Now that tomatoes are in season, I want to cook with them all the time. They have robust flavor and add a lovely hue to your dishes. One of my favorite things to cook with tomatoes is chicken tikka masala. “Tikka” in Indian cuisine refers to pieces of meat or vegetables marinated in spices. “Masala” refers to blends of spices in paste or powder form. Chicken tikka masala, then, is a dish of cooked marinated chicken pieces that’s bathed in a rich tomato sauce.
In this recipe, I make a vegetarian version using paneer instead of chicken. Although I use a number of spices in this paneer tikka masala recipe, it is simple to cook. The paneer has a lovely flavorful crust on the outside, and it pair so well with the masala sauce.
HOW TO MAKE PANEER TIKKA MASALA
MARINATE PANEER IN SPICED YOGURT
The preparation for this paneer tikka masala is similar to chicken tikka masala in that you marinate the paneer in yogurt and spices. The yogurt helps coat the paneer pieces with spices. When you pan fry the paneer, the yogurt forms a thin crust around the exterior.
The paneer that you see in the photos are store bought. The brand is called Gopi, and I usually buy it from Nugget Markets or the Sacramento Co-Op. Although I make paneer often, it crumbles a lot easier than packaged paneer. Because this recipe requires marinating, pan-frying and simmering the paneer, I opted for paneer that’s a little sturdier. Feel free to use fresh paneer if you want!
PAN FRY THE PANEER
You can do this step before or while you make the sauce. I usually pan fry the paneer first because they can burn easily (as you’ll see below).
A 14-ounce block of paneer will yield a lot of pieces, cook the paneer in two batches. After cooking the first batch, wipe down the pan with a paper towel to get rid any burned black bits.
By the time you get to the second batch, the pan will already be very hot. The marinated paneer splatters a lot when you place them on the pan, so be careful. Also, the second batch tends to cook a little quicker.
When I was preparing the paneer for these photos, I absent-mindedly scrolled through my phone while waiting for the paneer to fry. Before realizing it, I scorched the paneer (see photo above, right). You actually want the paneer to look like the ones in the left photo. I still ate all of it, but don’t make the same mistake I did!
By the way, you’ll inevitably have some yogurt marinade left over. Don’t throw it away! I usually add it to the sauce towards the end.
MAKE THE SAUCE
This step involves sautéing the onions and spices and simmering the tomatoes with liquid. In the photos, I used fresh tomatoes from the farmers market, but canned tomatoes work as well. Note that canned tomatoes tend to be more acidic, so you may need to add a little more sugar to the sauce to balance out the acidity.
Once you have cooked and simmered the ingredients for the sauce, you can leave the sauce as is or blend it in a high-speed blender. If you blend the sauce, the dish will look more like something you’d get at a restaurant. However, I’m also lazy sometimes and cannot be bothered to transfer everything to a blender. Choose whichever option you prefer. For reference, the first photo of this post features the sauce unblended; the photo above shows the blended sauce.
After you are done cooking the sauce, add the paneer back to the pan. Heat the paneer for 1 or 2 minutes and serve.
IS HEAVY CREAM NECESSARY FOR THE SAUCE?
Heavy cream helps balance the acidity of the tomatoes and gives the sauce a lovely creaminess. Many recipes call for a lot of heavy cream, and I have tried to keep the calories down by using only 3 tablespoons. If you are truly averse to heavy cream, use 3 or 4 tablespoons of whole milk yogurt.
MORE PANEER RECIPES
Paneer Tikka Masala
- 14 ounces paneer (see note 1)
- 6 tablespoons plain whole milk yogurt (see note 2)
- 1 teaspoon grated ginger
- 2 cloves of garlic, grated
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons safflower or canola oil
- 2 tablespoons safflower or canola oil
- 1 medium onion, thinly sliced (about 1 cup sliced)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
- 2 teaspoons grated ginger
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 to matoes, chopped (about 2 1/2 cups chopped, see note 3)
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 3/4 cup water, can substitute with broth
- 3 tablespoons heavy cream
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (see note 4)
- cooked basmati rice
- cilantro (optional)
- red pepper flakes (optional)
- Slice the block of paneer into 1-inch cubes. Then, slice each cube into 2 or 3 slices. Transfer the paneer to a mixing bowl.
- In a small bowl, stir the yogurt, ginger, garlic, cumin, paprika, and salt. Pour this yogurt marinade over the paneer and mix together. Refrigerate the paneer for at least 30 minutes.
- Once the paneer has been marinated, pan fry the paneer. Heat a nonstick frying pan (or well-seasoned cast-iron skillet) with 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Arrange the pieces of paneer over the pan in a single layer. You probably need to fry the paneer in batches. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes until golden brown. Flip over all the pieces, and pan fry for another 2 minutes.
- Transfer the fried paneer to a plate and turn off the heat. Quickly wipe down the pan with a paper towel and return the heat to medium.
- Drizzle the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil to the pan and cook the remaining paneer. Because the pan is very hot already, be careful as you add the paneer to the pan, as it will splatter. Save any leftover yogurt marinade. You will add it to the sauce later. Transfer the cooked paneer to a pan.
- In a separate large sauté pan, add another 2 tablespoons of safflower oil over medium heat. Add the onions and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook for 5 minutes. Stir frequently to prevent the onions from burning. If the onions brown very quickly, reduce the heat slightly.
- Add the ginger, garlic, coriander, paprika, garam masala, turmeric, black pepper, and remaining teaspoon of salt to the skillet. Cook for 30 seconds and coat the onions with the spices.
- Add the tomatoes, sugar, and water, and reduce the heat to medium-low (see note 5). Cover the pan, and let everything simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the lid and add the heavy cream, leftover yogurt marinade, and cayenne pepper. Stir to combine.
- If you are blending the sauce, turn off the heat now and let the sauce cool for 5 minutes before transferring to a blender to blend. Pour the sauce back into the pan and turn the heat to medium.
- I used store-bought paneer for this recipe because it is sturdier. You can also use homemade paneer.
- I don’t recommend using Greek yogurt because it isn’t runny enough.
- If you don’t have fresh tomatoes, you can use 2 1/2 cups crushed or diced tomatoes (about 2/3 of a large can of tomatoes). Note that canned tomatoes tend to be more acidic than fresh tomatoes. As a result, you many need to add 1 or 2 more teaspoons of sugar to balance out the acidity.
- I purposely added the cayenne pepper in the end because this gives the dish spice without it being overly fiery. If you simmer the tomatoes with cayenne pepper at the beginning, the spiciness will be much more intense.
- If you want more sauce, you can add a 1/4 cup more water as you simmer the tomatoes. Note that you’ll add to need a bit more salt so that the sauce doesn’t taste watered down.