For the Juiciest Grilled Chicken, Just Add Yogurt
A staple of South and Central Asian cooking, a yogurt marinade preps proteins to take the heat.
By Melissa Clark
Of all the things to get excited about as grilling season kicks in — the crisp-edged pork butt, the herb-rubbed lamb legs, all those resplendent peppers and eggplants and burgers galore — humble chicken thighs fall to the bottom of the list.
It’s not because chicken thighs are inherently less delicious than burgers and lamb. It’s just that, being workaday staples you’re likely to whip up on any given Tuesday, they’re probably not the first thing you’re pining to throw on the grill.
This yogurt-marinated chicken aims to change all that.
With an intensely flavored marinade humming with za’atar, garlic and lemon zest, these chicken thighs are deeply savory, even when marinated for only a couple of hours. And if you accidentally overcook them — a risk faced by even the most experienced griller — the yogurt ensures they will still emerge juicy and piquant on the inside, and striped bronze and glistening on the surface.
A common marinade ingredient in South and Central Asia, yogurt has a centuries-long history of being used to tenderize meat destined for perilously high heat, like chicken tikka cooked in a tandoor or lamb kebabs seared on a charcoal grill.
Abetted by a little salt, the yogurt helps the meat retain its moisture when up against raging fire, and adds a mellow tang that you can easily perk up with whatever aromatics you have on hand. Any combination of alliums (garlic, onions, shallots) with herbs, spices and an optional chile can find a happy home in the marinade bowl. As long as you make sure to use enough salt — between ½ and ¾ teaspoon salt per pound of bone-in chicken — you really can’t go wrong.
Another benefit of yogurt, according to Nik Sharma, a cookbook author, food scientist and contributor to New York Times Cooking, is that it contains lactic acid, which is gentler than the vinegar and lemon juice found in other marinades. This gives you a longer window of marination time, letting you soak your meat for up to 24 hours without it getting mushy, he wrote.
All of this means you can toss everything together in the morning (or the day before) and then grill it when you’re good and hungry. Or if grilling isn’t in the cards, you can even throw the chicken under your broiler. Forgiving and adaptable, these chicken thighs will cook up beautifully textured and perfectly seasoned — no matter how you apply the heat.
Recipe: Grilled Za’atar Chicken With Garlic Yogurt and Cilantro
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