Indian Cooking FAQ – Questions from our readers! “I love Indian meat dishes, what’s the trick to getting the meat so tender?”
Dear Big Apple Curry,
I love slow-cooked meats (like ribs and stews) that are falling off the bone tender. How do you get the meat so tender in Indian meat dishes like butter chicken and kebabs? Thanks!
What a great question! There’s nothing less appealing than meat that hasn’t been seasoned properly or has been overcooked to the point that it’s dry, chewy, and devoid of any flavor. Preparation and timing is the key to great meat dishes in any cuisine, not just in Indian cooking. That said, there are a few hallmark techniques to prepare Indian meat dishes that result in some of the most succulent, juicy, and flavorful pieces of meat I’ve ever had. Here are a few tips for you:
Yogurt is a key component in marinades for dishes like tandoori chicken, which is typically skewered and cooked in a super hot clay oven called the tandoor. What does yogurt do exactly? Research suggest that dairy-based marinades like yogurt and buttermilk are likely the only marinades that truly tenderize meat compared to acidic marinades (i.e. using vinegar or lemon juice); according to allrecipes.com the calcium in dairy products activates enzymes in meat that break down proteins; this process is similar to the way that aging tenderizes meat. For Indian dishes, I always recommend using a thick Greek style yogurt, which when combined with other ingredients will coat the meat better than a runnier yogurt, and adds both flavor and moisture to meat in recipes like these:
In this recipe, plain Greek yogurt is combined with oil and spices to create an easy marinade for chicken. The best way is to marinate it for 4 – 6 hours, overnight is even better. You can grill this on the BBQ or bake it in the oven under the broiler for 10 – 15 minutes and your knife will slide through it like butter.
Biryani is the king of Indian rice dishes, which is a layered rice-based dish made with basmati rice, spices, and chicken, lamb, or vegetables. An authentic biryani takes time and many ingredients and many steps. In a meat-based biryani, the lamb for instance, is prepared separately in a deep, wide skillet. While it’s not a yogurt-based marinade for several hours that tenderizes the meat, adding yogurt to boneless stewing lamb, spices, and tomatoes that are slowly pan-fried (for upwards of one hour) makes the lamb tender. Later, the lamb is layered with spiced basmati rice that’s dotted with saffron yogurt sauce (yes indeed, more yogurt) and then baked in the oven. The result is pure nirvana and the lamb, which is falling apart wonderful, lends an rich, unctuous quality to the entire dish. The same technique is used in a less complicated recipe called Lamb Korma Pilaf which is also my #1 favorite Indian cookbook recipe.
2. Fresh Herbs
Fresh herbs work like magic when added to spiced ground meat preparations like kebabs. Herbs don’t marinate the meat like yogurt does, but when finely chopped and added to the kebab mix, the natural properties of fresh herbs keep the meat very moist. In this recipe, finely chopped fresh mint, cilantro, and scallions are combined with finely grated ginger root and garlic cloves. One year, I made these kebabs at Christmas and I thought I’d overdone it with the fresh herbs and put in way too much, because the meat mixture was so moist it was almost soggy. But when Sean grilled them up they were absolutely fantastic and just melted in our mouths.
It might be surprising to hear that twice-cooking meat can yield tender meat dishes. If anything, the description might make you think the meat would be dry as a result of the double cooking. But that’s not the case. You can combine leftover or pre-cooked meat with other ingredients like herbs and mashed potatoes to create unforgettable Indian cutlets and kebabs that are then cooked again by shallow frying them in a skillet until golden brown. The flavor profiles are fantastically complex and satisfying in these types of preparations.
I love serving these pan-fried cutlets as a first course because it really sets the stage right for the entire meal. In this recipe, which is a perfect way to use leftover Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey and mashed potatoes, I combine cooked shredded turkey, mashed potatoes, spices, and breadcrumbs and form them into cutlets that are then shallow-fried until golden brown on the edges and served with tamarind sauce and mint chutney. Yum.
These signature kebabs involve slow cooking boneless stewing lamb or beef with lentils and spices in a crock pot, which is then blended until the meat mixture is light and feathery. The mixture is then shaped into kebabs, often combined with other ingredients, and then cooked again (hence, twice-cooked) by shallow frying them so they’re crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Talk about depth of flavor. Wow.
4. Slow Cooker
As you said, slow-cooking meat is a great way to ensure it’s fall-off-the-bone delicious. There are many ways to slow cook meat, but as a busy parent, one of my favorite ways is using my crock pot. Like other cuisines, many Indian recipes lend themselves beautifully to a slow cooker treatment. As you may know, I’m always on the lookout for excellent slow cooker recipes that can make all the difference, whether you’re having guests for dinner or need something easy on a busy weeknight. Here are a couple of my all-time favorites: