10 Tips for Creating a Delicious Indian Curry Sauce
How do you create amazing Indian food? Well, if you live in North America, and you don't have a friendly Indian neighbour who can show you the basics, look no further. We wanted to create an all-in-one resource online for cooking an incredible improvised curry sauce. We've put just about everything we know about being an improvisational Indian cook here in this one article.
This list will not only aquaint you with some fundamental concepts of Indian cooking, but it will also introduce you to our philosophy on how to create an incredible curry sauce every time, no matter what ingredients you're working with and no matter whether you're making a butter chicken, a korma, or a coconut curry.
This article is a mini masterclass on improvisational Indian cooking. First we'll show you Bhuno, an authentic cooking method we love most, then we'll show you how to prepare a great marinade, then we'll educate you on how to create incredible flavour combinations without using a single-use paste, or curry powder.
We'll show you our philosophy for creating a balanced curry sauce while using fresh ingredients, sharing how-to instructions and recipes along the way. Finally, we'll bring it all together by showing you how all these tips come together to make a supremely delicious coconut curry sauce.
And if you want practice with many of the techniques and hints below, buy a few of Master Indian's spice kits, to get you on the fast-track to preparing authentic Indian food, step-by-step.
1. Be Awesome at Bhuno
We mention Bhuno a lot. That's because to be an awesome Indian cook, it's crucial to have good bhuno technique at your fingertips. Hindi for "roast" or "simmer", Bhuno (boo-na), is the process of slow-frying or slow-cooking certain ingredients.
It is practiced from Punjab to Haryana and in many other parts of India. It is also a part of many North Indian dishes. Be really good at it. That's our first tip.
How to: Simply heat oil or butter on medium or low heat til it's shimmering or sizzling, then add some whole spices, then add aromatics: onions, curry leaves, cilantro, garlic, ginger, celery, even a little fresh basil or thai basil. Then slow-fry these, covered for about 15 to 20 minutes.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- a mix of whole spices (try 5 cardamom, 4 cloves, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1 teaspoon fennel seed, 1 inch cinnamon stick)
- 1-2 Cups minced onion
- 1/2 cup cilantro (or if you hate cilantro, try 1/8 cup fresh, minced curry leaves or some fresh basil or, better, thai basil)
- 2 tbsp ginger garlic paste (or 1:1 grated ginger and garlic)
- 2 green chilies
To be great at Bhuno, like most cooking, you just need to pay careful attention. In the vegetable oil, simmer your spices on medium heat until they're fragrant, then add your onion, cilantro, chilies, garlic and ginger.
Cook the mixture at low to medium heat, adding a spice powder such as sambar or garam masala at about the 10-minute mark, and continuing to heat for up to 20 minutes until your mixture is soft or a paste..
Remember, you can substitute these ingredients for many other vegetable ingredients. Cook this mixture of garlic, ginger, onions, and other vegetables and greens down into more or less a paste.
2. Start your Curry with an Incredible Marinade
A good marinade is essential to a delicious curry sauce. If you're cooking chicken or beef, or tofu, marination with flavourful ingredienced such as minced garlic, red pepper, and various masalas or spice powders is a must-have skill.
With these three steps: start by briefly heating up fats and/or aromatics, stirring frequently so that all ingredients combine and cook through.
Next, add aromatics and finish by carefully simmering for at least an hour, until flavours combine and meat becomes tender; meat can also be served grilled or steamed, though these methods may tend towards more common trends are a bit less predictable, and therefore climate-based between
A basic Indian marinade recipe often uses:
- about 1 cup of yogurt;
- and a few tablespoons of spice powder, such as garam masala (try 1 tablespoon);
- a few more spices such as turmeric (1 teaspoon), and Indian red chili (1/2 - 1 teaspoon), or spanish paprika (1 teaspoon), and black pepper (1/4 teaspoon),
- along with some aromatics such as minced garlic and ginger (or onion)
3. Fresh Whole Spices Will Really Flavour a Curry Sauce
"Um, don't you just use curry powder to make a curry sauce?" Not really. In India, "curry" is just another word for "saucy entrée". What Westerners think of as Curry powder is a (still quite delicious) British invention.
While it used to be that a lot of North Americans don't know how to make restaurant-style Indian food, that is changing. Creating a restaurant quality-curry sauce is as simple as knowing a few important details.
Fresh, whole spices are particuarly important. Whole spices retain their flavour better than ground spices for the simple reason that they have less of their surface exposed to the air, hence the volatile oils stay locked inside.
For this reason, once you start using whole spices (we recommend having a mortar & pestle, and a spice grinder ready-to-hand), to make your curry sauce, you'll never return to pre-ground spices.
How to: Go out and buy whole cardamom, cassia bark, black pepper, nutmeg, cumin, coriander, and others (there's a comprehensive list on our Indian Spices article).
Then you're either going to fry it in oil, or you can grind the whole spices into a powder that you can add to 1-2 cups of sauce. Freshly ground masalas are essential to matching the taste of a restaurant-style curry sauce.
3. Fresh Garlic and Ginger Paste
Garlic and ginger are maybe the most-loved ingredients in Indian cuisine. The combination of these two fragrant elements produce an aroma that is an integral part of the many Indian curry sauces, and adds a gorgeous depth and complexity to most of Indian cooking.
Whether it's a coconut curry, a North Indian tomato/onion-based curry, or a tamarind-based curry, you're probably going to use a) garam masala, and b) ginger/garlic paste.
Check out our article on ginger/garlic paste. You can either use a microplane to finely grate the ginger and garlic in roughly equal proportions, or you can use a dash of oil and a blender/grinder).
Add your garlic and ginger while you're frying other bhuno ingredients. Ginger and garlic can also be fried on their own in vegetable oil or mustard oil, along with spices during a taarka or tadka.
4. Create an Incredible Curry Sauce Base
There are many different bases you can use for curry sauce. That's one reason there are so many flavours and textures in Indian food.
You cook it so many different ways using so many different recipes. A great curry sauce base usually consists of a few ingredients, usually something creamy, something acidic, and usually those things are blended or mashed to create a hearty texture.
Curry sauce base types:
What we think of as a Punjabi curry sauce recipe consists of clarified onions and blended tomatoes. Generally, those two ingredients are blended together after the onions are cooked. Around 2 cups of this thick sauce base will provide a fantastic base for a family of four.
Cooking a curry sauce with lentils and whole spices is a technique used all over India. Many times flour from white lentils is used as a thickening agent. Lentils can be mixed with creamy ingredients to form an incredible base.
Chicken Dhansak for example, uses a sauce of red lentils, and while alone, they add enough body to a sauce, blending them to a paste after cooking creates a smooth sauce with lots of body and depth of flavour.
As we've mentioned, some Indian dishes use a cream-based curry sauce. Usually using a cream is combined with other thickening and flavour-adding ingredients, such as carmelized onions blended into a paste (or simply minced and clarified).
Again, the cream can come from actual dairy cream, coconut cream, a rich coconut milk.
Gordon Ramsey's "Curry in a Hurry" uses a perfectly-acceptable-though-not-typically-Indian winter squash sauce base. Squash is an incredible ingredient to use as a curry sauce base, especially when combined with coconut milk.
Add in the typical flavours of a winning Indian curry, and you'll have a restaurant-quality taste almost guaranteed.
1. Know your ingredients:
Lend thickness and depth with ingredients like clarified onion/garlic, blended; squash puree; leeks; lentils (red, brown, or black).
Lend smoothness and creaminess with ingredients like cream; coconut milk, soaked, blended cashews; and non-dairy milks such as oat milk, and also, again, blended onion/garlic.
2. Start the Process with a Delicious Vegetable
This sounds obvious, but use delicious ingredients to make a thick, smooth sauce base. A curry recipe almost always relies on at least some blended vegetables.
Use clarified, blended onions; blended tomatoes; Soaked, blended cashews; or boiled, blended squash. Each one of these will impart its own special flavour and texture.
3. Balance with Some Other Ingredients:
If, for example, you've begun your dish with blended tomatoes, you'll have a sour sauce without much body until it's been cooked down a little.
The more it is cooked down, the more acidic it becomes, hence for sauces that rely on a tomato sauce or reduction, usually creamy or sweet ingredients are added.
Butter chicken, for example, offsets the sour flavour with a whole onion, cooked and blended, along with butter and cream whose creaminess cuts the acidity.
To take another example, a Thai red curry balances out the creamy peanut-base for the sauce with savoury and sour (fish sauce, and tamarind respectively.) We'll explain more about balancing curries below.
This step is easy. You may blend your curry sauce with a hand blender or an upright blender. We usually use a hand-blender.
5. Rely on the experts:
When improvising a delicious curry sauce recipe, experience is important. For this reason, you should experiment with recipes that use ingredients you don't normally use, and that are a little outside your comfort zone.
You'll find that some recipes use ingredients that are cooked, then blended; ingredients that are toasted then ground, or just minced ingredients. The variety in preparation methods leads to a huge variety in sauce texture.
5. Achieve Flavour Balance
In all your authentic Indian food creation, bring it together by creating a mixture of flavour elements. In particular, you should have something creamy, something umami, something sour, and something sweet, along with a base of flavourful spices and seasonings.
Add sweet with clarified onions/garlic, 1 tablespoon of maple syrup, honey, or sugar, as well as sweeter-tasting vegetables like sweet potato and squash;
Add umami taste with garlic and ginger as well as onion fried in vegetable oil. You can also add to this dimension by using black salt (kala namak), as well as hing or asafoetida.
Vegetable or Chicken stock will also add umami, as well as the cooking juices of chicken, beef or lamb.
Add sour by using pureed tomatoes as a base. You can also use Amchoor (mango powder), or tamarind, both of which you will find at an Indian grocer, and which both contribute incredible flavour.
For creaminess, add coconut milk, yogurt, cream, or an oil of your choice.
Finally choose a host of spices that goes well with the Indian recipes you love. If you're not sure of what spices to use, look up recipes that use 5 or 6 whole spices in their ingredient list.
6. Spice Grinder Tricks for a Great Sauce Recipe
In North America, especially if you're dabbling with Indian recipes, the first gizmo you reach for to grind spices is a coffee grinder. The coffee grinder is fine for starters. It's essentially a spice grinder, although spice grinders usually have a little more horsepower than a coffee grinder. The reason for that is that some spices, such as cinnamon/cassia bark are difficult to grind.
A purpose-built grinder with two blade assemblies, one for wet, one for dry, is ideal.
How to: Check out our Garam Masala recipe, or Pumpkin Spice recipe
8. Coconut Milk & Coconut Curry
Coconut milk is a central ingredient to Indian food. Whether you're preparing a chicken, beef, or vegetarian curry recipe, being able to make a fantastic coconut curry recipe. The recipe below is a sure bet!
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 1 tomato, blended
- 1 onion, fine diced
- 2 tablespoons ginger/garlic paste
- 2 tablespoons grated coconut
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
- 1 teaspoon whole cumin
- 1 teaspoon fennel seed
- 3-5 whole green cardamom
- 1 teaspoon coriander
- 1 tablespoon garam masala
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon lal mirch (chili powder) or cayenne
- 1/4 cup coconut oil
- 1 lb chicken, beef, tofu, or shrimp
- Toast whole spices; separately toast shredded coconut and sesame seeds, and set both aside,
- Melt coconut oil, and add diced onion, ginger/garlic, as well as your protein; cook until the onions are transparent, and your protein is mostly cooked.
- add blended tomato, garam masala, turmeric, coriander, and chili powder, stir together
- add cup of coconut milk
- grind cooled whole spices, toasted coconut and sesame and add all as a paste to the rest of the dish. Stir until combined.
- Cook for another 10-15 minutes until flavours are combined.
The above coconut curry recipe uses about a quarter of a cup of coconut milk per serving. But some recipes use up to a half cup per serving. The combination of ginger, onion, garlic, and tomato essentially provides the base for this curry.
9. When to Use Curry Powder
Generally speaking you use a curry powder when you're making either a British or Asian style yellow curry. If you're still not loving the idea of using curry powder to cook a curry, we recommend checking out this article on the history of curry. Although Western yellow curry powder might feel inauthentic to some, actually it has a great history.
Also, we recommend visiting our own article on making a simple chicken curry at home, which takes you through four curry-making methods including one that uses that classic yellow curry powder.
Finally, there is also an Indian dish inspired by Western Curry. It's called "Murgh Kari," and it uses a variety of Indian cooking methods and Western yellow curry powder.
10. Cook with Family and Friends
One thing that unites us all is that we all admire great food. Learning how to cook Indian dishes is one of the best ways to broaden your culinary horizons, expand your culinary culture and strengthen your bond with family and friends (within your bubble of course).
Recruit them to help you design the perfect curry sauce. So we recommend cooking with family and friend, even if there's only a few of them in your bubble right now.
Get your bubble together, get the ingredients together for a new Indian recipe you've never tried before, and tackle that project together. Alternately, you can focus on an entree while your partner, son, or daughter tackles the chutney or raita recipe.
It might sound a bit corny, but while you're there at the stove combining onions with coconut milk and ginger/garlic to create a dynamite curry sauce, simply having the happy presence of people in your family will make the food better, so long as you enjoy the company.
Learning even one of these methods will substantially improve your command over flavour. Please join us on facebook and instagram, visit our store.