Indian Curry Sauce (Onion Tomato Bhuna Masala)

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Easy Indian curry sauce recipeWhether you make Indian food regularly or occasionally, having this onion tomato masala or bhuna masala in your refrigerator will save you time.

Skip Indian takeout and make fresh and delicious Indian meals in minutes using your Instant Pot or stove!

Overhead shot of Onion tomato masala served in a white bowl
Onion tomato masala (curry sauce)

Have you ever wondered how all the Indian restaurants whip up your curries within minutes of ordering? Their secret is – Indian curry sauce.

This sauce base is also commonly known as onion tomato masala, Indian restaurant curry base, and in Hindi, it is called bhuna masala or tamatar (tomato) masala.

Fun fact: The word bhuna (an Urdu word) means frying. In this case, it refers to the process of frying spices in hot oil and then cooking with either an onion-tomato base or yogurt until it comes together as a paste.

What is Indian curry sauce?

A curry sauce (bhuna masala) is a base onion-tomato masala gravy that can help create delicious Indian meals in half the time. Use it to make the most popular Indian recipes, from biryanis to curries like kidney beans (rajma) or chana masala – all with the same base sauce.

Instead of making the onion tomato masala from scratch every time, use this previously prepared curry sauce instead.

It will save you a good twenty minutes of prep+ cook time every time you make an Indian curry or dal.

Reasons to love this recipe

  • Versatile base – This basic curry sauce recipe works from dals to biryanis. In short, you can use it in any recipe that calls for an onion tomato masala base.
  • Freezer friendly – Stores well in the refrigerator for up to 6 months!
  • Budget-friendly – If you have this sauce in your kitchen, your meals will come together quickly, and you’ll spend less on takeout.
  • Makes cooking for a dinner party a breeze – since it freezes well, you can make a large batch much ahead of the big night.
  • Meal planning and prepping – If you are thinking of meal planning and prepping Indian food, making a big batch of this bhuna masala is one way to get started.

Won’t all the dishes taste the same?

Not at all. There are various components to Indian curry, and this sauce is just one of them. Vary the tempering, spices, and spice powders, the protein used, and no two dishes will be the same.

Here’s what you need to make the recipe

Ingredient notes

You need only a few ingredients to make this recipe.

  • Onions – use any variety that you use for your daily cooking. The yellow or white type is more prevalent in the US (and which I what I use). If you live in India, feel free to use red onions.
  • Tomatoes – I use tomatoes on the vine because they cook quickly. Roma tomatoes are also a good choice.
  • Ginger – peeled
  • Garlic – You can get store-bought peeled garlic to save time.
  • Salt
  • Water
  • Kashmiri chili powder – to add a hint of spice.
  • Oil – Any neutral oil works here. I usually use avocado or cold-pressed sunflower oil.

Note: Spice powders such as cumin powder, coriander powder, garam masala, etc., have been intentionally left out of this recipe to allow this masala to be used in recipes that do not call for spice powders such as this one-pot tadka dal.

Tools you’ll need

When making a big batch of this sauce, you’ll need tools to help you prep and cook faster. Here’s what I use –

  • Vegetable chopper – chops onions and tomatoes in seconds. Make sure the tomatoes are firm, or they’ll get smashed.
  • A good knife – If you are doing all the chopping yourself, a sharp knife will help the prep process go much faster and smoother.
  • Instant Pot – You can always use a large saucepan, but I always lean towards the Instant Pot because pressure cooking helps cut down the cooking time.
  • An immersion blender (ideally). If not, any blender will work. Just make sure to cool down the tomato masala before blending.

How to make Indian curry sauce

Here’s how to make it using the Instant Pot or Stovetop.

Note – I have made this curry sauce using pureed onions and tomatoes in the past, both on Instant Pot using saute function and stovetop. They take about 30 minutes more to cook and require more hands-on time. This process is so much better. 

Instant Pot

  1. Select the Instant Pot ‘Saute’ mode and set it on ‘High
  2. Add oil, and once it heats up, add onions and salt. Mix well. 
  3. Add 1/2 cup of water and stir it in. When the water turns into steam, use a glass lid to cover and cook the onions for 5 minutes. 
  4. Remove the lid, add ginger and garlic and mix well. Continue to cook until the onions soften and change color to light brown (takes about 10 minutes).
  5. Add tomatoes along with Kashmiri chili powder. Mix well.
  6. When the tomatoes begin to leave out water (takes about 5 minutes), add 1/2 cup of water and mix well.
  7. Deglaze the pot – scrape the bottom of the pot to make sure there is nothing stuck. 
  8. Hit cancel and cover the lid. Pressure cook on high for 10 minutes.
  9. Once the cooking cycle is complete, release the pressure immediately by moving the steam valve to the venting position.
  10. Open the lid and give the sauce a quick stir.
  11. Use an immersion blender to coarsely puree the mixture. If using a blender, allow the masala sauce to cool down for at least 10 minutes before pureeing it. 
  12. Let it cool completely before transferring the onion-tomato masala into a glass jar or ziplock bag. Store in the refrigerator for a week or store it in the freezer for a couple of months.
Step by step pictures to make curry sauce in Instant Pot
Indian curry sauce – step by step

Stovetop

  1. Use a saucepan kept over medium heat on a stovetop. 
  2. Add oil, and once it heats up, add onions and salt. Mix well. 
  3. Add 1/2 cup of water and stir it in. When the water starts to turn into steam, cover and cook the onions for 5 minutes. 
  4. Remove the lid, add ginger and garlic and mix well. Continue to cook until the onions soften and change color (takes about 10 minutes).
  5. Add tomatoes along with Kashmiri chili powder. Mix well.
  6. Continue to cook the onion-tomato mixture till the oil starts to leave the sides of the saucepan. 
  7. Use an immersion blender to coarsely puree the mixture. If using a blender, allow the masala sauce to cool down for at least 10 minutes before pureeing it. 
  8. Let it cool completely before transferring the onion-tomato masala into a glass jar or ziplock bag. Store in the refrigerator for a week or store it in the freezer for a couple of months

Variations

  • There is no standard recipe to make this masala. Some add spice powders such as cumin, coriander powder, and garam masala to this mix.
  • You can thicken curry sauce by continuing to cook until the moisture has been absorbed and resembles a thick paste. Doing so will take more time but the curry paste will have less volume and can be stored easily. Note: The curry paste is more concentrated so use a smaller amount.
  • Using pureed tomatoes – You can use homemade tomato puree but you’ve to cook it longer or else they’ll lend a sour taste to the sauce.

Recipe notes/tips

  • Add salt along with the onions as it helps to draw the moisture. 
  • Cook onions for at least 15-20 minutes for the best results. I also sauteed them for only 10 minutes when I was in a rush, and the recipe turned out okay. I highly recommend waiting for it to soften completely – the result is so much more flavorful. 
  • Use a vegetable chopper to fasten the chopping process.

How to prep ahead

You can chop the onions and tomatoes a few days in advance and refrigerate them. Buying peeled garlic is also a huge time saver.

Onion tomato masala (curry sauce) stored in pyrex containers and stacked one top of the other

Storage tips

This onion-tomato masala stores well in the refrigerator for about a week and lasts for a couple of months in the freezer.

Refrigerator

Store it using leftover store-bought marinara sauce bottles or any glass container.

Freezer 

Using glass containers

Freeze the rest using these freezer-safe pyrex containers which are perfect for the job. To use, thaw the glass containers in the refrigerator overnight. 

I hate throwing away Ziploc bags after one use, so I use glass containers. I particularly like this storage set because it has eight containers in 2-cup and 1-cup sizes. 

Note: When using glass containers to freeze the masala sauce, follow the guidelines below.

  1. Don’t fill it to the brim; leave about an inch – that will give some room for the masala to expand.
  2. Always thaw the glass container in the refrigerator overnight before use. 

Read this: How to prevent the glass from breaking in the freezer.

Using silicone trays to freeze

The most convenient option to store this bhuna masala in the freezer is using silicone trays. They are available in 1/4 cup, 1/2 cup, and 1 cup capacity.

Put them in the freezer and pop the masala cubes out easily when needed. You don’t even have to thaw these cubes overnight. You can use it as is.

How to use curry sauce in recipes

To use this curry sauce in recipes, replace the part where it calls for adding onions/ginger/garlic and tomatoes with this curry sauce. For most recipes, these will be the steps you will follow – 

  1. Add whole spices – Heat a tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Once hot, add whole spices such as cumin seeds, mustard seeds, etc., if called for in the recipe.
  2. Add spice powders – When they start to sizzle, add the spice powders (cumin/coriander powder). Fry them for about 5 seconds and immediately add the curry sauce. 
  3. Add curry sauce – Mix the curry sauce with the tempering and let it come to a boil before adding the rest of the ingredients – veggies, meat, etc. 
  4. Cook until done – Continue to cook till the veggies/meat are cooked through. 
  5. Garnish with cilantro or herb of your choice.

Here are a few examples of how to use tomato masala in different kinds of recipes.

Chickpeas / Beans / Peas 

Use 2 cups of curry sauce to make 4-6 servings.

Dals  

Use 1 cup of curry sauce to make 4-6 servings.

Makhani / Tikka Masala Gravy

Use 2 cups of curry sauce to make 4-6 servings.

To make makhani / tikka masala curries, soak cashews in hot water for 5 minutes and grind them to a fine paste. Add the cashew paste to the curry sauce, and the makhani gravy is ready.

For best results, use this tikka masala sauce recipe

Biryanis

Use 1 cup of curry sauce to make 4-6 servings

Side veggie dishes 

For most side dishes with little gravy, 1 cup of curry sauce is sufficient for 4-6 servings.

Chicken / Seafood curries

Use 1/2 cup for curries with little gravy (served with naan) and 1 cup for curries served with rice. For example, I would use 1/2 cup for this shrimp curry and 1 cup for egg curry. 

Check out this list of 30+ curry recipes that you can make using this bhuna masala.

Creative ways you can use this onion-tomato masala

  • With cashew paste to make makhani gravy – To make a cashew-based curry, soak 1/4 cup unsalted cashews in hot water for 5 minutes and grind them to a fine paste. Add the cashew paste to a cup of this curry sauce to make the base gravy for restaurant-style paneer makhani and butter chicken.
  • South Indian style with coconut milk – Add 1/4 cup coconut milk to 1/2 cup of this curry sauce to make a south-Indian coconut curry sauce.
  • Combine it with yogurt + coconut milk – Add about two tablespoons of yogurt and two tablespoons of coconut milk to 1/2 cup of curry sauce to make a creamy yogurt-based sauce such as this shrimp curry

Other time-saving recipes

Check out these other easy recipes that are perfect for meal prepping!

  • Homemade Ginger garlic paste – Homemade ginger garlic paste comes together in minutes once the ingredients are sliced and gathered. Make a big batch and stash it in the refrigerator or freezer to cut your prep time. 
  • Easy tikka masala sauce – This recipe yields a simmer sauce that you can use to make Indian food in minutes. Make this sauce in advance and turn your weeknight dinner woes into a win. 
  • Instant Pot Ghee – Follow this easy, almost hands-free recipe to make ghee at home.
  • Make perfect chapati dough using a stand mixer – Learn an effortless way to knead the dough using a stand mixer for soft and perfect rotis.
Indian curry sauce placed in a white bowl
Indian Curry Sauce Recipe
Overhead shot of Onion tomato masala served in a white bowl

Easy Indian curry sauce recipe (Onion Tomato Bhuna Masala)

4.91 from 11 votes
Easy Indian curry sauce recipe – Whether you make Indian food regularly or occasionally, having this onion tomato bhuna masala in your refrigerator will save you time. Skip Indian takeout and make fresh and delicious Indian meals in minutes!
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Pressure building time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 50 minutes
Servings: 8 cups
Diet : Vegan
Course : Basics
Method: Instant Pot, Stovetop
Cuisine : Indian

Ingredients
  

  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 2 lbs white onions, coarsely chopped, ~ 6 cups (2 large or 6 small)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 inch piece ginger , 4 tablespoons grated ginger
  • 16 cloves garlic , chopped
  • 2.5 lbs medium-sized tomatoes, ~12 Roma tomatoes (~8 cups chopped)
  • 2 teaspoons Kashmiri chili powder

Instructions
 

Instant Pot instructions

  • Select the Instant Pot 'Saute' mode and set it on 'High'
  • Add oil and once it heats up add onions and salt. Mix well.
  • Add 1/4 cup of water and stir it in. When the water starts to turn into steam, use a glass lid to cover and cook the onions for 5 minutes.
  • Remove the lid, add ginger and garlic and mix well. Continue to cook till the onions soften and change color to light brown (will take about 10 minutes).
  • Add tomatoes along with Kashmiri chili powder. Mix well.
  • When the tomatoes begin to leave out water (takes about 5 minutes), add 1/2 cup of water and mix well.
  • Deglaze the pot – scrape the bottom of the pot to make sure there is nothing stuck.
  • Hit cancel and cover the lid. Pressure cook on high for 10 minutes.
  • Once the cooking cycle is complete, release the pressure immediately by moving the steam valve to the venting position.
  • Open the lid and give the sauce a quick stir.
  • Use an immersion blender to coarsely puree the mixture. If using a blender, allow the masala sauce to cool down for at least 10 minutes before pureeing it.
  • Let it cool completely before transferring the onion-tomato masala into a glass jar or ziplock bags. Store in the refrigerator for a week or store it in the freezer for a couple of months.

Stovetop Instructions

  • Use a saucepan kept over medium heat on a stovetop.
  • Add oil and once it heats up add onions and salt. Mix well.
  • Add 1/4 cup of water and stir it in. When the water starts to turn into steam, cover and cook the onions for 5 minutes.
  • Remove the lid, add ginger and garlic and mix well. Continue to cook till the onions soften and change color to light brown (will take about 10 minutes).
  • Add tomatoes along with Kashmiri chili powder. Mix well.
  • Continue to cook the onion-tomato mixture till the oil starts to leave the sides of the saucepan.
  • Use an immersion blender to coarsely puree the mixture. If using a blender, allow the masala sauce to cool down for at least 10 minutes before pureeing it.
  • Let it cool completely before transferring the onion-tomato masala into a glass jar or ziplock bags. Store in the refrigerator for a week or store it in the freezer for a couple of months.

Video

Notes

Don’t forget to read the post for tips and instructions on how to use the Indian curry sauce in recipes!

Pantry EssentialsGetting the right tools for your kitchen makes cooking more enjoyable and less frustrating. Here’s a list of kitchen essentials I own and recommend.

Disclosure: This recipe contains affiliate links to products we love and recommend. As an affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Nutrition

Serving: 1cupCalories: 203.36kcalCarbohydrates: 18.96gProtein: 3.01gFat: 14.02gSaturated Fat: 1.98gSodium: 602.94mgPotassium: 549.84mgFiber: 4gSugar: 8.69gVitamin A: 1329.01IUVitamin C: 29.86mgCalcium: 52.77mgIron: 0.89mg

Disclaimer: Approximate Nutritional information is provided as a courtesy and can vary depending on the exact ingredients/brands used. If you have health issues, please work with a registered dietician or nutritionist.

Did you make this recipe?Take a photo and tag @simmertoslimmer on Instagram for a shoutout!
Keyword : bhuna masala, Curry sauce, onion tomato masala

This post was first published in Feb 2018 and was republished on April 10th, 2022, with new information and updated images.

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6 Comments

  1. Hi, this sounds great. Once the base gravy is made, and you have added spices (step 3), can your chosen meat be added to the sauce and cooked in an instantpot sealed, or would you recommend a loose lid at all stages of cooking?

    Thanks 🙂

    Marc

    1. Marc, if you are planning on continuing to cook in saute mode, you could cook uncovered. Hope that answers your question.

  2. I made this sause and it was yummy. But it didn’t really taste like curry to me. Maybe because my store didn’t have Kashmiri chili powder. I used something called fiesta chili powder instead. Do you think that’s the reason?

    1. Most likely. Fiesta chili powder has other spices as well and is not 100% chili powder. You could get Kashmiri chili powder from Amazon. Also, I wanted to share that this sauce is a base sauce and has very little spice. It has been made that way so that you could adapt it to any Indian recipe.

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