Lamb Biryani With Saffron (2021)

Biryani is a celebration of aroma, color, and flavor, with perfectly cooked, fluffy grains of scented basmati rice and tender chunks of spiced lamb.

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.