This post has been updated to include Urvashi Pitre’s recipe for Instant Pot butter chicken.
Last spring, Urvashi Pitre, a Dallas-based food blogger raised in Pune, India, posted a recipe for butter chicken to the Instant Pot Community Facebook group, a million-member discussion board dedicated to the cultishly beloved pressure-cooking gadget. The creamy, fragrant tomato stew is a staple of Indian restaurant cooking, but it is traditionally labor intensive to make, requiring the meat to marinate overnight and simmer for as much as an hour. It can also, if prepared poorly, yield gloopy, greasy sauce and dry, overdone chunks of chicken. Pitre’s recipe, called “Instant Pot Keto Indian Butter Chicken,” vastly simplified the process: add spices, chicken, and tomatoes to the machine (onions, she wrote, would be “heresy, y’all”), set it on high pressure for ten minutes, then blend the sauce with butter and cream, and presto! The results were vibrant and complex, the chicken perfectly tender, the sauce velvety smooth and redolent of earthy garam masala. The recipe quickly became one of the Facebook group’s most popular posts, and Pitre became known in “I.P.” circles as the Butter-Chicken Lady.
Pitre, a fifty-one-year-old mother of two and a scientist by training, purchased her Instant Pot in 2012, right before she and her husband underwent gastric-sleeve surgery. She kept a blog, Two Sleevers, where she tracked her diet and weight loss with chatty good humor (“I’ve Lost The Equivalent Of A Two-Year Old In Weight…What Have You Lost?”), and she posted recipes occasionally to the Instant Pot Facebook group—low-carb shrimp scampi, keto-friendly pork chile verde. But the butter chicken caught on in a way none of the others had. The pressure cooker has long been a staple of Indian households, used primarily for making rice and dal (lentils)—its whistling noise, in Pitre’s words, a “harbinger of mealtimes.” The Instant Pot, she realized, was an even more natural match for Indian cooking, with settings for stewing meats, cooking lentils, beans, and rice, and even making yogurt.
Within a few months of posting her viral chicken recipe, Pitre had landed a book deal for the “Indian Instant Pot Cookbook,” which was released in September, 2017, by Rockridge Press, the publisher of the best-selling “The Instant Pot Electric Pressure Cooker Cookbook.” Pitre’s book, which is officially endorsed by Instant Pot, includes recipes for making dal without pre-soaking the legumes; homemade paneer, an Indian cheese, in about fourteen minutes; and biryani, a complex rice dish that’s typically reserved for special occasions, in just five minutes (the secret is adding the rice in a thin, even layer on top of the vegetables, and then using the manual setting to cook the biryani on high pressure). Pitre is not the only food blogger to exploit the Instant Pot’s potential for Indian cooking. According to a representative from the company, India is among the most active countries on the Instant Pot Community Facebook group; at least twelve other cookbooks are devoted to I.P. Indian. But Pitre, who writes with wonky approachability and a droll willingness to answer just about any question (Q: “My family hates curry. Should we still try this?” A: “If all else fails, lie to your family and say this is an Italian . . . dish and see if they notice.”) has gained the most mainstream appeal. Her book has more than a hundred thousand copies in print.
In a recent phone conversation, Pitre, who speaks in polished, British-inflected tones, told me that her most hard-earned fans are her fellow-Indians. “There are so many Indians who grew up in India knowing how to cook, but who no longer have time to cook using traditional methods, or second-generation Indians whose parents cooked Indian food but never taught them,” she said. Many of them approach her recipes warily at first, skeptical that a dish whipped up in fifteen minutes could qualify as authentic Indian cooking. “But, as soon as they’re able to reproduce a dish they grew up with because of me, they’re totally committed,” she said. And even if traditional cooking techniques are being lost, she told me later, by e-mail, “I think what mothers and grandmothers would rejoice in is that the traditional tastes are now being passed on.”
My aunt Sangeeta was sold on the Instant Pot after tasting rajma chawal (a red bean stew) made in the gadget at a friend’s house. Sangeeta is a first-generation Indian, known in our family for her love of healthy, home-cooked food. Her signature dish is a fluffy, ginger-and-turmeric-tinged quinoa topped with sautéed shrimp. But she is a pediatrician with a busy schedule and limited patience for the kitchen. She recently purchased her own Instant Pot and discovered that it made arhar dal (yellow lentils) as soft and creamy as her mother’s in just a few minutes. Last October, during the Hindu festival of Diwali, a common time for Indians to do deep cleaning, she ceremonially threw out all three of her pressure cookers, then went out and bought a second Instant Pot, plus a copy of Pitre’s cookbook. (My cousin Meha later Snapchatted me a photo of my aunt’s twin I.P.s, with a caption: “My mom’s replacements for her children.”)
I spoke to other Pitre fans with similar conversion stories. Parveen Tumber, an Indian-American lawyer from Sacramento, fell hard for Pitre’s recipe for kheema, a luxurious, aromatic dish of spicy ground beef, peas, and onions. The recipe typically involves standing over a pan and stirring the mixture for twenty minutes to prevent the onions and spices from burning. Pitre’s version involves putting the ingredients into the Instant Pot, then cooking the whole dish for five minutes. “My husband’s mom had been trying to teach me for a decade,” Tumber said, “and then I made Urvashi’s version from the cookbook, and my husband said it’s even better than my mother-in-law’s.” Pitre, she said, “walks you through the process in the way our mothers have never done.”
The one-pot kheema recipe was such a hit in the home of Fabiha Kumari, a Bombay-born consultant living in Virginia, that she bought a second Pot and a vacuum sealer and a separate freezer so that she could make and store the dish in big batches. “Before that kheema, I had never tasted anything that consistently good made by my hands,” she told me. “I was attempting to cook some version of food that should have been Indian, but it was inedible. I didn’t like standing over the stove all day.” Pitre’s recipes, she said, have made the process easier, more enjoyable. They’ve also upended the stereotypes about Indian cooking that have made many Indians reluctant to embrace the food of their elders in the first place. “There used to be all these stigmas associated with Indian food: it smells, it’s all curry,” Kumari told me. Pitre’s recipes, she said, “eliminated a lot of that. For the first time, I am happy to be an Indian cook.”
Urvashi Pitre’s Instant Pot Butter Chicken
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1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes (do not drain)
5 or 6 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground paprika
2 teaspoons garam masala, divided
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken (breasts or thighs)
4 ounces butter, cut into cubes, or ½ cup coconut oil
½ cup heavy (whipping) cream or full-fat coconut milk
¼ to ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
1. In the inner cooking pot of the Instant Pot, add the tomatoes, garlic, ginger, turmeric, cayenne, paprika, one teaspoon of garam masala, cumin, and salt. Mix thoroughly, then place the chicken pieces on top of the sauce.
2. Lock the lid into place. Select Manual or Pressure Cook, and adjust the pressure to High. Cook for ten minutes.
3. When the cooking is complete, let the pressure release naturally. Unlock the lid. Carefully remove the chicken and set it aside.
4. Using an immersion blender in the pot, blend together all the ingredients into a smooth sauce. Let the sauce cool for several minutes.
5. Add the butter cubes, cream, remaining teaspoon of garam masala, and cilantro. Stir until well incorporated. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon when you’re done.
6. Remove half of the sauce and freeze it for later, or refrigerate for as long as three days.
7. Add the chicken back to the sauce. Preheat the Instant Pot by selecting Sauté and adjust to Less for low heat. Let the chicken heat through. Break it up into smaller pieces, if you like, but don’t shred it.
8. Serve over rice or raw cucumber noodles.