Bulks Food

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See Tandoor Style Tandoori Chickens Recipe

There are a few things in life that everyone should experience. First and foremost is rolling in snow and then jumping in a hot tub. It’ll alter your life—or at the very least your circulation. But coming in a close second is watching a skilled Indian tandoor cook do his magic. There are few things more awesome than seeing bright red hunks of raw marinated chicken threaded onto massive four-foot-long metal skewers, seeing those skewers lowered down into the fiery inferno of a 900°F (480°C) clay tandoor oven, then emerging 15 minutes after charred, smoky, tender, and juicy.

You’d be surprised at how many Indian restaurants will happily let you take a peek into the kitchen if you ask nicely (I’ve never been turned down). Indian cuisine is largely spice- and sauce-based, but tandoori-style chicken relies more on its intriguing cooking technique than, say, a carefully balanced curry.

See, tandoor ovens—the large, bell-shaped coal or wood-fired ovens used in traditional Indian baking—were traditionally used only for making naan. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that an enterprising Punjabi restaurateur named Kundan Lal Gujral created culinary history by saying to himself, “Hey, I wonder what happens when I stick a chicken in there?”

It’s a phrase I’ve used on many occasions, none of which has had as happy an ending as it did for Kundan. The dish would eventually go on to spawn the now equally-famous chicken tikka, which would in turn beget the British classic chicken tikka masala (essentially hunks of tandoori chicken cut up and served with a spiced tomato-cream sauce).

These days, pretty much every Indian restaurant in the United States prominently features tandoori chicken on their menu in varying degrees of quality. At its best, it’s incomparably juicy, mildly spiced, with an intense hit of smoke. Served simply with sliced onions and a squeeze of lemon or lime, it’s good, honest, simple cooking. But more often than not, you end up with dry, stringy breast meat reheated in the oven—chicken so dry that even the sizzle platter it’s served on can’t save it.

My goal: figure out how to make this Indian classic in my own backyard.

The Basics: Chicken Prep

For reasons that should be readily obvious to anyone, we’re not going to be making our chicken in a tandoor oven. Luckily, a backyard charcoal grill will do just fine (yeah, you can go with gas, although it won’t get quite hot enough for what we’re after).

With a traditional tandoor oven, the chicken gets cut into halves or quarters before being stuck onto skewers. On a grill, it’s much easier to butterfly them. They stay flat, they’re easy to flip, and they cook more evenly. The easiest way to butterfly a chicken is to cut out its back with a pair of kitchen shears (see our recommendation here). A few snips through the ribs, a quick push down on the breast to flatten it and break the wishbone, and you’re done.

Author removing skin from the breast of a butterflied chicken.

Tandoori chicken is traditionally cooked with the skin off. While for most methods of cooking chicken this would be a bad idea (skin is an insulator that prevents dry breast meat from becoming tough or stringy), with tandoori chicken, the thick yogurt-based marinade helps to prevent the meat from drying out.

The easiest way to get your chicken ready for the grill is to twist the legs up so that they’re pointing upwards and laying on either side of the breast. Then, I make sure everything stays flat and flippable by keeping everything in place with a couple of metal skewers (wooden ones will work, but don’t expect them not to burn in the high heat needed for this type of cooking).

Do Marinades Really Work?

Of the various restaurants I’ve visited and recipes I’ve perused, there are only a few very minor variations in the cooking technique, and all of them start with a yogurt and citrus juice-based marinade seasoned with garlic, ginger, a few spices, and a bit of red food coloring. This last ingredient is one that many restaurants actually seem embarrassed to admit to using.
“you’ll see the telltale jug of red food coloring sitting right there on the spice rack.”

I’ll hear chefs say, “oh, the color comes from the cayenne pepper,” but take a glance around, and you’ll see the telltale jug of red food coloring sitting right there on the spice rack.

Simple fact: if you want your tandoori chicken to be the deep red shade you find at Indian restaurants, food coloring is the way to do it. I use powdered achiote, just because I have it on hand and it somehow feels more “natural” to me, but there ain’t nothing wrong with a bit of the red dye #2.

Close-up of a bowl containing the marinade ingredients, ready to be mixed. Achiote paste lends it a deep red hue.
Back when I was in college, I was still of the mindset that in order to work, a marinade needs to, well, marinate, which meant time. I still know many people—well respected cooks even!—who think that as far as marinades go, longer is better. This is emphatically not the matter, and is one of the greatest marinade myths. There are a few ways in which marinades do act.

Fats and liquids transfer flavor. Aromatic compounds from spices, herbs, and whatever else you stick in the marinade will dissolve in fat (if your marinade has oil in it, for example), while other compounds will dissolve in water or in alcohol. This can help to distribute that flavor evenly around a piece of meat or vegetables. Note: this is essentially a surface treatment. Oils and fats will not penetrate into the meat at all.

Salt will loosen muscle fibers. I always put a good healthy dose of salt into my marinades, as it’s one of the few ingredients that can actually penetrate the meat beyond the very outermost layers. Muscle fibers actually dissolve and loosen up in the presence of a salty liquid, allowing them to retain more moisture during cooking (see more on the science of brining here).

Acid will “cook” meat. And herein lies the problem with most marinades, particularly those containing acidic ingredients such as plonk, vinegar, or citrus juice. Acid can denature muscle protein in very much the same way that heat can (for more on the science of acids and meat, find a primer on the subject in my article about ceviche). Given enough time in an acidic marinade, your meat will dry out, turning stringy and chalky just as if you had overcooked it.

It’s this last factor that I believe seriously destroys most bad restaurant tandoori chicken: chicken that’s been allowed to sit in its marinade for too long so that it’s already “cooked” before it even hits the oven.

Here’s another fact about marinades: They don’t really penetrate very deeply into the meat. Try marinating a piece of chicken or beef in a marinade with an intensely colored dye (such as a tandoori chicken marinade), and you’ll find that even after 24 hours, it’ll barely have penetrated beyond a few millimeters.

I’ve found that any more than six to eight hours of marinating in an acidic marinade and your chicken or beef will become hopelessly mushy and chalky in the exterior. I prefer the texture of a five-hour marinade.

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