under the grill for the most authentic effect. But, after working on Heston’s Perfect Chicken Tikka Masala recipe for two days and three nights my enthusiasm was starting to ebb, so I just slid the pizza stone under the grill the conventional way.
Your naan breads will take 1½ – 2 minutes to cook. Brush them with melted ghee first. Or, if you can’t be bothered dirtying another pan to melt more ghee, a bit of olive oil spray. I won’t say which of those we opted for.
Present the freshly toasted naans alongside the portions of curry sauce and you’re done.
Congratulations, you have finished making Heston’s Perfect Chicken Tikka Masala recipe from In Search of Perfection. Tuck in!
With every Heston Blumenthal In Search of Perfection recipe we try, we expect to be underwhelmed. Surely no recipe can have the complexity of flavour and downright deliciousness that justifies the two and three and four day cooking times.
Yet time and again we take the first mouthful of these dishes and realise just how fantastic, how well-conceived, how close to perfection they are.
We don’t generally order Tikka Masala when we’re out – it’s just far too embarrassing to have it sat on your table – so we can’t say how authentic this dish actually is. What we will say is that if there’s an essence, a notion, an understanding of what the perfect chicken tikka masala would be, then this recipe is it.
Standout aspects? Firstly the intense punches of ginger and garlic that flavour the chicken, backed up by a rich mixture of flavours from the marinade.
There’s so much going on in both those stages that you imagine their effect would be lost under all the sauce and grilling, but you can easily taste every last mauling the chicken was subjected to.
The creaminess of the dish from maxing out on coconut and almond butter was also a noticeable feature. A appeasement to British palettes? Maybe. But it does make Heston’s Perfect Chicken Tikka Masala recipe taste damn good.
The gorgeously pungent seasoning and texture of the melon seeds were also favourites.
Add to this the tenderness of the chicken, rich and thick sauce and that fresh naan with it’s hot, crispy surface and fluffy centre and this is the kind of curry we’d happily make again, no matter how trashy or inauthentic it might be.
We can’t say that every person who made this dish would think it was worth all the effort, but as another education in food, in technique and in bringing the best qualities of a dish to the fore, Heston’s Perfect Chicken Tikka Masala recipe is another success.
We’d love to make this again, but to save time and sanity we’d make the following adjustments to Heston’s Chicken Tikka recipe:
- Use injection brining to cut down on time and hassle.
- Combine the ginger and garlic rub and yoghurt marinade stages to speed up the process
- Just grill the chicken. Jesus Christ.
- Use tinned tomatoes or passata.
- Store-bought garam masala. It’s delicious, but too much work and effort to make your own.
- Soak cashews overnight before blending
Is it worth three days of your time to make the perfect chicken tikka, or have you got a chicken tikka recipe that you’d always swear by? Did Heston get it right with his research and is this dish even halfway authentic? Please tell us your thoughts in the comments section.