Chicken Biryani

I will admit, I’ve put this dish off for some time.  It scares me.  Not because biryani is particularly hard, but because there are masters of biryani out there that could spend years teaching what they know about this beautiful dish.  I’m scared I’d never do it justice – I fell in love with biryani after some business trips to Hyderbad, India, where they claim they have mastered the dish.  It is an icon of the city.  I know I could never compete with these geniuses, but here’s my attempt.

There is so much controversy about what is the ‘right’ way to cook biryani, so let me reiterate, this is MY recipe – feel free to adapt/ignore as you please :). As an example of one of the ‘masters’ of biryani cooking, check out this amazing video of Gordon Ramsey learning to cook biryani on his Great Escape to India.

There are two major elements to a biryani, which are prepared separately and then layered together and finished off.  They are the marinaded meat (in this case, I’ve used chicken, but mutton, lamb, beef and goat all work well) and the rice.  I’ll show each part and how they are combined in a technique called ‘Dum cooking’  It’s best to marinade the meat overnight, but at least a couple of hours is needed to get the tender, flavoursome experience that goes with biryani.

This recipe feeds 4 people – biryani is a really great dish to feed large groups, so scaling up is done relatively easily!

Marinaded Meat Ingredients:

400gms (or more, if you like your meat) of chicken thighs – I’ve boned mine, but keeping the bone in adds additional flavour – If I were using lamb, I’d leave the bones as marrow is wonderful in a biryani!
100gms plain yoghurt
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 cm ginger, grated/minced
1 chilli, chopped (optional – fresh is best, but I couldn’t source any, so used a dried chilli)
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tsps coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp ground Cayenne Pepper
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
1 tsp cracked pepper (or to taste)

Marinaded Meat Method:
Start by chopping your meat into bite sized pieces.  You can also leave the meat whole, but we find it goes further if cut (and absorbs more of the marinade)  


Place the meat in a glass bowl (or other, non-reactive bowl) and season.  Add in your yoghurt.


Add all the other dry ingredients


And the lemon juice – coat all the meat, cover the bowl and put it in the fridge for at least 2 hours – overnight is best.


Rice Ingredients:

1 cup of milk (whole milk gives the best flavour, but skim milk is also fine)
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups of basmati rice, washed
2 bay leaves
a handful of mint leaves (again, couldn’t source fresh leaves, so going with dried, but not quite the same!)
1 tsp cumin seeds (if you can get black cumin, this is best, but normal cumin is also ok)
2 green cardamoms
3 cms of cinnamon sticks
12 peppercorns
6 cloves
A pinch of saffron strands (Ok, this is meant to be a decadent dish, hence the saffron – it’s expensive, but needed to get the full flavour and colour)
Pinch of mace
2 tsp Salt (or to taste)

Rice Method:
Take your washed rice and add in all your spices, except your saffron, in to a large pot.  I’ll use the same pot later for creating the biryani – saves on washing up time.


Add in 4 cups of water and 2 tablespoons of oil, and bring to the boil, then simmer for 5-8 minutes.  You want to only cook the rice to about 50% done.  If it’s fully cooked, you’ll get mushy biryani.


While the rice is cooking, infuse your milk with the saffron.  Warm your milk in the microwave for 1 minute, then add the saffron and stir – it’ll start to turn the golden colour that’s typical of saffron.  The more saffron, the richer the colour (and poorer you become!)


Warm milk is infusing, rice is par-cooking – time to finely slice your onions


Fry your onions in a hot pan with plenty of oil.  The onions will add a crispy, flavoursome (almost bitter) taste to your biryani


Go back and check your rice – rub some between your fingers – you want it to still be hard, but soft on the outside.


Drain your rice thoroughly and allow to cool a little.


Your onions should be nicely fried by now – too much and they’ll go too bitter – take your onions out and set aside for later.


Dum Cooking

Ok, you can google Dum Cooking or Dumpukht and you’ll get an extensive history and very nuanced approach to this method of cooking – this is a dumbed down version of Dumpukht (Pun totally intended).

Start by laying your marinaded meat at the bottom of a large Dutch oven style pot.  Traditional biryanis use HUGE pots for this, so they can feed lots of people – we’ll stick with something small, for the family.  I went traditional and didn’t fry my meat today – however, I quite like the caramelisation that comes with a little frying.


On top of the meat, lay your drained, par-cooked rice. Spread it out evenly – this will make sure all the rice cooks together.


Pour over 3-4 tablespoons of oil (or ghee, if you want a richer flavour)


Pour over your saffron infused milk.  This is all the liquid you’ll be using in this style of cooking.


Finally, lay your fried onion on the top.


Now, to make the lid stick down to the pot, you can use a little atta dough, rolled in to a long thin string.  These days, most lids fit quite snuggly and don’t require this, but I thought I’d do it to show you the method.


Wrap the string of dough around the edge of the lid – this will help keep a tight seal with the pot and keep most of the aroma and steam in the pot – this is how we can get away with so little liquid.  If you don’t want to do this, I would weigh down your lid as much as possible to prevent any air escaping.


Attach the lid to your pot and turn the stove up to HIGH for 10 mins, then reduce to a very low heat for a further 20 mins.  Don’t try to rush things – no done right and the rice may not be cooked.


This is the really scary bit – opening the lid to see if it all worked.  I won’t deny it, I stalled for a while because I was so worried about what I’d see!


When you open it up, all the layers are still intact…


But spooning through and you’ll see the colour and richness of the other ingredients flow through


Serve up with lots of Raita! I’ll admit, I shouldn’t have stalled in opening the pot – I overcooked the rice a little – it should be drier than this, but the flavours were still great.  I will resign myself to the rank of ‘plucky amateur’ – I have many, many years to go before I can even be in the company of the real biryani masters!


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