A Double Dose of Marinade Gives Greek-Style Grilled Chicken Extra Flavor

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

20150609-greek-grilled-chicken-lemon-oregano-olive-oil-09.jpg

How to make better Greek-style grilled chicken. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt. Video: Vicky Wasik]

Grilling culture in Greece is inherently relaxed and groovy. Forget about gas grills, fancy technique, or complicated ingredients lists. More often than not, all it takes is a fire, a ton of olive oil and lemon, some garlic, and some herbs to transform meat and seafood into party-worthy fare.

You know that movie about the nerdy kid who nobody notices at school until the day she does up her hair, puts on a dress, takes off her glasses, and becomes the prettiest girl at the prom? At the cookout, chicken is kinda like that girl but without all the troublesome gender stereotyping. What I mean is, chicken's normal role is a boring one. It's the bland, sorta dry, everyday meat that nobody's gonna pick over the steaks, burgers, and ribs. But if you can manage to really nail it—and I mean nail it—so that it has perfectly juicy meat without a hint of chalkiness or stringiness, crisp skin, and tons of flavor imparted by a balanced marinade, sauce, or rub, well, you may have just won yourself a date with prettiest bird in the yard.

Serious Eats

VIDEOS

Watch More Videos Replay

I've been on a bit of a grilled chicken kick this summer, whether it's smoking with wood for barbecue chicken or bay leaves for jerk chicken, or using a dried herb and spice paste for my grilled chicken with za'atar. For this Greek-style grilled chicken, I cook the bird in a similar manner—butterflied, skewered, and slow-cooked until juicy—but the flavorings get a slightly different treatment.

20150609-greek-grilled-chicken-lemon-oregano-olive-oil-01.jpg

See, for years I would cook chicken the way I've seen my Greek friends do it: rubbed with olive oil, garlic, and herbs (oregano most commonly), placed over a moderate fire, squeezing a lemon over the meat every so often, and cooking until the skin is crisp. It's a great way to get tons of flavor into the meat with very crisp skin, but unfortunately it doesn't reliably deliver juicy meat. The problem is that by squeezing lemon over it repeatedly, you end up adding liquid to the surface, which in turn makes the skin take a very long time to crisp up. By the time the skin finally gets crisp, there's plenty of lemon flavor, but that internal meat is dry and overcooked.

In fact, even in Greece I found most of the meat to be overcooked by my standards, and while not-as-moist-and-tender-as-it-could-be meat is just fine when it's lubricated with plenty of ouzo, sunshine, and relaxed Greek culture, in my own backyard I'd much prefer to have the whole package: crisp skin, flavor, and perfectly cooked meat.

One potential solution is to simply omit the lemon juice basting steps while cooking, which, while it helps ensure the chicken crisps in time, ends up losing you flavor. Squeezing lemon over the finished chicken is just not quite the same.

20150609-greek-grilled-chicken-lemon-oregano-olive-oil-02.jpg

The solution turned out to be a two-stage flavoring process. Instead of making an olive oil-based rub, I decided to combine the aromatics into a emulsified vinaigrette, packing garlic, chopped fresh oregano, olive oil, lemon juice, and lemon zest into one flavorful sauce.

20150609-greek-grilled-chicken-lemon-oregano-olive-oil-03.jpg

The real key to perfectly grilled chicken is to start by butterflying the bird, which ensures that the legs cook slightly faster than the more delicate breasts so that the white meat stays at a nice juicy 150°F even as the dark meat cooks to a full 165 to 170°F. And of course, butterflying also puts all of the skin on top of the bird, giving it a better chance to render excess fat and crisp up.

Skewers inserted into the thighs and wings and run through the breasts make the whole thing stay flat as it cooks and makes it easy to pick up, flip, and maneuver around the grill.

20150609-greek-grilled-chicken-lemon-oregano-olive-oil-04.jpg

Once my chicken was butterflied, I rubbed it all over with half of my vinaigrette, reserving the other half to serve alongside the chicken after it's cooked. See, though vinaigrettes and marinades may be flavor-packed on their own, that flavor doesn't do a very good job of penetrating deep into the meat. Even an overnight rest in marinade won't give you flavor that goes much beyond the top millimeter or two. By reserving half the marinade to serve as a sauce, you get more flavor in every bite than you ever could with a straight marinade on its own.

20150609-greek-grilled-chicken-lemon-oregano-olive-oil-05.jpg

For the best results, I start by laying my chicken on the grill that I've set up with a two-zone fire: hot on one side, cool on the other. By laying the chicken on the cool side with the legs pointed towards the hot side then covering the grill, I turn the whole ting into a slow oven, allowing the chicken to cook very gently.

Common cooking wisdom dictates that you sear meat first and finish it over gentler heat, but I find you get much juicier results and crisper skin by reversing the process, starting on the cool side and finishing over the hot side to crisp the bird up.

20150609-greek-grilled-chicken-lemon-oregano-olive-oil-07.jpg

The real trick to the juiciest chicken is to use a thermometer and make sure that the breast meat never rises above 150°F.

I cook my chicken skin side up on the cooler side until it's around 120°F or so, then flip it over to the hotter side with the skin down and continue cooking until the skin is fully crisp and rendered and the meat hits that 150°F sweet spot.

After carving and adding the remaining vinaigrette to the chicken, there was still one thing missing. With the constant-lemon-juice-basting method of grilling, you end up with tons of sweet, grilled lemon flavor. With my vinaigrette-based technique you get a little from the initial amount of lemon juice on the chicken at the beginning of cooking, but it's not nearly at the same level.

20150609-greek-grilled-chicken-lemon-oregano-olive-oil-10.jpg

The solution was as easy as grilling an extra lemon split in half until well-browned, squeezing it over the chicken along with the vinaigrette.

The finished chicken has all of the qualities I love about Greek-style grilled chicken—the crisp skin, the huge lemon, olive oil, garlic, and herb flavor—all with impressively juicy meat. If I went to a fictional suburban high school I'd nominate this chicken as prom queen. And you know what? She'd win.