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Paneer Butter Masala/Paneer Makhani – Some curry basics

Paneer butter Masala – This HAS to be on the menu every time we go out to eat at an Indian restaurant! A tangy tomato gravy, with oodles of butter, soft & juicy cubes of paneer – aren’t you drooling already??? Well, that’s the reason its always ordered! A lot of you might be confused about the various curries available in an Indian restaurant. Let me try and differentiate them. I am no expert, this is only based on my experience of eating at so many restaurants in India :D. Paneer Butter Masala and Paneer Makhani are one and the same! The base for these curries is a red (tomato) gravy. This gravy gets its richness from the healthy dose of butter and cashew nut paste. Usage of cream is optional and varies from one recipe to another. Shahi Paneer is quite controversial. The shahi paneer in India is a white gravy, based on yogurt, cream and cashew nut paste. But here in the US, shahi paneer usually refers to a tomato and cream gravy, very similar to the Malai kofta gravy. Paneer Tikka is a simple tomato gravy, with the addition of cubed onions and peppers (capsicum). Paneer burji is scrambled paneer. This is all I know, hope this clears up a lot of confusion.

I’m sure all of you know what paneer is. Paneer is an Indian cheese that’s really easy to make at home. It is simply Milk solids, coagulated with lemon juice or distilled vinegar. An important step in making paneer is bringing milk to a rolling boil, before you add the coagulant. I shall write a detailed post on making paneer at home in a later post. I read on Jugalbandi (a fabulous blog!!) that Queso Blanco cheese (a Mexican cheese) is a perfect substitute for paneer. Though I haven’t tried it personally, I totally trust Jai and Bee. You should visit them now, if you haven’t been there yet.


Most people think it that it is extremely difficult to make this curry at home. I agree that it is a little time consuming, but the end result is totally worth it. Folks who have limited access to good Indian restaurants in the US, don’t get disheartened. This recipe is pretty simple, you just need some basic spices in your pantry to make a fabulous Paneer Makhani at home. When I’m talking about spices, I have to let you in on a lesser known secret ingredient that is used in all Indian curries at a restaurant. Kasuri Methi or dried fenugreek leaves are the most understated Indian spice/herb. Fenugreek is a herb/greens that is available throughout India and used in various recipes. These leaves are slightly bitter in taste, but are flavor bombs! Sometimes I wonder how such tiny leaves can pack in so much flavor!! These leaves are dried to make kasuri methi (available at all Indian grocery stores). These leaves should be crushed in between your palms to release all the flavor before using. Crush the leaves only when you are adding them in the curry, or they will lose their potent aroma. The moment the kasuri methi hits the curry, your whole kitchen/house will know you are making a curry!! Extremely aromatic, these leaves are responsible for restaurant quality curries at home. But, use in moderation as using too much may make your curry bitter. So next time you visit an Indian grocer, you know what to stock up on :)

Tip: Store the kasuri methi in air tight containers. If the leaves have become very soft and are difficult to crush, warm them up on a hot pan for a few minutes. Heat a pan on low heat and add the kasuri methi to the dry pan. Heat for 2-3 minutes, or until crisp. Cool to room temperature and store in airtight containers.

Another variation possible in this recipe is the way you add in the paneer. Some people like to cube and add in the paneer. Some people saute the paneer cubes in a little oil, until golden brown and then add it to the gravy. Another method is soaking the panner cubes in some hot water (to soften the paneer) and then use it. It all depends on how you like to eat paneer. If you like it crispy (with lots of texture) you should fry the paneer before using it. If you like soft, melt in your mouth paneer, soak the paneer cubes in some hot water for about 15-20 minutes before adding it to the gravy. Now that I’ve mentioned these two methods, you might be wondering which one I follow. Well, the answer is neither 😛 I like my paneer to have some flavor, especially salt. So I like to marinate my paneer for a few hours and broil/cook it, almost like a paneer tikka. This is of course an optional step and you may add paneer whichever way you like.

This curry is awesome with naan, puri, paratha or basmati rice! And please, don’t skimp on butter. Close you eyes and think of yourself as Paula Dean or Ina Garten when making this curry 😀

P.S. I do love Paula Dean & Ina Garten :)

Tip: This gravy (before adding in the paneer) can be frozen in airtight containers for up to 3 months. Just skip the milk in the recipe and add milk to thin the gravy when you are making the curry.

Ingredients:
Serves 4-6

Paneer – 8 oz (about 250 gms)

For Marinating the Paneer:

Red chilli powder – 1 tsp
Yogurt – 2 Tbsp
Coriander powder – 1 tsp
Chat Masala – 1 tsp (optional)
Salt – to taste
Ginger Garlic paste – 1 tsp

For the Gravy:

Onions – 2 large
Tomato Puree – 3 cups
Green Chili – 2 no.
Ginger-Garlic paste – 1 1/2 Tbsp
Red Chili powder – 2 tsp (use less if you can’t take the heat)
Shahi jeera/Caraway seeds – 1 tsp
Green cardamom – 2 no.
Black Cardamom – 2 no.
Cinnamon stick – 1 inch piece
Dry Bay leaves – 2 no.
Mace/Javitri – 1 blade
Cloves – 3-4 no.
Garam masala – 1 tsp
Coriander powder – 1 Tbsp
Cumin powder – 1 tsp
Kasuri Methi – 1 Tbsp
Cashew nuts – 1/4 cup (15-20 no.)
Oil – 3 Tbsp
Butter – 1 Tbsp plus 4-5 Tbsp
Cilantro/Coriander leaves – 2 Tbsp (chopped)
Milk – 3/4 cup
Water – about 1 cup
Salt – to taste

Method:

To prepare the Paneer Tikka:

This step is totally optional! You may add add in the paneer cubes just like that. Read the introduction to read more on this.

  • Cut the paneer into 1/2 inch cubes (or as big as you want!). Mix together all the ingredients for the marinade and coat the paneer cubes with the marinade. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours.
  • Preheat the oven to 400 F.
  • Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray generously with cooking spray (0r brush with oil). Place the paneer cubes, 1 inch apart and spray the top also with cooking spray (0r brush with oil).
  • Bake for 20-25 minutes, removing once to turn the paneer cubes upside down.

Tip: Keep checking the paneer after 10 minutes, each oven is different. Adjust the oven temperature accordingly.

For the Makhani gravy:

  • Soak the cashews in some hot water for 15-20 minutes.
  • Coarsely chop the onions into big cubes. Boil the onions in some water until they are soft. Drain and cool the onions, and grind into a paste. You won’t need to add any water.
  • Heat 3 Tbsp of oil plus 1 Tbsp of butter in a heavy bottom pan and add the shahi jeera, cinnamon, cloves, mace, green cardamom and black cardamom. Saute on low heat for about a minute, until aromatic. Add the boiled onion paste and cook for for about 10 minutes, until slightly brown. Mix in the ginger garlic paste and cook, stirring often until the raw smell goes away, and the mixture starts leaving the pan (the fat separates).
  • To make your own tomato puree, make a cross marked slit on one side (not on the eye, the other side) of the tomato. Drop the tomatoes in boiling water and cook for 3-4 minutes. Then drain and drop the tomatoes in ice cold water. Wait for 5 minutes and peel the tomato skin. Grind the peeled tomatoes into a puree.
  • Add the coriander powder, cumin powder and red chilli powder to the onions and saute for a minute, taking care not to burn the masala. Then add the tomato puree to the onions. Cover and cook, stirring every 5 minutes (be careful, tomato puree splutters like crazy), until the raw smell of tomatoes goes away and the gravy starts leaving the sides of the pan and separates the oil.
  • Grind the cashews into a smooth paste adding water/milk as required and keep aside.
  • Then add  the milk and some water, about 1 cup to the gravy. Mix in garam masala and salt. Cook for another 10 minutes. Take care to add water if the gravy becomes too thick. (let the gravy be thin at this time, it will thicken upon the addition of cashew-almond paste)

Tip: If you are planning to freeze the gravy, do not add milk at this point. Proceed without milk. Cool to room temperature and freeze in airtight containers. When you are ready to make the curry, thaw the gravy overnight in the fridge and use milk to thin the gravy.

  • Next, reduce the heat to low and add the cashew paste and 2 Tbsp of butter to the gravy and cook covered, stirring frequently for another 8-10 minutes, until the gravy thickens and the raw taste of cashews and almonds disappears. Take care to stir frequently, or the gravy can get stuck to the bottom of the pan and burn very quickly.
  • Crush the Kasuri Methi leaves between your palms and add to the simmering gravy. Add in the paneer cubes and a Tbsp or two of butter and cook, stirring frequently for another 5 minutes.

Switch the heat off and finish with chopped cilantro. Serve hot!

See how rich this curry is??

P.S. – These photos were taken with an extremely hungry husband waiting for lunch at 2:30 PM on a Saturday afternoon. So please don’t blame me!!

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