Chicken Biryani, a Classic
One of the most loved dishes throughout India, biryani means abundance, generosity, and celebrations. Chicken biryani is yet another Persian gift to Indian cuisine. Like Spain’s paella and Italy’s risotto, Indians are justifiably proud of this iconic dish. The fancier the occasion, the more elaborate the biryani.
A biryani is alternate layers of long-grain fluffy basmati rice, vegetables, egg or meat, cooked together and delicately scented with ghee and spices. It is the ultimate one-dish meal. Only needing some plain full-fat yogurt, a pickle, and pappadum or naan to round the offerings.
Everyone Has Their Own!
As with other Indian favorites, recipes for biryani are hotly contested, and each high profile city or region declares their variation, "the only authentic biryani!" The great secret is the marriage of basmati rice, spices, caramelized onions, and meat or vegetables, all layered together. The result is pretty spectacular and worthy of some weekend puttering at your stove. This is one sure way to demonstrate your love for friends and family.
You Too Can Make Biryani
Are you feeling daunted? Don’t be. The steps are simple, and I include tips and tricks to help you as you go along so you can make this show stopper party dish. While this is not weeknight cooking from start to finish, I have ideas on how you can make chicken biryani in three steps. This can be done during the week by parboiling the rice, partially cooking the chicken, freezing them separately, and then defrosting them when you are ready to do the final cooking.
Commit yourself to the steps, and you will be rewarded with a special occasion centerpiece that you will be asked to serve over and over again.
See the Notes below before you cook.
Easy, Enticing Chicken Biryani
- 2 cups onions ~ Sliced very thin and evenly. See 1st Note
- oil for frying ~ Example: avocado, peanut, or canola, enough cover the onions
- 1 1/2 pounds chicken thighs ~ With skin on or skinless, depending on your preference. See Notes 2 and 3
- 3/4 cup thick yogurt ~Buy or make.
- 1 tablespoon ginger garlic paste ~ Buy or make. (1/2 ginger, 1/2 garlic)
- 1 1/4 teaspoon Kashmiri ground red chili ~ Or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne; substitutions
- 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamon
- 1 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala ~ Buy or make
- 2 tablespoons browned onions
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sea or table salt ~ Substitutions
- 2 tablespoons hot milk
- 1 teaspoon saffron threads ~ Loosely packed, see 5th Note for substitutions
Parboiled Rice (70% Cooked)
- 2 1/4 cups basmati rice ~ See 3rd Note
- 6 cups water
- 1 tablespoon sea or table salt ~ Or 2 tablespoons Diamond Crystal salt, see 6th Note. Substitutions
- 1 star anise
- 5 cloves
- 5 cardamon pods
Other Biryani Ingredients
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 1 cup fresh mint ~ Chopped
- 1 cup cilantro ~ Chopped
- 2 tablespoons ghee ~ Or melted butter. Buy or make
- browned onions (birista)
- 2 tablespoons cilantro and/or mint ~ Chopped
Brown Onions (Birista)
- Heat oil in a large pan over medium-high heat, and fry the onions. Cooking the moisture out of the onions is the first stage, which will take about 8 minutes.
- The next step of browning the onions will require frequent stirring. Don't walk away. This will take another 5 minutes or so. When they are a shade lighter than you are wanting, pull the pan off the heat and let them sit another minute or two; they will continue to darken. If the onions burn they will be bitter. Remove them from the oil and place them on paper towels or a clean kitchen towel. If you would like to see a video of the process, I love the Vlog CookingShooking, which demonstrates how to make fried onions, also called birista.
- Gather your chicken marinade ingredients and see the last Note about making this dish in stages.
- Marinate chicken: Mix together all the marinade ingredients and marinate for as long as you can, up to 24 hours.
Soak Saffron or Turmeric
- Saffron or turmeric: Place saffron threads, or turmeric in a small bowl with hot milk. If using saffron threads, massage them briefly to help them to release their essential oils. Set aside.
Parboiled Rice (70% Cooked)
- Rinse the rice in running water until the water is almost clear. In a large pan over high heat, bring 6 cups of water to boil and add salt, whole spices, and the rice. Lower the heat to medium-high and cook at a boil for 5 minutes and then check the rice. It should be 70% done and still a bit uncooked in the center of the grain. When finished drain, keeping the spices with the rice.
- Over medium heat, place a large heavy dutch oven, or saucepan and add 1 tablespoon oil. When the oil is hot, add the chicken. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Turn the chicken over, cover and cook for another 4 minutes. If the spices are sticking to the pan, add a splash of water. You are not cooking the chicken completely. If you left the skin on the chicken thighs, make sure it is skin side down. See 2nd Note.
- Remove from the heat and scatter half of the onions over the chicken, and all of the chopped mint and coriander.
- Layer all of the rice next, and drizzle the saffron, milk, and ghee or melted butter over the rice. When serving guests not used to eating food with whole spices, give them a heads up that they find a whole spice or two. Alternatively, you can fish them out in this step.
- Cover with the lid, and over medium heat, cook for 16 to 24 minutes, or until the chicken is done. Chicken thigh meat should be cooked to 165°F (74°C).
- Let the biryani rest for 10 minutes, and then garnish with the rest of the crispy onions and chopped cilantro. Serve with simple raita or plain yogurt.
- Shortcut: the browning of the onions step can be skipped if you prefer to buy store-bought fried onions or shallots. Most grocery stores carry this product and it makes an excellent short cut. If you would like more details on cooking onions, in general, and the crispy onions called for in this recipe, please see my post on cooking onions.
- For chicken biryani, I always prefer chicken thighs, but you can use drumsticks here as well. If you are determined to use chicken breast, understand that you risk having dry meat.
- I know this may seem heretical and I blame the idea on the lovely Nagi of the essential food blog RecipeTinEats, but keeping the skin on chicken thighs is genius. The thighs cook skin side down and protect the meat from overcooking, if in case (oops) one has allowed them the cook too long.
- You could substitute another long-grain rice for basmati, but you won’t get the fluffy, aromatic flavors that basmati rice brings to the table.
- If you don’t have saffron or don’t want to go to the expense of buying it, ground saffron is a good substitute. Or you can use 1/4 teaspoon turmeric mixed with 1/2 paprika (not smoked). Add both of these substitutions the way saffron threads are used in this recipe.
- Yes, you do need 2 tablespoons of salt to season the rice water. Most of it gets poured off before you continue with the recipe. Remain calm.
- Chicken biryani can be made ahead in parts. Marinate the chicken 2 days before serving, the next day cook the chicken until the point that the rice is added, and parboil the rice. On day three, simply finish the final cooking step. If you are needing to do your cooking farther in advance, parboil the rice, and cook the chicken through Step 1, under Biryani, and freeze separately. Ideally, defrost in the fridge a day or two in advance.
- Chicken biryani is one of the Top 20 Dishes in India, enjoy!