We need a vacation. Somewhere warm and far away did you say? I’m in! Pull out your spices, turn on some music, and let’s take a trip to India with Paneer Tikka Masala. This healthy vegetarian dinner is a creamy, saucy curry with paneer (if you’ve never had paneer, you’ll love it, I pinky promise), fresh vegetables, and warm spices. No matter where you live, you can easily make Paneer Tikka Masala at home, and the flavors are an enchanted escape unto themselves.
I spent a month after college traveling India, a country whose colors, people, and cuisine still captivates my memory and imagination to this day.
Since I can’t pop back over to India any time I’m craving a recipe like Paneer Tikka Masala, I enjoy creating versions of the dishes I loved abroad in my own kitchen.
I don’t have access to a mega market of Indian spices (or the time to toast the spices whole, then grind them with a mortar and pestle the way you might with a truly authentic Indian recipe), so these Indian recipes are adaptions. That said, they are DELISH adaptations and ones that I feel stay true to the spirit and core flavor profiles of the originals.
Indian food is deeply and warmly spiced, but it’s not necessarily “spicy” in the sense of “hot.” It’s a delightful, enriching cuisine to explore, and this easy Paneer Tikka Masala is the ideal place to start.
I shared this recipe a few years ago, and because I love it so much, I’ve updated my original post with a Paneer Tikka Masala recipe video, as well as some additional background information on this splendid dish.
First, let’s chat core basics to help you become familiar with this healthy, supremely tasty dish.
What Is Paneer?
Paneer is a firm, mild, and pleasant cheese, similar to a curd you’d find in cottage cheese. EXCEPT (and this is important) it tastes way, WAY better than that description sounds. It’s a bit like a block of feta or halloumi but is firmer and far less briny. It’s easy to cook, fairly inexpensive, and high in protein.
I almost feel like the name “cheese” doesn’t apply here, because paneer doesn’t taste cheesy. Paneer takes on the flavor of whatever you cook it with, making it ideal for adding to rich, flavorful sauces like masalas and curries.
Dishes made with paneer are usually vegetarian. Vegans cannot eat paneer because it is a dairy product.
Where to Find Paneer
For as wildly common and popular as paneer is in India, it’s almost unknown in the United States, which is a pity because it is so simple to cook, versatile, and scrumptious. I’ve heard from a few of you that Costco sells it (YAY!).
Here, I find paneer at local Indian grocery stores, which are more common than you think. Once I started looking, I discovered I lived less than a mile from one in our western Milwaukee suburb, and we have options in downtown Milwaukee too. You could also try calling a local Indian restaurant to see if they have any ideas.
If you can’t find paneer, you can go the extra mile and make the best EVER paneer tikka masala by making your paneer from scratch. Celebrated Indian chef Sanjeev Kapoor has this easy paneer recipe.
What Does “Tikka” Mean?
Now that we’ve tacked paneer, let’s talk about “tikka” and “masala,” since you might be wondering about those terms too.
Tikka means “bits” and “pieces.” We have bits and pieces of paneer. Easy!
Tikka dishes can be either baked at a high temperature or cooked over hot coals. For max at-home ease, we’re going the oven-baked route.
What Does “Masala” Mean?
Masala is a broad term that essentially means a mix of spices. Today’s recipe boasts double the masala action: there’s a blend of spices coating the paneer before it’s baked, then a second hit that’s used to make a rich masala gravy (a.k.a. sauce).
This is the point in writing this post when I realized that the definition of masala sounds eerily similar to another popular term in Indian cuisine: curry. Like masala, curry is also a blend of spices. It’s also used to describe thick, rich sauces.
Pause while Erin does some primary research checks Wikipedia.
OKAY. Here’s the deal.
- Curry and masala are both blends of spices. Both are frequently used to make thick, yummy, aromatic sauces that taste delicious when mixed with chicken, veggies, paneer, and the like.
- The resulting dishes are casually referred to as “masalas” or “curries.”
- The main separation between the two blends is the complete list of spices, which are different from each other. And long.
Kind of like this post.
For our purposes, I recommend purchasing a premixed masala blend (this recipe calls for garam masala). Remember when I said we were making easy, at-home versions of Indian food? Spice blends are where it’s at!
What Is Paneer Tikka Masala Made Out Of?
Masalas are like any well-loved recipe that gets passed down through the generations. Everyone has their own version…and people tend to think their version is the best.
The main ingredients you’ll find in this version are:
- Paneer. We’ve covered this.
- Garam Masala. A blend of spices that will save you oodles of time. Many grocery stores carry it, and you can find it online here.
- Crushed Tomatoes. These create the masala sauce base.
- Fresh Ginger and Fresh Garlic. A lot.
- Greek Yogurt. My trick to making this a healthy Paneer Tikka Masala. It adds body and creaminess without the need for heavy cream.
- Fresh Vegetables. I add more than is traditional, because I want my Paneer Tikka Masala to be a true all-in-one meal.
Serving Paneer Tikka Masala
Paneer Tikka Masala is marvelously saucy and begs for something to mix with it. Pick your vehicle of choice:
- Fluffy, delicious Indian bread that is prime for mopping up all of that tasty masala gravy. Many grocery stores carry it (I know Trader Joe’s does). My friend Ali also has a homemade naan recipe if you want to try making it from scratch.
- Brown Rice. Simple and always a tasty option.
- Cauliflower Rice. If you’d like to make this tikka masala more low carb. The recipe does already call for cauliflower though, so you’d be doubling up.
- Quinoa. A high-protein option.
Whether or not you’ve tried paneer, I truly hope you will give this tikka masala recipe a chance. It’s deeply flavorful, healthy, and packed with veggies and lean protein. If you don’t cook Indian food regularly, it will also breathe new life and excitement into your weekly dinner routine (try this Chicken Tikka Masala next).
I know paneer is a special item to seek out, and I would never ask you to do that if I didn’t think it was 100% worth it. Paneer Tikka Masala truly is!
Paneer Tikka Masala
For the Paneer Tikka:
- 12 ounces paneer* cut into 3/4-inch cubes
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic about 1 large clove
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoons garam masala**
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 5 tablespoons 2% plain Greek yogurt***
For the Masala (Sauce):
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil or canola oil
- 1 large red bell pepper cored and thinly sliced
- 1/2 medium head cauliflower cut into florets
- 1/2 medium yellow onion very finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic about 3 cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala**
- 1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 can crushed tomatoes (28 ounces)
- 1 package frozen peas (10 ounces)
- 1/2 cup 2% plain Greek yogurt***
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro roughly chopped
- For serving: naan Indian flatbread—my fave! or prepared brown rice
- Prepare the paneer: Place the paneer in a bowl and toss with the ginger, garlic, coriander, garam masala, cumin, and salt. Add the 5 tablespoons of yogurt and stir until the paneer pieces are evenly coated. Let marinate at room temperature for 20 minutes or refrigerate and marinate overnight. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
- Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil and place an oven-safe baking rack on top (I use a cooling rack that is oven safe). Coat the rack with nonstick spray, then arrange the paneer cubes on top in an even layer, discarding any excess marinade. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until the paneer is lightly golden at the edges. Remove from the oven and set aside.
- While the paneer bakes, prepare the masala (sauce): Heat the coconut oil over medium low in a large, sturdy skillet. Once hot, add the bell pepper, cauliflower, onion, ginger, garlic, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 minute, then increase the heat to medium and continue cooking until the vegetables are tender and the onion is translucent, about 12 to 15 minutes. Do not let the onion brown—if it starts to turn brown, reduce the heat and continue cooking until soft. Add the tomato paste, garam masala, turmeric, and cayenne. Cook and stir constantly for 30 seconds, until very fragrant. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until hot, about 2 minutes. Add the paneer and peas, and cook, stirring occasionally, until warmed through, about 2 minutes more.
- Remove from heat and let cool for 1 minute. Stir in the 1/2 cup yogurt. Taste and add additional salt and pepper as desired. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve warm with naan bread or brown rice.
- *Paneer is an Indian cheese that is high in protein, mild in flavor, and absolutely delicious! There are not any direct substitutes, so I really recommend seeking it out. Try Indian grocery stores or delis or a specialty foods store. Otherwise, you can substitute diced boneless, skinless chicken, though you will need to adjust the cooking time accordingly. It could also work to swap extra firm tofu that has as much moisture pressed out as possible, though I have not tried either of these swaps myself.
- **Garam masala is an Indian spice blend that can be found in most grocery stores. You can also purchase it online here.
- ***Do not use nonfat yogurt, as it is likely to curdle. Whole milk yogurt is fine. If you do not have Greek yogurt, you can also substitute regular yogurt.
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