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The Chemical Processes in Making Butter Chicken

Earlier this week, D asked, "Mom, can you help me and J- make butter chicken on Wednesday night after robotics? It's for our chemistry class." Sure thing. Because they were getting to our house late and needed to be fed also, I asked if I could prep some of the dish ahead of time. They didn't argue. This was last night...

So, after we cleared the table of our pasta and salad dishes, they got to work. It was amusing to listen to them while they cooked and wrote up their project paper, reporting which chemical processes they were witnessing.

I heard them excitedly talking about the Maillard reaction, evaporation, reduction, and more. This is exactly the type of learning that I adore. No busy work. No worksheets. No rote memorization. This kind of learning solidifies the concepts in their minds...and it's delicious! I really hope the other kids appreciate the dish.

hopefully this will serve 30 as a tasting serving
  • 4 lbs organic chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized cubes
  • freshly ground salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 2 t chili powder + 1 t more
  • 1 t ground turmeric
  • 8 T unsalted butter, cut into 2 T chunks
  • 2 large onions, peeled and diced (approximately 3 C)
  • 2 T garam masala
  • 2 t ground cumin
  • pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1 t ground cardamom
  • 1 t ground ginger
  • 2 T grated ginger
  • 6 to 8 garlic cloves, peeled and pressed
  • two 3” sticks cinnamon
  • 2 C tomato sauce
  • 2 C water (chicken stock is better, but I forgot to buy it)
  • 2 T chili paste
  • 2 C organic heavy cream
  • cooked rice for serving


In a large mixing bowl, massage the salt, pepper, 2 t chili powder, and turmeric into the chicken cubes. Let stand for 15 minutes.

In a large, flat-bottom pan, melt the butter, then cook the onions, grated ginger, and garlic in 3 to 4 T butter until softened and the onions begin to turn translucent.

Add in the remaining butter and melt.

Stir in the garam masala, 1 t chili powder, cumin, cayenne, cardamom, ground ginger, and cinnamon sticks. Cook until fragrant.

Add the chicken to the spiced paste and brown until cooked through, approximately 10 to 12 minutes.  This is the Maillard reaction in action! The Maillard reaction is the chemical reaction between amino acids in a protein and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinctive flavor. Brown equals tasty.

Pour in the tomato sauce and water.

Add in the chili paste, if using; we like our butter chicken a little bit spicy. Whisk to combine. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes - until the sauce is beginning to thicken. The sauce is thickening because of evaporation which happens when a liquid substance becomes a gas. When liquid is heated, it evaporates and the resulting sauce is thicker!

Pour in the cream, stir to combine, and simmer until that it thickened to your liking. More evaporation!

Serve warm over cooked rice.

I told them they could each taste the sauce, but that we needed to save the bulk of the butter chicken for their class.

Thumbs up from the cooks!


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