Until now, I’ve never been asked to write about grilling boneless, skinless chicken breasts, probably because they’re just not as enticing as smoky ribs or a juicy rare steak with a caramelized crust. And even though pulled pork and ribs are more my specialty, the reality is that most of my friends (and most people in general) grill more chicken breasts than they do pork shoulder or even steak. It’s easy to see why: Chicken breasts don’t need much prep, they cook quickly, and they’re relatively healthy. Yet they can be a little boring and all too often turn out dry, which is why my friends are always asking me how to grill chicken breasts so they turn out flavorful and juicy. Read on to learn about my favorite methods, try the accompanying recipes, and discover just how great grilled chicken breasts can be.
Strategy 1: Marinate in Buttermilk
Soaking chicken in a marinade not only boosts flavor but also helps keep the chicken moist. Though it penetrates only about 1/4-inch deep, that’s a good amount on a chicken breast, and enough to make that initial bite feel more juicy. In the marinade at left, the acid in the buttermilk tenderizes the chicken while adding its own tangy flavor. When there’s a lot of acid present, the chicken breast doesn’t need to marinate for much time to reap the benefits. In fact, if left too long, the acid can break down the meat too much, making it seem mushy. A finish of barbecue sauce, as in the recipe at left, contributes to a juicy impression, too.
Try this recipe:Barbecued Buttermilk-Marinated Chicken Breasts
Strategy 2: Pound Thinly
This may sound obvious, but one way to keep a chicken breast from drying out is to not overcook it. Pounding the breast thin (or even using presliced cutlets) means the meat will be done soon after it hits the heat. And even if it were to dry out a bit, the dryness would not be as noticeable in a thin bite, especially one paired with a salad of juicy tomatoes, refreshing cucumbers, and a creamy yogurt dressing.(Pro tip: If a chicken breast is very thick at one end, pound that end to flatten it a bit so the breast cooks more evenly. This applies to any chicken breast recipe.)
Try this recipe: Chicken Horiataki Salad with Tzatziki
Strategy 3: Brine Quickly
Brining is a foolproof method for preventing chicken from drying out. At its most basic, brining means soaking in a salt and water solution, but sugar is usually added to balance the salt flavor and promote browning. As salt enters the meat cells, it alters the structure of the muscle fibers and proteins, swelling their water-holding capacity. It also draws in the brine’s flavors, seasoning from the inside out. (Don’t season with additional salt, or it will taste too salty.)
Brining can take hours for a larger piece of meat, but chicken breast needs just 20 minutes; too long and it will become too salty. For the most basic brine, dissolve 1/2 cup kosher salt and 1/2 cup sugar (granulated or brown) in a gallon of water. Let it cool, and then soak the chicken. The result is pure chicken flavor. Brines are also a great way to add additional subtle flavor, as in this sweet-tea brined chicken, which gets extra sweetness from the lemonade.
Try this recipe:Sweet-Tea Brined Chicken Breasts
Strategy 4: Coat with Mayo
When you grill skin-on chicken, the skin protects the meat from the heat while also basting it with fat. On a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, where mayonnaise is a cooking staple, I saw how a coating of mayo can work similarly. Bonus: The mayonnaise also distributes flavors, like these Mexican-inspired ones. You can experiment with adding other flavors to plain mayo, such as mustard and rosemary or capers and parsley.