Before traveling to India, paneer butter masala was one of those enigmatic dishes that I always thought I could never replicate at home. The spices and flavors just seemed too rich and complex to get exactly right. In fact, most Indian food feels that way to me- I love to eat it in restaurants, but every time I try to make it at home something is just not the same. So, when we finally made it to India, I knew we had to take a cooking class and uncover the mysteries of Indian food, particularly of paneer butter masala – one of the very first dishes we had in India after crossing over to Varanasi.
We decided to go with Jaipur Cooking Classes for our first cooking class, where we learned to make tons of delicious northern Indian dishes including a creamy, spicy, tomato-y paneer butter masala. The recipe is one I think we could easily replicate at home, and I’m excited to give it a try. After learning the recipe, these are the ingredients that, to me, seem to be keys to making this dish at home:
Paneer: Fresh, homemade paneer is obviously one of the keys to mouthwatering paneer butter masala. In the cooking class we brought 1.5 L of buffalo milk to a boil, added several tablespoons of white vinegar until the milk curdled, then strained off the whey and pressed the cheese into a block. Making paneer is incredibly easy and homemade paneer is much better than anything you can buy in a store.
Cashew and Melon Seed Paste: This was an ingredient I’d never heard of before, but it really makes the dish thick and creamy. Cashews and watermelon seeds (with the outer black coating removed- you can buy these in India but I’m not sure if they’re available in other countries) are soaked in water and blended in a food processor to make a thick paste. Unfortunately, I’m allergic to cashews and we won’t be able to use this ingredient when we make the dish at home. Our instructor recommended using fried onions (pictured below) to help thicken the sauce as an alternative.
Ginger-garlic Paste: We used this ingredient in many of the dishes we made in the cooking class, and I think it’s absolutely brilliant. Instead of using minced ginger and garlic that may burn if the heat in your pan is too hot, you use a smooth paste of ginger and garlic that infuses flavor throughout the whole dish and won’t burn in the pan! Chef Lokesh also gave us the tip of making the paste ahead of time and freezing it in ice cube trays so that you have the paste on hand whenever you need it.
Spices: Stock up on these spices at your favorite local Indian grocery store, where they’ll likely be much cheaper than at the supermarket: green cardamom pods, cloves, coriander, chili powder, fenugreek, and garam masala. Another interesting thing we noticed about all the dishes we made was that the spices were cooked in oil at the beginning of every recipe, which is different from our western method of adding spices after all the other ingredients are added. Cooking the spices directly in oil and on high heat seems like a crucial step in Indian cooking to allow maximum flavor to be released from the spices.
Paneer Butter Masala
150 g sliced onion
250 g cooking oil for frying onions
5-6 green cardamom pods
5-6 whole cloves
2 tsp ginger garlic paste (recipe below)
15 g coriander powder
20 g red chili powder
500 g tomato puree
1 tsp fenugreek leaves
1 tsp garam masala
3 T cashew nut and melon seed paste (recipe below)
100 g butter
50 mL cream
250 g paneer
Slice the onions very finely. Heat enough oil in a pan to deep fry the onions until light brown (make sure heat is not too high- takes quite some time, about 20 minutes if I remember correctly). Remove onions and drain the oil on paper towels.
In a few more tablespoons of oil, add the seeds from the cardamom pods (remove the tough outer husk) and the cloves and fry until a fragrant. Add the ginger-garlic paste and cook for 5 minutes.
Add the coriander and chili powder and cook for 2 minutes. Add tomato puree and cook for 5 minutes. Add fried onions, fenugreek leaves, garam masala, and cashew nut/melon seed paste. Cook for 10 minutes.
Add the butter and cream and mix. Add the paneer. Check the seasoning and serve.
50 g ginger (peeled)
100 g garlic (peeled)
150 mL water
Soak the ginger and garlic in water for half an hour. Blend all ingredients in a food processor or blender to make the paste. Our chef gave us the tip of making a bunch of this paste at once, putting it in ice cube trays, and freezing it so you have the paste ready to go all the time.
Cashew Nut and Melon Seed Paste
100 g watermelon seeds (the black seeds with the black part removed- not sure where you might find these in the US, but apparently you can buy them here in India. If you can’t find them I think you could just use more cashews instead)
50 g cashews
150 mL water
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Soak the watermelon seeds and cashew nuts in the water for half an hour, then blend in a food processor to make a paste.