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What is a Tandoori Oven?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 16, 2024
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Most Indian and Pakistani restaurants offer dishes such as tandoori chicken or tandoori lamb, or present guests with a toasted flatbread called naan. All of these dishes are created in a specialized piece of equipment called a tandoori oven, or simply a tandoor. It is essentially a very large clay pot, often standing shoulder-high above the kitchen floor. The sides of an oven curve inwards towards a centralized exhaust hole. It is akin to a traditional pizza oven used in Italian restaurants or an open pit barbecue in American grills.

A tandoori oven is designed to provide very high, dry heat. Fuel for the fire is provided by charcoal lining the bottom of the structure. In order to produce temperatures approaching 900°F (480°C), employees maintain a long vigil to keep the coals burning all the time. At such high temperatures, most foods cooked in this oven develop a very crisp outer layer without sacrificing moistness on the inside.

Foods intended for this type of preparation are usually marinated in lime or yogurt-based marinades to add flavor and moisture. Others may receive a dry spice rub, which gives tandoori dishes their distinctive red tinge. In the case of breads, the raw loaves are quickly pressed against the upper walls of the oven and peeled off by hand several minutes later. Bread can burn very quickly, so it often takes an experienced Indian cook to know when to remove it from the heat.

Meats like chicken, fish, beef, and lamb do very well in tandoori ovens. Traditionally, the meat is first skewered on a thin metal blade and inserted into the center hole of the oven. The meat remains suspended in the hottest part of the oven above the coals. After a few minutes, the superheated meat is removed and placed on a bed of Basmati or other flavorful rice. Several sauces may also be offered, including some with a yogurt, citrus, or curry base.

It can be difficult to duplicate the dry heat cooking process of this type of oven, but some backyard chefs have been able to create their own brick versions. Cooking in smaller clay pots is a popular practice in some Mexican and Central American restaurants as well. The tandoor is generally found in the northern regions of India and Pakistan, but some Turkish and Greek restaurants use a slightly modified version in their commercial kitchens.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to DelightedCooking, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By KSlMiah — On Apr 17, 2014

I personally love the food which is cooked via a tandoori oven and I also believe that type of diet is much healthier than most types of foods, because I have seen food cooked in tandoori ovens and the amount of fat which drips off the chicken or meat is amazing and even after all the fat is gone, it still tastes beautiful.

By anon217599 — On Sep 26, 2011

I purchased a home tandoor oven early this year and it has been absolutely fantastic. I have been able to cook naan bread and all my other favorite Indian food. I also purchased a pizza kit with the tandoor which allows you to cook great wood charcoal fired pizza - its just like your own pizza oven but better!

The food cooked in a tandoor has a wonderful flavor that you just cannot get when cooking by other techniques.

By burcinc — On Jul 25, 2011

I've had tandoori style Greek food, it was a kind of meat and vegetable stew but it was not made the way it is described here.

The stew was put in closed small clay pots and placed in a fire. After it cooked for a long time in the clay, the tops were cracked open and served to us while still boiling hot!

I think the small clay pots kind of served as individual tandoori ovens, just a smaller version. I think the clay pots also protect the food from the fire and helps it cook more thoroughly.

By discographer — On Jul 25, 2011

Oh, is this how tandoori chicken is made? I never knew! I've been to several Indian and Pakistani restaurants and tandoori dishes are my favorite. I think several of the restaurants actually mentioned how it was cooked in their menu but I could never imagine it. It sounds really interesting.

So since the tandoori oven becomes very hot, does it cook the food super fast?

I understand that the bread is cooked on the sides of the oven. But how do they protect the skewered meat from the fire and ash? Wouldn't the fire start burning the meat and the ashes fly on top of it?

By bear78 — On Jul 25, 2011

I think the tandoori oven is the first oven that people ever used because it is very simple and is made from clay or stone which our ancestors always had access too.

I have seen real clay tandoori ovens in the Middle East during a trip I took there. It looks like a big piece of clay that was carved very deep. The fire is made on the very bottom and burns very strongly because of the perfect amount of air going into it.

It's one of the coolest things I have ever seen. The breads that were cooked in it were delicious and had a distinct taste. I think anything cooked with the fire of burning wood has that flavor. It's very good.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to DelightedCooking, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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