How to marinate and grill chicken breasts like a boss on Labor Day
For many, the Labor Day grill sizzles with burgers, brats and hotdogs. But there always seems to be part of the crowd that cheers for chicken. Or more precisely, chicken breasts, the high protein white meat that is lower in fat and calories.
Chicken breasts on the grill can be challenging. Grill too long and the lack of fat makes them taste like sawdust. Don’t heat long enough and they can present a genuine health hazard. You know that the bird should be cooked through, yet moist with well-browned skin. Getting it just right can be frustrating.
Grilling guru, PBS TV “Project Smoke” host and cookbook author Steven Raichlen offers some tasty solutions in his newest book “Barbecue Sauces, Rubs and Marinades” (Workman, $17.95). One of the things I found most interesting were the pages devoted to his myriad marinades, concoctions that help to make grilled chicken breasts delicious.
Global marinades: Soaking chicken breasts in a tasty marinade for a couple of hours in the refrigerator is a flavor game changer. Grilled chicken will never taste bland again. He includes over 20 marinades, most themed to specific ethnic flavor profiles. He says you can fly around the world just by selecting different marinades. Here are three of my favorites.
“The Only Marinade You Will Ever Need” is Raichlen’s go-to Mediterranean mix for a wide variety of meats, as well as vegetables. Redolent with garlic and vibrant with fresh lemon juice and zest, the mixture can be used as a marinade, but set some aside to use for basting the chicken breasts as they cook, before you place the rest in the marinade (always discard any uncooked liquid used for marinating).
Brazilian Garlic Marinade is used to marinate chicken or pork. Called a tempeiro in Brazil, Raichlen’s version includes fresh herbs, lime juice, red wine vinegar, hot sauce and loads of garlic. He says that they would never marinate beef in Brazil; it is considered “noble” meat that should be grilled in its natural state.
Chinatown Marinade shows off a sweet-salty flavor profile, the sweet by way of honey or sugar, as well as cinnamon; soy offers a balance of appealing saltiness. He says that the cool smoky licorice flavor of star anise complements the Asian triad of ginger, garlic and green onions.
Which chicken breast to use: Raichlen prefers chicken thighs, but grills breasts because his family and friends prefer them. He likes bone-in, skin-on breasts because the bones add flavor, and the bones make it more fun to eat. I agree, but if it’s a knife and fork meal, I prefer them boned. At my supermarket, there aren’t any skin-on, boneless chicken breasts in the case. Large breasts with skin and bones are sold in four-to-a-pack. I carry the package to the butcher and ask him to bone them. I’ve never been charged for the pleasure of having an expert remove bones from flesh. (Yes I can do it myself, but I never seem to end up with as much meat as when the butcher does it.)
Instant-read thermometer: It’s an absolute necessity to judge when the chicken is done. He says to insert the probe parallel to the top and have the tip in the core; 165 is the desired temperature. Because the meat’s temperature comes up a few degrees after it is removed from the grill, he takes it off at 160 degrees and sets it on a rack set over a rimmed baking sheet and covers it very loosely with aluminum foil.
Skin-side up: A big eyeopener for me, was his suggestion to start grilling chicken breasts with the skin up. He says there is less sticking that way. And I’ve tried it many times, and he is correct. Here is what I find on my gas grill, but cooking times vary depending on differences in home grills.
Large bone-in and skin-on chicken breasts or large bone-out and skin on: Weighing in at about 13 ounces to 14 1/2 ounces, they take approximately 25 minutes to grill. Lift marinated chicken to let most of marinade drip off. On medium-hot, oiled grill, arrange skin-up, leaving a space clear to move them if there is a flare up. With lid open, grill about 6 to 7 minutes. Turn skin-down and grill about 5 minutes with lid closed, checking to make sure it isn’t scorching after about 3 minutes. Reposition, rotating 45 degrees and grill 3 to 5 minutes. Turn skin side up; grill about 12 to 14 minutes more (close lid for about 5 to 8 minutes to bring up the temperature). Test with instant read thermometer, placing it horizontal (side to side) resting in center (but not on a bone); it should read 160 degrees. Allow to sit 5 minutes off heat and temperature will come up to 165 degrees.
Boneless skinless chicken breasts: At about 6- to 8-ounces each, they grill in just a few minutes. Marinate 1 to 2 hours, reserving about 3 tablespoons marinade to use for basting; discard the rest of marinade. Lift breasts from marinade, letting it drip back before placing in grill. On hot, oiled grill, arrange all going the same direction. Grill 2 minutes; using tongs rotate breasts 45 degrees and grill 2 to 4 minutes more. This creates crosshatch grill marks. Baste with reserved marinade but not a marinade that contains sugar or honey (and not marinade used to marinate). Turn with tongs and grill other side 2 minutes. The total cooking time is approximately 4 to 6 minutes. Test with instant read thermometer, placing it horizontal (side to side); it should read 160 degrees. Allow to sit 5 minutes and it will come up to 165 degrees.
The Only Marinade You’ll Ever Need
Yield: 1 cup, enough for about 1 pound of meat, poultry or seafood, double recipe if needed
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt, such as kosher, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon cracked or coarsely ground peppercorns, or to taste
Optional: 1/2 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
3 garlic cloves, peeled, crushed with side of cleaver, minced
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley, basil, oregano or cilantro
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1. Combine lemon zest, juice, salt, pepper and dried red chili flakes (if using) in a nonreactive (glass, ceramic or stainless steel) bowl and whisk until salt crystals are dissolved. Stir in garlic and herbs. Stir or whisk in oil. The virtue of this marinade is its freshness. Use within 2 hours of making. Stir again just before using.
For chicken breasts: If desired, reserve about 2 tablespoons of marinade to use to brush chicken as it grills. Marinate 1 to 3 hours, covered in the refrigerator (I like to use a zipper-closing plastic bag). Discard marinade used to marinate chicken. Grill on medium-high heat, starting with skin up, until center reaches 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Let rest 5 minutes off grill and meat will reach 165 degrees.
Brazilian Garlic Marinade
Yield: 1 cup, enough for about 2 pounds chicken or pork, double recipe if needed
6 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
2 teaspoons coarse salt, such as kosher
3/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 to 2 teaspoons Piri-Piri Sauce, Tabasco sauce or your favorite hot sauce
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 green onions (white and green parts), trimmed and finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary or mint
1. Place garlic and salt in mortar and mash to a paste or place in bowl and mash with the back of a spoon. Add lime juice, wine, vinegar, Piri-Piri Sauce, parsley, green onions and rosemary; stir until all salt dissolves. Use within a few hours of making.
For chicken breasts: If desired, reserve about 2 tablespoons of marinade to use to brush chicken as it grills. Marinate with remaining marinade 1 to 3 hours, covered in the refrigerator (I like to use a zipper-closing plastic bag). Discard marinade used to marinate chicken. Grill on medium-high heat, starting with skin up, until center reaches 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Let rest 5 minutes off grill and meat will reach 165 degrees.
China Town Marinade
Yield: about 1 1/2 cups, enough for 2 to 2 1/2 pounds chicken breasts, double recipe if needed
2 slices fresh ginger (each 1/4-inch thick), peeled
2 garlic cloves, peeled
2 green onions (white and light green parts only), trimmed (save dark green part for garnish)
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup Chinese rice wine, Japanese sake or dry sherry
1/4 cup honey or sugar
3 tablespoons Asian (roasted) sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon Chinese Five-Spice Powder
2 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks (3-inches each)
1. Flatten ginger slices, garlic and white and light green parts of green onions with the side of a cleaver; finely chop. Place them in bowl with soy, rice wine, honey, sesame oil, and five-spice powder; stir or whisk to combine. Add star anise and cinnamon. The marinade tastes best used within a few hours of making.
For chicken breasts: If you want to make a tasty sauce, scoop out about 1/4 cup of marinade and set aside (you will need 2 to 3 tablespoons butter for the sauce). Marinate chicken breasts in marinade in nonreactive bowl for 1 to 2 hours, covered and refrigerated. Discard marinade used to marinate chicken. Because there is honey (or sugar) in the marinade, the outside of the meat tends to scorch. Watch it carefully as it grills, turning frequently and moving when needed to a cooler location on the grill to avoid flare ups. Grill on medium to medium-high heat, starting with skin up, until center reaches 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Let rest 5 minutes off grill and meat will reach 165 degrees. To make sauce, in a small saucepan, heat reserved 1/4 cup marinade in a small saucepan on medium-high heat; simmer 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in 2 to 3 tablespoons butter. Drizzle sauce over cooked chicken breasts.
Yield: 6 servings
4 cups water
10 ounces farro (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
1 pound fresh tomatoes, chopped, or cherry tomatoes, quartered top to bottom
1/2 medium red onion, cut into slivers
1/4 cup snipped fresh chives
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
1 large garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Option: 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1. Combine water and farro in medium saucepan. Add 2 teaspoons salt. Bring to boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until farro is tender, about 20 to 30 minutes. Drain well; transfer to large bowl to cool.
2. Add tomatoes, onion, chives, and parsley to cooled farro; gently toss to combine.
3. In medium bowl, prepare vinaigrette. Whisk garlic, vinegar, salt, pepper, and olive oil. Add to salad and toss to coat. The salad can be refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Source: adapted from Giada De Laurentiis
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