If you’ve ever been lucky enough to experience the complex layers and delicious flavour that a tandoori dish incapsulates, then you know just how special this cooking style is.
And when food makes an impact in this way, it’s typically because a lot of care has gone into the preparation – both in sourcing high-quality ingredients and, importantly, the techniques used to extract the maximum possible taste.
In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know to make delicious tandoori food at home.
What is Tandoori Cooking?
If you ask most people what tandoori cooking is, they’ll usually describe a dish like tandoori chicken. But did you know that tandoori is not a recipe but a style of cooking?
Tandoori cooking is a traditional Persian/Central Asian cooking method that uses a cylindrical clay oven and charcoal.
The shape and clay material of the oven are the cause of the intense heat, allowing for the smoky aroma and short cooking and baking time.
How Does a Tandoor Oven Work?
Unlike ovens found in most Western-style kitchens, the tandoor oven isn’t rectangular in shape and doesn’t have a latched door that opens and closes.
Instead, the cylindrical bell-shaped tandoor oven has a small opening at the top where skewers of meat and veggies can be lowered into the oven to cook without touching the sides of the oven, and where the flattened dough can be slapped to the sides from within to bake at high temperatures.
Traditionally, the clay used for the oven helped to retain the heat and moisture, giving the meats a distinct smoky flavour and tenderness. The intense heat is similar to what is found in a convection oven, derived from the bottom of the unit and reflecting off the sides.
Historically, the heat was produced from charcoal or wood, but modern tandoor units also come in electric and gas heating options – all of which create temperatures that can reach as high as 480-500 degrees Celcius.
Types of Tandoor Ovens
Nowadays, tandoor ovens are designed for both commercial and home use.
The ovens designed for the home are smaller in size, including a range of clay options, such as this Amfora Tandoor, and electric or gas options, including the Naanoo electric tandoor and the Wonderchef gas oven tandoor, which neatly sits on the top of your stove.
Gas and electric options are typically easier to clean and maintain and are intended for inside use.
Clay tandoors are larger and usually designed for outdoor use. Having a clay tandoor can be a real talking point – the intricate designs make tandoors a fabulous addition to a patio!
What Can You Cook in a Tandoor Oven?
A common question for first-time tandoor users is what can actually be cooked in a tandoor oven. The answer is almost anything!
However, there are some foods that do particularly well, such as:
- Meat: chicken, beef or lamb are most common, but fish and shellfish can also be used.
- Vegetables: peppers, onions, courgette, aubergine, mushrooms, etc.
- Cheese: usually paneer.
- Flatbreads: typically naans, but rotis and parathas also work.
Cooking in a Tandoor Oven
Meat, vegetables and cheese are almost universally coated in a yoghurt-based marinade, which holds added herbs and spices in place.
This is especially beneficial for meat, as the acid in the yoghurt acts as a tenderiser for the meat.
Typically, there are two steps for marinating the meat. The first comes as a dry rub of spices that stays on the meat for a shorter period of time than the second yoghurt-based marinade.
A basic dry rub uses ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala, ground ginger, paprika, turmeric, ground cardamom, salt, white pepper, cayenne, and garlic powder.
The second step of the marinade process requires time and patience and should be left on the meat for several hours before cooking. Ingredients for this second step include the spices from the dry rub combined with yoghurt and lemon juice.
When cooking the skewered meats and vegetables, the key to getting that unique tandoori style flavour is to lock in the heat.
This way, the juice drippings from the skewers will drip onto the bottom of the oven to cause more intense smoke and a flavour that is undeniably delicious.
At this high heat, meat can cook in 20 minutes, and bread can bake in less.
If you don’t have a tandoor oven, you can attempt to replicate the flavours using an outdoor grill, but chefs agree that it is near impossible to get that same smoky taste that the tandoor oven provides.
Popular tandoori style dishes include:
- Tandoor Chicken
- Chicken Tikka (recipe below)
- Paneer Tikka
- Seekh Kebab
Chicken Tikka At Home
One recipe we really like is from food writer and India-native Petrina Verma Sarkar for Grilled Chicken Tikka. The ingredients include skewered chicken that’s been long marinated in a spicy, yoghurt-based delight.
- 1 cup packed fresh coriander leaves, more finely chopped for garnish
- 2 tablespoons ginger paste
- 3 tablespoons garlic paste
- 3 to 4 tablespoons masala
- 6 peppercorns, or 2 small dry red chilies
- 1 teaspoon salt, more to taste
- 1 cup plain yoghurt
- 1 kg pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 2-inch chunks
- 1 large onion, sliced into thin rings
- 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon chaat masala, more to taste
- Naan or basmati rice, for serving
- Lime or lemon wedges, for serving
- Add the spices and blend. Mix together coriander, ginger, garlic, garam masala, peppercorns, and salt in a bowl or a food processor to make a smooth paste.
- Spice blend + yoghurt + chicken overnight marinade. Transfer the spice mixture into a large bowl using a silicone spatula. Add the yoghurt, and adjust the seasonings to taste. Next, add the chicken chunks, making sure they are evenly coated. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.
- Skewer the marinated chicken. Thread the chicken chunks onto metal skewers. Be sure to leave a little space between each piece, so the chicken cooks evenly.
- Preheat your tandoor oven. Remember, safety first! That oven is going to get hot, so have your oven mitts on hand.
- Cook the skewered Chicken Tikka. Place the skewers into the oven and cook until the chicken is browned on all sides and tender. The cook time is 12 to 15 minutes. Be sure to use your oven mitts when touching the hot metal skewers.
- Time to enjoy! Serve over onion coated in masala and lime juice with fresh naan bread or rice.
We know that so many people around the world share a love for tandoori cooking and its savoury spices and smoky flavours.
Tandoori is quite simple to cook up yourself, and we encourage you to give your favourite tandoori recipe a try.
Remember, the key to getting that aromatic tenderness of the meat is the high heat that a tandoor oven can provide.