A bowl of grilled chicken in the fridge is one of those “Make Ahead” strategies that can save time when preparing weeknight meals for the family. You can buy grilled chicken breast and breast strips in the freezer section of the grocery stores. But, I prefer making our own. It tastes better, and I can control the ingredients. It takes a few extra minutes on one day, but it saves in the end.
I’ve always liked to grill up a couple of pounds of chicken breasts at once. This is way more than our family of three can eat in one meal. We’ll eat it for dinner that day with an easy side dish or two. Then, the leftover chicken is used throughout the week for other lunch and dinner meals, such as sandwiches, quesadillas, pasta dishes, casseroles, stir fry, salads…the possibilities are numerous!
For years, I wondered why our home-grilled chicken just didn’t taste like the delicious, juicy stuff like you can get at a restaurant. So many times my chicken would come out too dry or too rubbery or too bland. This is when I cut the chicken in small pieces and used it in my most flavorful recipes, in hopes of disguising the texture and flavor shortcomings.
I really wanted the good stuff, so I set out to figure out how to do it. I read lots of articles, recipes, and scientific theories, and came up with three basic steps for creating eating-out quality chicken at home. Do these three things and enjoy it for yourself.
Step 1 – Get It Into Thinner Pieces
I’m talking about boneless chicken breasts here. Much of the fresh chicken breast portions at the grocery store are very large and thick. You’ll want to butterfly the breasts or simply slice the thickness in half. Alternatively, you can pound the meat to uniformity with a meat mallet (or bottle, rolling pin, or tool of choice).
Flames from the grill cook the meat directly from the outside. If the filets have uneven thickness, the thinner parts are more likely to get overcooked because they have to be on the fire longer to get the thicker parts done in the center. The evenly thinner breast portions will get done faster without having overly done, dried-out, tough parts.
Getting the breasts into thinner, uniform portions will also allow the seasonings or marinade (see next step) to more evenly flavor the chicken. Most of the flavor will be on and near the surface of the meat. If it is too thick, the center part of the cooked chicken breast will not be seasoned. A bite of a thinner filet will taste better because your seasonings won’t be “diluted” by the bland meat in the center.
I used scissors cut this giant chicken breast into four manageable pieces.
- Use kitchen scissors to cut the soft meat more easily.
- Cut or pound the chicken ahead of time so that it’s ready to go into the marinade at the appropriate amount of time ahead of grilling time. For example, prep it in the evening, put in marinade in the morning before work, so you can grill it when you get home.
- For safety reasons, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service does not recommend washing raw chicken before cooking. The juices from the meat could contain harmful bacteria that could spread to other foods, utensils, and surfaces.
- Wash your hands, utensils, and surfaces thoroughly after handling raw poultry.
Step 2 – Marinate It
Basically, a marinade contains acid/enzyme, fat/oil, and some seasonings. There are endless combinations you can create based on your pantry and your taste buds. You can even use a straight-up bottled salad dressing for a really quick marinade. As a general guide, about 1/2 cup of liquid is sufficient for a pound of boneless chicken. A quick Pinterest search for “chicken marinade” will provide a ton of great ideas! You can’t really go wrong with a marinade, even if you don’t have all the ingredients in a recipe. You’ll still end up with a better final dish if you marinate the meat than if you don’t.
Flavor compounds from herbs and spices can be either water-soluble or fat-soluble, based on the molecular bonds in their chemical composition. Although the biggest part of flavor compounds are soluble in oil, by having both water (acid) and fat (oil) solutions in the marinade, it allows all the flavors to dissolve into the marinade. While the oil and water don’t technically chemically mix, all of the flavors will be dispersed and in contact with the meat.
Acids in the marinade–vinegar, citrus juice, wine–break down the proteins in the meat. The tightly wound protein strands relax into a mesh that can hold water (moisture) in the meat. Some advise to be careful using acid in a marinade because a really strong acid can take this action further to where the proteins tighten back up and actually squeeze the water out of the tissue. I think this would be of little concern with a acid-oil mixture. I probably wouldn’t marinate my chicken in a bowl of straight lemon juice, though.
With any of the oil-acid marinades, you can marinate the chicken for any length of time from 30 minutes to 12 hours. I like to prep the meat and the marinade the night before so I can add them together in the morning so they are ready for the grill when I get home from work.
I should mention that enzymes, like pineapple or papaya, can be used instead of the acid in a marinade. These work much more strongly on breaking down the proteins than the acids do. If using an enzyme like this, be careful to limit the time to a maximum of an hour or two so you don’t end up with a mushy surface on your grilled chicken. I particularly love the flavor that pineapple juice gives to chicken and it can be a great time-saver if you need a last-minute marinade. As little as 20-30 minutes will give you wonderful results.
My favorite ingredient marinade combo is approximately equal parts extra virgin olive oil & red wine vinegar and a couple of tablespoons each of honey (or pancake syrup!), and whatever bottled spice mix I grab from the pantry.
- Prep the night before, combine meat and marinate in the morning and let it hang out all day in the fridge.
- Marinate the meat in a disposable zip top plastic bag so that there is no cleanup afterward.
- Marinate the chicken in the refrigerator.
- Dispose of the marinade after removing the raw chicken and throw away the plastic bag.
Step 3 – Don’t Overcook It
Harmful bacteria like Salmonella are real safety issues in under-done chicken. So, we want to always make sure it is cooked thoroughly. And, as I said before, grilling is a dry heat, so as the meat cooks, it is literally drying out. If it cooks too long, it will be dry and tough.
The best way to tell when chicken is done is to take its temperature. Use a food thermometer to take the temperature of the center of the chicken breasts to check for doneness. When they hit 165⁰F, they’re safely done and can be taken off the grill. This way you don’t end up guessing if it’s done and under- or over-cooking.
Grill the filets on medium to high heat. Generally, you can allow cooking time of 5 to 10 minutes per side, depending on the size of the breast filets and the temperature of the grill.
The filet in this first pic is almost ready! The chicken on the plate obviously went a little too far, as it already cooled a few degrees upon plating and bringing in the house, but it still turned out great.
Time Saving Tips
- A gas grill heats up faster to get the cooking done in minutes.
- Grill up some veggies or fruit as a side and get it all cooked at once.
- Do not place cooked chicken from the grill back onto any dish that held the raw chicken (unless it’s completely washed with soap and water).
- Use a food thermometer to properly judge when the chicken is done (165⁰F).
Give it a Try!
Over the years, I’ve gotten great results–juicy, delicious grilled chicken–using these methods. I hope they serve you and your family well too!
By the way…if you’ve tried these methods, how did it go?