Almost every South Asian family has a biryani recipe that is ‘the best biryani you will ever have!’. Hyderabad, which is where my family is originally from, is especially known for its biryani and I have to admit, it is the best kind of biryani. The biryani recipe is coveted, considered a rite of passage as it is passed down from one generation to another, and you risk disownment if you ever spill the beans. Biryani is serious business for South Asians. This Hyderabadi turkey biryani, I will tell you right off the bat, is neither an old family recipe nor is it traditional but it is absolutely delicious and one of the reasons I make a tandoori-style turkey every year for Thanksgiving. It is a fantastic way to repurpose leftover turkey, regardless of how the turkey was cooked. Turkey biryani is a perfect blend of an ‘East meets West’, while finishing off those leftovers until the next Thanksgiving! Between turkey biryani and the flaky turkey pot pie I made over the weekend, I have polished off most of the Thanksgiving leftovers!
Biryani itself is considered a special occasion food, served as the highlight of parties, gatherings, and festive occasions. Long grains of perfectly cooked rice are layered with meat (or vegetables) which are marinated in an aromatic sauce of yogurt and delicious spices. It is topped off with a rich saffron infused water and slow cooked until the meat is tender and the rice is infused with the rich flavors of the yogurt and meat. Biting into whole spices like cloves or cinnamon sticks is not something I particularly consider a pleasant experience in the process of eating biryani but these spices are the essence of the flavors of biryani. I wrap up all the edible ‘in-edibles’ in a piece of cheesecloth, throw it into the pot with the water for the rice and put it back in the pot once everything has been layered so it can continue to do its job. At the very end, I just take the cheesecloth bundle out and voila! No more biting into cloves, cinnamon sticks, and other whole spices. You will thank me when you make biryani with this adjustment.
It all begins with the golden brown onions. I like to fry my own onions because they’re fresh and because I can control how much oil I use. But to save time, you can find pre-fried onions at most Indian grocery stores. Frying onions requires patience. And then you have to spring into action pretty quickly, once they’re done because going from perfectly done to burnt to a crisp has only a few seconds in between.When adding the turkey to the yogurt, I keep the turkey in fairly large pieces so it doesn’t dissolve and turn into shredded turkey. I also add the turkey in long enough to heat the meat and coat it with the yogurt and spices. If you cook it for longer, the turkey can become pasty and dry and there is nothing worse than turkey paste with rice. I’ve had my fair share of biryani that went horribly wrong.
Now, let’s talk about the rice. The rice is the most important component of biryani, when cooked right. The meat is well..the meat. But if the rice is overcooked or undercooked, the dish can be offputting. I was once at a party where the host, after dinner, asked how the biryani was and I thought to myself, “Oh, is that what that dish was?!” and I did in fact, say it out loud. I haven’t been invited back to that particular house. Back to cooking the rice…
First, rinse the rice gently with cold water, in a fine mesh strainer. In a large bowl, soak the rice in cold water for a minimum of 30 minutes and no more than 2 hours. This elongates the grains and prevents them from breaking as they cook. When it is time to cook the rice, fill a large pot with cold water. Make sure the pot is big enough to fill with enough water so that water doesn’t dry up. Salt the water generously, add the black cumin seeds and cheesecloth bundle, and bring to a rolling boil. This is the most important part. Add the rice and stir occasionally. Watch the water like a hawk. This is not the time to walk away, change the channel, clean up etc. The rice should be al dente, like pasta, which usually takes 5-8 minutes, depending on how much rice you have. For this recipe, it took 7 minutes to get to the ‘tender but has a bite’ phase with the grains. Strain in a fine mesh strainer, immediately. I like to set up the strainer over the sink while I’m waiting for the water to come to a boil the first time.
After you have layered the meat and rice (rice, meat, onions, herbs, rice, saffron water, sprinkle of oil), create a tight seal with aluminum foil and a heavy lid. I use a dutch oven to make biryani so I just cover the top with aluminum foil and then place the lid as extra weight on top. You want to create and retain as much heat and steam as possible in the pot so the rice goes from al dente to tender. Your nose will (usually) let you know when the biryani is done.
- 2½ cups uncooked basmati rice
- ⅓ cup vegetable oil, plus 2 tbsp
- 2 onions, thinly sliced
- 2-3 cups cooked turkey, bones removed
- 2 serrano peppers, stems taken off (optional)
- 1½ tsp minced garlic
- 1½ tsp minced ginger
- 3 cups plain yogurt (I use low-fat)
- 5 tsp salt
- 2 tsp garam masaala
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 2-3 tsp chili powder (adjust to preference)
- 2 tsp black cumin seeds
- 3-4 whole cinnamon sticks
- 8 cardamom pods
- 8 whole cloves
- 2 bay leaves
- ½ cup chopped cilantro
- 6-8 strands saffron threads, mixed with ¼ cup hot water
- ½ cup water
- Rinse rice in a fine mesh strainer, with cold water. Soak the rice in a large bowl, with enough cold water to cover it for at least 30 minutes but no more than 2 hours.
- Heat ⅓ cup oil in a large pot on medium high heat. Add onions and fry until onions are golden brown, stirring to avoid burning or sticking to pot. Once onions are golden brown, 8-10 minutes, remove from pan and set aside.
- Add garlic and ginger to oil and stir fry until golden brown, 2-3 minutes. Be careful, the mixture will spatter! Add garam masala, 3 tsp salt, chili powder,and turmeric and stir for 30 seconds. Add yogurt and reduce heat to simmer. Add serrano pepper. Bring to a boil, stir occasionally, and cook until yogurt has reduced by half, about 8-10 minutes. Add turkey and coat turkey with yogurt mixture. Cook for 3-4 minutes, until turkey is heated. Remove from heat. Remove serrano peppers if desired.
- Wrap cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, bay leaves, and whole cloves in a cheesecloth, tying the knot tightly.
- In a large pot, add about 12 cups cold water, 2 tsp salt, the spice bundle in cheesecloth, and black cumin seeds. Bring to a boil. Strain soaked rice and add to boiling water. Bring to a boil for 5-8 minutes, until the rice is firm but tender, al dente. Strain immediately.
- Fill a heavy bottomed pot with half of the cooked rice. Layer with turkey and yogurt mixture. Top with fried onions and cilantro. Add remaining rice. Drizzle with remaining oil and saffron water and plain water. Place cheesecloth bundle on top.
- Cover with aluminum foil and pot lid. Cook on an extremely low flame for 35-40 minutes, until rice is tender.
- Serve with yogurt.