"Fast" and "easy" aren't two words you'd typically use to describe most of my recipes, but even I have days in which I've spent far too long in front of a computer screen and realize that I only have half an hour before my wife gets home and it's dinnertime. It's always good to have quick, inexpensive, healthy, and foolproof recipes in your back pocket for just those situations.
Well, this right here is the easiest, most foolproof way I know to get a hot grilled chicken dinner on the table in record time. Not only that, but it packs in more flavor than most all-day recipes. Here's how it goes.
Quick Chicken Tip #1: Double-Duty Dressing
Naked chicken tastes pretty plain, so I like to give it a quick marinade in an intensely flavored sauce. I start with a base of herbs and aromatics—minced garlic and rosemary in this case, though any herb will do and shallots will work in place of (or in addition to) garlic. Tons of black pepper is also a must for me. For the marinating liquid, I start with lemon juice in order to brighten things up.
A big drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil serves three different functions. First, it adds its own flavor to the mix. Second, it helps fat-soluble flavor compounds from the garlic and herbs distribute themselves evenly over that chicken breast and stick there as it cooks. Finally, it serves as a temperature buffer, ensuring that the intense heat of the grill browns the chicken evenly all over.
If you haven't yet noticed it, what we've just made is essentially a loose vinaigrette, which is a very respectable finishing sauce in its own right. So, after making the marinade, I reserve half of it on the side to use as a sauce once my chicken is finished cooking. Two birds with one stone—or should I say, two steps with one sauce?
Quick Chicken Tip #2: Make Cutlets
Big fat chicken breasts take a good 15 minutes to cook, even if you pound them relatively flat, as we recommend in our guide to grilling boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Splitting them in half horizontally and pounding them creates chicken cutlets (paillards, if you want to be all fancy) that cook in less than half the time it takes for a standard chicken breast. Sure, this introduces a few other problems—namely, a proclivity for drying out due to the increased surface area–to–volume ratio—but we can deal with that issue down the road.
Check out our complete instructions for cutting chicken cutlets here.
Quick Chicken Tip #3: Forget Long Marinades!
Marinades typically serve two separate functions. The first is flavoring. As anyone who's been following this column long enough knows, marinades do the vast majority of their work on the surface of the meat. The aromatic compounds that give them flavor are simply too large to penetrate very far into the interior of a piece of chicken, beef, or pork. Whether you've marinated your meat for 30 minutes or 24 hours, the flavor isn't going to vary too much, particularly if you're planning on adding a sauce to the finished dish, as we are.
The second goal of marinades is to alter texture, usually by tenderizing the meat or allowing it to retain more moisture as it cooks. It's true that an acidic marinade, or one with enzymatic proteases that break down muscle structure (like papaya juice or soy sauce), can soften up a piece of meat given enough time, but it can also give meat a sort of mushy texture. Unless I'm aiming for a very specific dish in which that texture is desirable (tandoori chicken, for instance), I prefer not to let my meat marinate for much longer than an hour or two at most. In this case, simply coating the chicken in the sauce and throwing it on the grill, with no time in between, is fine by me.
Quick Chicken Tip #4: Cook Unilaterally
Thus far, we've skipped the long marinade, skipped any kind of brine, and cut our chicken breasts in half. We've got a whole bunch of things going against us if juiciness is what we're after. Here's where we fix that.
See, really thin slices of chicken like these cook through in a matter of minutes. If you were to treat them like you would a larger chicken breast and flip them a few times as they cook, the exterior would have barely any color by the time the interior finished cooking. I'm sure you've experienced the dreaded "Add Grilled Chicken" restaurant option for your Caesar salad, where 95% of the time you end up with chicken that is both dry and colorless and flavorless.
The solution to the problem? Don't flip the chicken. At least, not until the very, very end. I place my chicken over a grill that's as hot as I can get it, then cook it almost completely through on the first side. I actually wait until there's only a tiny hint of pink left on the second side before I finally flip it.
What you're greeted with is an extremely well-browned, smoky, flavorful first piece of chicken. Once flipped, it needs to sit on that second side for only a few seconds to finish cooking through. Your chicken winds up with tons of flavor from the amount of browning it got on the grill, while remaining nice and juicy due to the very gentle cooking on that second side. All in all, it takes less than five minutes to cook through on a hot grill, usually closer to three.
The best part about cooking such thin slices of chicken? They barely need to rest at all, which means that your chicken is on the table and ready to eat in even less time.
Once you get a little practice under your belt with cutting chicken cutlets (or if you just buy them pre-cut from the supermarket), you can have this meal hot and ready in less time than it takes to thaw out and heat up a meal in the microwave. Now how's that for healthy, delicious, fast food?