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Lamb Biryani With Saffron, Yogurt, and Caramelized Onions Recipe

Why It Works

  • Marinating the lamb in yogurt and salt adds flavor, increases tenderness, and reduces cooking time.
  • Caramelized onions provide a deep flavor base and a flavorful garnish.
  • Blooming spices in hot oil heightens their aroma and flavor.
  • Par-cooking the rice in acidulated water with oil improves its texture and prevents rice grains from clumping together.
  • Blooming saffron in warm milk draws out oil-soluble pigments and flavors.

Biryanis comprise a category of highly aromatic rice and meat dishes, typically served during special occasions; when I was growing up my family would eat biryani during the festival of Eid or at other celebrations. From a cook’s and a science standpoint, I find biryanis to be interesting because their emphasis lies in carefully building up layers of aromas and flavors and celebrating combinations of textures and colors—in a good biryani, every aspect of the dish is splendidly executed. Let’s take a closer look at what makes a biryani so special.

What Is Biryani?

Biryani is a South Asian one-pot dish in which lamb, mutton, beef, chicken, seafood, or a mixture of vegetables is layered with rice. The layering technique is what differentiates biryani from other rice dishes, like a pilaf or pulao.

There are a couple of different ways to prepare biryani. Sometimes the raw meat is cooked with the rice; this is called the “kacchi” method (kacchi is Hindi for “raw”). In others, the meat is cooked separately, as I do in this recipe; this is called the “pakki” method (pakki is Hindi for “cooked”). Regardless of the method, aromas are infused into the meat and the rice using a combination of spices, herbs, and extracts, while saffron threads and turmeric add bright hues of orange and yellow to the otherwise white backdrop of long-grain rice. The result is a highly aromatic and colorful dish of meat and rice. There are a lot of variations of biryani—like Bombay biryani, Hyderbadi biryani, etc.—as recipes and taste preferences can be quite different from region to region and even household to household.

Building Flavors in Biryani

The Yogurt Marinade

The first step in preparing my lamb biryani involves marinating the meat in a mixture of yogurt, salt, ginger, and garlic in the refrigerator overnight. Yogurt is a mixture of lactic acid, fat, enzymes, and proteins, all of which work in concert to tenderize the meat and imbue it with flavor. Some recipes will utilize raw papaya as a meat tenderizer for tougher cuts of beef, mutton, or lamb, as it contains the tenderizing enzyme papain, but I have found it unnecessary.

When testing the recipe, I was curious to see if marinating the meat in yogurt affected the time needed for the lamb to become tender, and, on average, marinating the meat in yogurt and salt overnight in the refrigerator cut back my cooking time by at least an hour. You can use either Greek yogurt or regular plain yogurt for marinating the meat; I haven’t noticed any differences between the two, but you will need to add about an extra half cup of water or stock if you use Greek yogurt to ensure you have enough cooking liquid.


The next important stage of flavor development is the browning of the onions. As the onions heat, caramelization (a flavor-producing reaction that involves sugars like fructose and glucose) and the Maillard reaction kick in, which help produce bittersweet notes and brown colored pigments in the sugars. (Onions are rich in long chains or polymers called fructans, made up of the sugar fructose, and also contain glucose and fructose.) The darker the browning, the stronger the flavor of the onions, but be careful: if they turn dark black, they will taste unpleasantly bitter.

Basmati Rice

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

For the layer of rice, it’s important that you use basmati, a long-grain, aromatic rice variety commonly used in the subcontinent. Basmati rice brands will often describe their product as “aged,” which gives a sense of the quality. One of the aroma molecules responsible for the aroma of basmati rice is 2-AP (2-acetyl-1-pyrroline), and the aroma of basmati tends to get stronger as the uncooked grains of rice are stored; typically basmati rice is aged for up to a year or more. (Interestingly, 2-AP is also present in the pandan water used to add aromatic complexity to biryanis). Aged basmati rice also absorbs water much better: the grains don’t stick as much when cooking, and the cooked grains are firmer.

Basmati rice will expand in length as it absorbs water and cooks, but it won’t get as puffy as short-grain rice or turn sticky (this is because at least 73% of the starch content in basmati rice is made up of amylose, which is present at very low levels in short-grain rice varieties). When I cook the rice, I add a little bit of citric acid, in the form of lemon or lime juice, and fat to the water to further help the rice from overcooking and splitting— the citric acid works primarily on the starch while the fat helps coat the grains and prevents them from sticking.

Adding Aroma and Color

Aromas and colors are a very important component of biryani preparation. Spices, like cardamom, cinnamon, and mace, and fresh herbs, like cilantro and mint, imbue the meat with their aromas as it cooks. There are two more aromatic ingredients of significance added to the biryani: rosewater and pandan (also called screwpine or kewra) water. These are sprinkled over the rice just before it steams, and the combination results in a highly fragrant biryani.

For color, the curcumin pigment in the turmeric that’s added to the meat will stain some of the rice grains yellow. A second source of color comes from the delicate threads of saffron, which contain crocetin, a fat-soluble pigment that is extracted by the fat present in hot milk; the milk is also sprinkled over the layer of rice along with the rosewater and pandan water. To get a richer color from the saffron, I grind a few threads separately and then add them to the milk to get a stronger extract.

The Final Steam

Once the meat and rice are layered together, the entire pot is sealed tight with a double layer of aluminum foil. This technique is called “dum pukht,” which means “breathe and cook” in Hindi; the idea is that the steam produced by the various aromatic liquids and from the marinade and the meat rises, further tenderizing the meat and rice, and then condenses, keeping everything in the pot from drying out. The classic method involves creating a seal by caking a simple dough around the cooking vessel’s lid, but the foil method (which is what I’ve shared here) suffices (and, admittedly, this is the method I use often). A thick layer of cloth wrapped around the mouth of the pot can also be used to create the seal. A heavy Dutch oven or saucepan with a heavy bottom with a heavy lid works great; however, a clay pot with a lid can also be used.


Nik Sharma

In this version, which might seem a bit restrained, I reserve some of the browned onions and add those as a garnish over the rice before I steam it, but you can do a lot more. Biryanis can be studded with various toppings, including quartered or halved hard boiled eggs, thick quarters of fried potatoes, or fried nuts such as cashews or almonds.

One final note on biryanis: take time to appreciate the reveal as the pot of rice is unwrapped. I find that first breath of the perfume emanating from the pot as it’s opened to reveal the colorful dish within to be the most exciting and magical part of the biryani experience.

How To Serve Biryani

I like to serve biryanis straight out of the pot because I enjoy using a spoon to reveal the cooked meat under the layer of rice. However, a biryani can be served on a large platter; just make sure not to overmix the rice before serving, since doing so obscures the variety of color the rice acquires during the cooking process. While the biryani can be served with plain unsweetened yogurt, my carrot raita would also be a wonderful accompaniment to this dish. I prefer to leave the whole spices in the cooked biryani, but if you like you can fish them out before serving.

Editors’ Note: Nik Sharma’s new book is out now: The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking Explained in More Than 100 Essential Recipes

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