Lamb Biryani

The secret to a great Biryani is layering. It takes some time and extra effort, but the depth of flavor is well worth it. Layering makes all the difference between a luscious, sophisticated one-dish meal where distinct flavors and textures abound, and a mushy mass of rice and meat in a homogenous sauce. Obviously, the former is preferable to the latter!  This Biryani is not complex, but it does require your attention at half hour intervals. Unlike many folks, I don’t marinate the lamb in the yogurt sauce. Quite frankly, I’ve found marinating with yogurt to be a waste of time — it’s the cooking that matters. Skipping the marinade also means that you don’t have to plan very far ahead, which I like.  One thing that does add a lot of flavor is browning the butter — a microwave trick I learned from Christina Tosi’s Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook. She uses it for baking, but I’ve found it a great addition to savory dishes as well.

Lamb Biryani
Active preparation
Cooking time
Total time
A great one-dish Indian meal, with lusciously layered flavors, a rich sauce, and tasty lamb.
Recipe type: Main
Serves: 6
  • 1.5 cups yogurt
  • 2 t ground coriander
  • 2 t turmeric
  • 2 t ground cayenne
  • ½ t salt
  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 3 T butter or ghee
  • 1 onion, chopped small
  • 1 large shallot, chopped small
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3-4" ginger, peeled and sliced matchstick-size
  • 2 lbs lamb, cut in 2" chunks
  • 1 8oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 3 T fresh mint, chopped
  • 4-8 small hot chilis (to taste), minced
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped (about ¼ cup) and separated into the half with the stems, and the half with the leaves.
  • 1 T garam masala
  • .5 cup whole milk
  1. Rinse the rice several times and set it up to soak for about a half an hour.
  2. Mix the yogurt with the coriander, turmeric, cayenne and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.
  3. Cut the bunch of cilantro in half. The stems should mostly be in one half, and the leaves in the other. Chop each half. Put the leaf half in a bowl or container, cover it, and store it in the refrigerator until you need it.
  4. Mince half of the ginger. Add it to a small bowl along with the the chiles, garam masala, mint, and the stem half of the cilantro.
  5. Choose a large oven- and stove-safe Dutch oven or casserole pan with a tight-fitting lid. Over a medium heat on the stove, melt a half tablespoon of ghee or butter in the Dutch oven. Fry the onions and shallot until they're transparent. Then turn down the heat to medium-low and add the garlic. When the scent fills the room (it should only take 2-3 minutes), add the yogurt mixture and the lamb and stir thoroughly until the lamb is coated. Pour in about half a cup of water -- just enough to bring the water level about halfway up over the lamb. Cover the pot and let it just barely simmer for about half an hour, stirring at least twice during this time.
  6. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
  7. Add the tomatoes and simmer for another 20 minutes. Then take the pan off the heat. Stir in the bowl of chopped herbs once it has stopped simmering.
  8. During the time the tomatoes are cooking, rinse and drain the rice. Put it in a pan with 2.5 cups of water, 2 teaspoons of ghee, and bring the water to a boil. Simmer, stirring, for 4 minutes. Drain the rice again.
  9. Also during this time, take the remaining ghee and put it in a heatproof glass dish (pyrex custard cups are good for this.) Cover the heatproof dish with another heatproof dish (dessert plate work well for me) and weight it down. Turn the microwave on high. You will soon hear popping and spitting and you'll see the butter start to boil. As soon as it turns a nice golden brown color, turn off the microwave. (You can make more brown butter than you need -- it's fabulous mixed with... well... anything you cook or bake.) Be careful when you take it out of the oven. It's hot.
  10. Heat the milk in the microwave, just to warm it.
  11. Spread the rice on top of the lamb in the Dutch oven. Pour the warm milk and then the brown butter evenly over the top. Cover tightly. (I create an inner seal with a piece of aluminum foil draped over the top of the pot. Braise in the oven for another 30 minutes.
  12. Cool slightly and serve, garnished with the leafy cilantro.
Don't bother using expensive cuts of lamb for this dish. It's meltingly good with cheap fatty meat. My husband doesn't much care for the fat, so I mix cheaper cuts with loin lamb chops, and just serve him the chops. Like many Indian dishes, this is even better on the second day, when the lamb fat has had a chance to soak in and flavor the rice. You don't really need a side dish for this meal, but if you want to make one, a cucumber salad would be nice.