Most recipes for Indian butter paneer are developed to perfectly mimic the restaurant dish. This is not one of them. I like to enjoy the cream-laden restaurant version for what it is, and I’ll order takeout when I’m craving that flavor. Plus, the original butter paneer is vastly different than the one you consume at a restaurant today, and given that there are so many variations, I decided to do my own take on the dish.
What is butter paneer made of?
For this version, the base creaminess comes from cashews, which are often, but not always found in butter paneer. The cream at the end is completely optional, and I don’t usually need it as the cashews provide enough richness for me. There’s a bit more boldness in the flavor and tanginess from the tomato. The resulting dish is rich, comforting, slightly punchy from the spice, and perfect with some soft naan on the side.
How do I make butter paneer?
First, you’ll make a spiced tomato onion base by sauteeing spices in oil, adding some onion, then tomatoes, spices, and other aromatics. Let the mixture cool slightly, then blend until smooth. Then, that pureed tomato onion mixture gets added to a hot pan with melted butter. Sprinkle in some fenugreek leaves (methi) for a very classic butter paneer flavor and simmer your paneer until just cooked.
What substitutions or changes can I make to the recipe?
Each ingredient has been selected to add a particular flavor or texture to the dish. That being said, there are definite substitutions that can be made.
1) The recipe can be completely vegan if you sub butter for vegan butter and tofu for the paneer.
2) You can absolutely alter the flavor profile to your own preferences. I find that the tomato and cashews provide enough sweetness, but if you want, you can add a bit of sugar to the final puree if desired.
3) Fenugreek leaves (methi) add this nice, almost maple-syrupy, earthy, nutty flavor to the butter paneer. It’s a very classic flavor that separates butter paneer from other tomato based dishes. You can absolutely sub in a pinch of ground fenugreek if you don’t have the leaves.
4) Use as much or as little spice as you want.
Note: A high powered blender is recommended to ensure the sauce is as creamy and smooth as possible. If you don’t have one, I recommend omitting the cashews and subbing the fresh tomatoes for 1-14oz can of whole peeled tomatoes. It’ll change the flavor profile slightly, but help smooth out the sauce.
Recipe: Butter Paneer
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil
- 2 cardamom pods
- 1/2 cinnamon stick
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 large red onion, thinly sliced
- 1/2 tablespoon grated garlic
- 1/2 tablespoon grated ginger
- 1/2 serrano chili, roughly chopped
- 1 lb tomatoes, about 2 large or 3 medium-sized
- 12 cashews
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- 1 cup water, plus more if needed
- Kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 teaspoon mild red chili powder, like Kashmiri — you can also substitute 1/4 teaspoon paprika and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne if you don’t have it
- 1 teaspoon fenugreek leaves, methi
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream, optional
- 1 8-oz package of paneer
- A handful of cilantro, for garnish
- A handful of red onion, for garnish
- Lemon wedges, for serving
- Prep the paneer: Store-bought paneer can often be hard, so I recommend softening it through the following step. Cut paneer into 1-inch cubes, then soak in a bowl of hot water for 15 minutes. Drain the paneer and set aside.
- In a medium saute pan, heat oil to medium heat. Add the cardamom, cinnamon, and bay leaves until aromatic and sizzling, about 30 seconds.
- Saute the onion at medium heat for 7-8 minutes, until the moisture has evaporated and the onions are golden brown at the edges. Season with salt.
- Reduce the heat to low, and add the ginger, garlic, and chili. Saute for 30 seconds until fragrant.
- Add the tomatoes and cashews, and saute for 8-10 minutes at medium heat, until the tomatoes release their juices and the sauce thickens.
- Add the garam masala and 1 cup water, and saute for another 5 minutes until the sauce reduces slightly. Season with salt.
- Let cool, then add to a blender until completely smooth. If your puree is not perfectly smooth, you can push it through a fine mesh sieve.
- Wipe the saute pan clean, then heat the butter at medium heat until melted.
- Add the chili powder, and stir to combine, then mix in the puree. Bring the heat to a simmer, and let the sauce combine with the butter for about 5 minutes. If the sauce is looking too thick, you can add more water as desired.
- Crush the fenugreek leaves in your hand and add to the pan. If adding in the cream, reduce the heat to low and stir it in. Season with salt and additional spices as desired.
- Add the paneer and reduce the heat to a low simmer. Simmer for about 3 minutes, until the paneer is just cooked.
- Garnish with cilantro and red onion, and serve with lemon wedges.