Introduction: Tandoori Chicken & Naan in a Tandoor
The great Indian Barbecue has two undisputed kings: Tandoori Chicken and Naan.
Tandoori chicken, pieces of meat marinated in ginger, garlic, yogurt and a delicious mix of spices, is a tender and smoky favorite, best when served with puffed, fresh hot naan straight out of the tandoor.
This classic duo is actually not too difficult to replicate at home, with patience and practice!
Since I have had trouble finding many guides online on how to make these in an actual tandoor, a traditional cylindrical clay oven, I hope this article can be not just a good recipe, but also a good guide to all of those who seek tips and tricks for using their home tandoor.
Those of you who don't own one need not worry; they can be cooked in a conventional oven, although they won't have the same depth of flavor and texture.
Let's get cooking!
Step 1: Video
Feel free to check out this video, which isn't the recipe but rather a documentation of the process with no words or narration for maximum audio-visual satisfaction!
For the recipe and instructions, keep reading.
Step 2: What Is a Tandoor?
A tandoor is a traditional cylindrical clay oven popular in some parts of Asia, particularly north India.
Heated by the coals or burning gas at the bottom of the cylinder, hot air rises and falls in convection currents cooking skewered meats and vegetables.
Marinade and fat dripping from the meat hits the coals and vaporizes instantly, giving a smoked, charred flavor to the food that's the signature mark of tandoori dishes.
The clay walls can reach over 300°C or 575°F, at which point bread dough can be slapped onto the actual clay walls, where it puffs up and bakes to become the classic leavened Indian flatbread: Naan!
Most households will likely not just happen to have a tandoor sitting around. You can go buy a model designed for the home somewhere online, or you could make a DIY version.
Various tutorials exist online and on this site, but you can check out my other article, which details how I built one from scratch using clay at this link:
This article will focus on how to use the device by providing a practical recipe to try!
Step 3: Planning
I have made this dish many times for friends and family, and have come up with a good schedule to make things easier. You will see later that it makes a lot of sense to time things this way:
The Day Before:
- Whenever you can, for example, in the evening before going to bed, set the chicken in the marinade and put it in the fridge to infuse until the next day. I am of the firm belief that marinating overnight provides superior flavor. I explain this later on.
The Day Of:
- An hour and a half before you want to begin cooking in the tandoor, make the naan dough and set it aside to proof.
- Light the tandoor. The preheating takes one full hour, conveniently the same amount of time the naan dough should proof.
- Just before you reach cooking temperature, cut the dough into small balls and rise for a second time, just around 10 minutes.
- Cook the naan and chicken. I like to do some of the naan first to have something to snack on, then the chicken, then finish up my dough afterwards.
Step 4: Part I: Ingredients for Chicken
My recipe takes some inspiration from the one found in Madhur Jaffrey's An Invitation to Indian Cooking. Over time it has evolved and morphed through several of my trials, into what I present to you today.
For 4 servings, you will need:
Depending on your preference for light or dark meat, either:
- 4 breasts
- 2 breasts and 4 drumsticks
- 8 drumsticks
- 4 breasts
- 1 T Coriander
- 1 T Paprika
- 1 T Chili Powder - I use a pretty mild one
- 1 t Cumin
- 1 t Turmeric
- 1 t Garam Masala
- 1/4 t Cinnamon (optional)
- 1/4 t Clove (optional)
- 1/4 t Nutmeg (optional)
- 1/4 t Black Pepper
It may look like a lot of ingredients, but most of them are just spices, so all you'll need to do for those is open the jar and scoop it in.
I often double or quadruple the recipe for more guests.
Some like to add red food coloring to replicate the look of restaurant chicken, but I feel like it distracts from the naturally beautiful red-orange golden-brown color that you can achieve without the use of the food coloring, so I choose to skip it.
Step 5: Make Tandoori Masala
To begin, we must create the signature blend of dry spices that lend the chicken its iconic flavor.
Combine the coriander, paprika, chili powder, cumin, turmeric, garam masala, cinnamon, clove, and cracked pepper in a bowl and mix until combined.
It may seem like a lot of spices (because it is), but each addition serves a unique purpose. For those interested, I will briefly explain my reasoning below:
- Cumin forms an savory basis, sort of like the backbone of a dish
- Red peppers are a signature player in classic tandoori chicken:
- Paprika adds red color
- Chili powder adds color and smoky flavor
I use a relatively mild chili powder and this recipe is mild in terms of heat. If you like it spicy, adding cayenne or more green chilies is good bet.
Step 6: Prep Ingredients
Peel and mince the fresh garlic and ginger. Paste works well too, just use an equal amount.
I like to add finely chopped green chilies because they add little pockets of bright, acidic heat as you bite into the chicken. These chilies are hot — eating a piece raw confirms this, however, in the cooking process, they become diluted and more mild as they cook down, meaning the final dish is actually not as spicy as you may fear, so try it!
To minimize the heat, I cut the chilies in half lengthwise and de-seed them before mincing them. Leave them in if you prefer it spicier.
Juice the half of a lemon and strain.
Step 7: Make Marinade
To flavor the chicken, it will be marinated overnight to allow the aromatics to seep into the meat.
Begin by dumping the yogurt into a large bowl and whisk briefly until smooth.
Add the ginger, garlic, chilies, lemon juice, salt and 3/4 of the tandoori masala.
Reserve the leftover quarter of the spice mix.
Whisk the marinade until smooth. Feel free to taste it, it should be quite salty. It should taste too salty, because putting a layer it on the chicken later will dilute the salt to the right level.
Step 8: Prep Chicken
To the dismay of some, traditionally, tandoori chicken is cooked skinless, so I remove most of the skin from the drumsticks by peeling and cutting it off. You can leave it on if you want, but in my opinion it blocks the marinade from reaching the actual flesh.
To those worried the chicken will turn out dry, recognize that the marinade actually acts as a shield, keeping moisture in, and providing oil as well! As long as you pay attention to not overcook the meat, I've found this chicken to be more moist than most oven roasted chicken.
For the breasts, cut them into about 1 1/2" inch or 4 cm pieces. For the drumsticks, leave them whole on the bone.
Make a few gashes or slits in the chicken to create more surface area for flavor penetration.
Step 9: Marinate Overnight
Lightly sprinkle the chicken pieces with salt and the reserved quarter of spice mix, and then coat in the marinade. Place all the pieces together in a bowl or tray, cover with aluminum foil, and set in the refrigerator overnight.
I have tested different marination times, and the results speak for themselves!
- Marinating 30 minutes was certainly not bad, but the flavor was mainly concentrated at the surface
- Marinating 1-2 hours wasn't that much better than the 30 minute version
- Marinating overnight, approaching 18-24 hours, was miles ahead of the other two trials. The flavor was soaked deep into the meat, and the aromatics melded together better, resulting in a more cohesive, round flavor.
The jury is out: do it the night before! It takes no effort to leave it in the fridge and do nothing, and actually, it helps split up the workload among two days.
Obviously if you're in a hurry, do what you can, it will still be quite good.
Step 10: The Next Day: Naan Dough Ingredients
Naan dough is much like any other bread dough you may have made, the only difference being the dough often contains yogurt. The way it is cooked, however, distinguishes it from any other bread.
Makes 8 Naan
For the Dry Mix:
- 360g (2 + 7/8 cups) of bread flour plus extra for dusting -- the extra gluten is necessary to allow for the iconic bubbling on the surface
- 1 t Baking powder
- 2 t Salt — don't forget the salt! I did the first time.. it was sad..
For the Wet Mix:
- 1 packet of active dry yeast
- 3/8 cup (about 90 mL) of bath temperature water (very warm but comfortable to touch) - just use hot tap water
- 1 t sugar
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup warm milk (microwave for around 40 seconds)
- 4 oz (1/2 cup) plain yogurt - full fat or non fat, it doesn't matter
I often double the recipe for more guests.
Step 11: Prepare Wet Mix
Begin by blooming the yeast in the warm water, adding in the sugar too, and stirring to combine.
Within a few minutes, it should puff up, producing a lot of foam. This a sign that the yeast is alive, still punching, and ready to go!
Whisk together the yeast mix along with the warm milk, egg, and yogurt. It'll be quite lumpy but it doesn't matter, everything will become smooth later anyway. Let it be.
Step 12: Prepare Dry Mix
Whisk the bread flour, salt, and baking soda together.
I like to use bread flour because the extra gluten adds elasticity to the dough, which I have noticed, when compared to when I use all purpose flour, allows the naan to bubble up more easily.
Step 13: Make the Dough
Pour the wet into the dry and mix with a wooden spoon until it forms a shaggy dough.
Turn it out onto a clean floured bench and knead like any other dough, for a full 10 minutes.
The dough will be sticky, and add flour if needed.
The wetter the better, as a higher hydration dough counter intuitively produces a lighter and crispier final product.
My favorite way to test to see if the dough is done is with the window pane test.
- Grab a small piece of dough and try to stretch it into a small sheet or window pane while holding it up to the light.
- A dough which is not kneaded enough will tear apart easily, because the gluten is not yet developed enough
- A dough which is sufficiently kneaded has developed enough elasticity so that you can form and hold a thin, translucent sheet that you can see the light through
Once you've got a dough that passes the window pane test, form a ball, cover it with a kitchen towel, and let it proof for an hour. This first rise adds flavor and improves texture.
Step 14: Light Up the Tandoor
So, now you gotta wait an hour until the dough is ready. What do you do meanwhile?
Well of course, preheat the tandoor!
To begin, you need to find a way to light up the charcoal.
I initially used to use lighter fluid, but have since switched to a slightly easier, cleaner method.
First, a handful of newspaper or brown paper bag is crumpled up and a layer of this is placed in the bottom of the chamber. Then, two handfuls (maybe 12 briquettes) of good quality charcoal* are dropped evenly on top of this paper. Next, the paper is lit with a match, and allowed to fully burn. As it does, it will lick at the charcoal, slowly igniting every piece.
Expect some smoke to emanate from the top of the pot for maybe 20 minutes as the paper smoulders.
A little soot might accumulate on the walls too, from the smoke and flames from the initial paper burn, but not too much.
*I've learned my lesson after using trashy off brand charcoal that doesn't light! Kingsford's hardwood briquettes are excellent.
Step 15: Preheating the Tandoor
Now, the charcoal is lit and is slowly burning, turning white as it does.
At this point, the upper lid is placed covering most of the pot, leaving it slightly ajar to allow for some gas escape but still mostly closed to build up heat. This is the preheating phase, where the heat from the charcoal will slowly warm up the walls of the pot. Periodically check the temp of the inside walls with a laser thermometer gun (really fun tool by the way, 10/10 highly recommend even if you don't have a tandoor), the walls should be at least 250° Celsius (480° Fahrenheit) before you can get to cooking.
Expect to be waiting about one hour from the moment you light the coals. Clay heats slowly (anyone who was also rattled upon hearing you have to preheat a pizza stone for an entire hour can attest) and you must wait the full hour, no getting around it, but once it's hot it will stay hot and ready to go for a long time due to it's large thermal mass.
Along the way, really don't bother the charcoal or move the lid, but if you notice the coals are all white and dying, you can always refill. You can just use extra long tongs and drop five or so new pieces of charcoal atop the existing ones. They will naturally light and begin burning. I refilled every 20 minutes or so to keep a steady heat.
Avoid dropping in more than 5 pieces to refill at a time. At one point I got impatient and threw in several handfuls which led to intense, violent heat that caused a crack in one clay piece. Take it slow and steady.
Step 16: Prepare Individual Dough Balls
Just as the hour is ending, prepare the individual dough balls.
Split the mass into 8 equal pieces with a knife and shape them into balls, being careful not to deflate them too much.
Cover with a kitchen towel and let them sit for at least 10 minutes before cooking them, as they need time to rise, become less dense, and soften up, which will allow them to easily stretch into large sheets.
>> If you want to make these in a conventional oven, the best option I can think of to replicate the tandoor environment is to heat up a pizza stone on the top rack to 450°F (230°C) and bake for maybe 5 minutes before broiling until golden.
Step 17: Slapping on the Naan
To make the naan, take a dough ball and stretch gently to make an almond or teardrop shaped sheet as large and thin as you can. Set it on the pillow.
It is now time to put them in.
Enter with your hand, holding the pillow tilted up enough that the dough doesn't just slide off. Choose a location around halfway down to the center and slap the dough on with the pillow. You can press a few times on the corners that didn't stick all the way to make it a solid connection, but don't spend too long in there.
For protection, I like to wear a long sleeved hoodie and some cloth gloves, as it's quite hot in there! It feels like the inside of an oven, but as long as you have a sleeve and glove for protection, it's really not too bad.
Try not to have your face directly over the opening, as rising hot air can be uncomfortable.
Make sure to watch as they puff up instantly!
Depending on the size of the tandoor, you can fit a couple in there at a time. I can usually fit up to 5 at a time.
I prefer to cover with the lid as much as possible to retain heat.
Step 18: Removing the Naan
Grab your hook and paddle!
This part takes practice.
The goal is to hold the hook right up against one point of the bread, and then use the paddle to scrape and de-stick it from the walls until it falls right onto the hook. Then you can just lift it out. Easier said than done.
If the dough appears to be stuck to the walls, do not try to peel it off and make a mess. Naan which is not done yet will not detach, but as soon as it is fully cooked, it will come off easily. Wait until it begins to peel, and you will find it to be very easy to remove. I was discouraged at my first attempt because it didn't detach and left a sticky residue, but I eventually realized I had just tried to peel it off way before it was ready.
- Firmly press the hook up against the bread. If you mess up and the dough falls into the fire, it will catch fire and burn, which isn't dangerous but it stinks like burning toast! Push through. Try again. Learn with each attempt. You'll get it
- Take some time to slow down and savor the smell of fresh bread!
Step 19: Cooking the Skewers
Thread the meat on extra long skewers, starting around halfway up the skewer and ending a few inches from the tip. Sometimes I like to throw in some chopped peppers and onions too.
The drumsticks can be tricky as they like to slide around. Skewering a piece of onion between each drumstick helps stop them from moving around.
With any skewer you make, finish them by putting a small piece of potato at the end. This will act as shield, absorbing the most intense heat that would normally burn the meat, and of course work as a stopper too, preventing everything from suddenly sliding off into the fire*
Place the skewers into the tandoor and close the lid the most you can. The breast skewers take 15 minutes, and the drumsticks more, around 20 minutes.
Halfway through, rotate the kebabs so the other side gets some char as well.
Check for doneness on the piece of chicken highest up, furthest away from the flame. A meat thermometer should read at least 165ºF (75ºC). Alternatively, cut into the meat; if the juices run pink it needs more time, if they're clear and the meat is white, it's done.
Remove from the tandoor and remove from skewers. Arrange on a serving tray.
>> If you want to make these in a conventional oven, bake the skewers on a greased sheet pan for 20-25 minutes at 450°F (230°C)
*this happened to me once because I removed the potato, and trust me there is nothing sadder than watching your precious chicken slip and slide right into the coals!!
Step 20: Serving Suggestions
There are many ways to enjoy the fresh hot chicken and naan!
Try brushing butter with chopped garlic over the hot naan for garlic naan.
For dinner, I like to serve with basmati rice to help offset the saltiness of the chicken. Toss some cumin seeds in at the beginning of cooking as a nice touch.
Use the naan to scoop up pieces of chicken. The combination of the bread and the chicken is outstanding!
A good idea is to introduce a more "wet" food so the meal is more balanced in terms of textures. For example, one of my favorites to serve with this is palak paneer, a dish made of paneer, indian cheese, in pureed spinach cooked with onions, ginger, garlic, spices, and more until you get this lovely, spicy, savory gravy.
Finish off the meal with something sweet like cut fruit or a bowl of cold, refreshing kheer, rice pudding.
Step 21: Science Behind the Naan
Why is tandoori naan so special?
Well, first of all, it's important to note that clay is the definitive best cooking surface upon which to make bread. Unlike metal sheet pans, they never burn the bottom, and the porous nature of the clay sucks out moisture, resulting in a fantastically crispy crust. This is why pizza cooked in a clay pizza oven is so good.
In the tandoor specifically, the clay conducts heat to the dough, and the hot air broils the surface. Since one side is exposed to the intensely heated air, it bubbles immediately, and crisps up to an unbeatable crunch.
Also, a tandoor, like a pizza oven, reaches temperatures much hotter than a home oven, which contribute to super fast cook times of 2-3 minutes.
Lastly, the use of charcoal lends the bread a very subtle, but slightly smoky flavor.
These factors contribute to a unique bread that's captured our hearts and palettes!
Step 22: Science Behind the Chicken
Why is tandoori chicken so special?
The mechanism of the tandoor works just like an oven, but with the added benefits of an open grill.
As soon as the lid is put on, the closed chamber of very hot air circulates in convection currents, cooking the chicken.
The intensely hot clay walls radiate heat which chars the outside of the meat just like a broiler, and produces new compounds responsible for roasty, barbecued flavors through the maillard reaction.
Lastly, juice, fat, and marinade dripping from the meat drips right onto the super hot coals, burning in an instant, creating smoke that rises up and penetrates the meat, giving it a delicious smoked flavor.
All together, these factors result in a one of a kind dish!
Step 23: Final Thoughts
There's a lot that goes into making an Indian Barbecue, and I will admit: I obviously have a lot to learn too. If you see points where I could improve, please let me know in the comments, I'm always looking to learn!
Throughout the Instructable, I have tried to give logical explanations and rationale behind each of my choices, because I think to cook, one can't just be someone who is good as following instructions, but someone who can modify, elevate, and make work-arounds based on fundamental knowledge about the materials and processes.
I want people to see whyyou must preheat for a full hour or whyI've included certain ingredients and so on.
I hope that this article can be a useful guide to new tandoor owners or even just those curious how the process works!
Happy feasting :)
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