When I think about grilled chicken breasts, I immediately picture my college dorm dining hall. I’ve heard enough horror stories from other schools to know that we had it pretty good, food quality- and variety-wise: a decent salad bar, pasta with rotating sauce choices, more types of cereal than I could get through in a week (I tried my best). And under a heat lamp, in the corner of the flattop station where you could order a burger or wrap, lived a mountain of char-lined grilled chicken breasts.
I eschewed the chicken pile for a long time—months, which felt like forever freshman year—in favor of things that seemed more interesting or exciting to eat for lunch and dinner. But by the time spring quarter rolled around and I was dying for a kitchen of my own, the heap called out to me, in large part because I could use those boneless chicken breasts to fashion a meal that was entirely mine. We may look plain, said the chicken, its grill marks dark and perfectly even from the dining hall’s industrial grill. But we can be anything you want.
Whole books have been written on the subject of doctoring up dining hall food, and the ubiquitous grilled chicken breast always plays an important role; even [redacted] years after graduation, I still turn to that straightforward, versatile protein to add something extra to whatever I’m already making. Alone, a grilled chicken breast can be a simple main, especially when topped with a drizzle of salsa verde or romesco. Whole, it shines on a bun or between slices of bread. Sliced, it’s ideal on a salad or grain bowl, in tacos or a burrito, or stuffed inside a pita. Chances are, whatever’s on the menu could only be improved by adding a grilled chicken breast—especially one that is flavorful enough to buck the cut’s stereotype as bland filler. Having a bold standby recipe in your back pocket is important insurance against what’s-for-dinner decision paralysis.
This recipe is a variation on my mom’s go-to chicken marinade, which I love for more reasons than the fact that I’ve been eating it for decades. First, the mixture itself is a punchy combination of shallot, garlic, sherry vinegar, and citrus juice—both lemon and lime. It’s powerful enough to deeply flavor the meat rather than just living on its outermost layer, so you really do taste those aromatics in every bite. And it’s made entirely of things I usually already have in my pantry, so no special shopping trip is required.
Second, this chicken cooks really well: The pinch of sugar in the marinade encourages char (I like a chicken breast that’s well blackened in spots, to get my money’s worth for lighting the grill or heating up the grill pan), and the salt and fridge time keep the meat juicy and tender. You don’t need a ton of advance warning to reap all these benefits either. Just 30 minutes of marinating is enough to really make an impact on your chicken—and due to the citrus juice, you don’t want to let it sit for longer than four hours anyway. If you portion off a bit of the marinade separately before adding the meat, you even have a built-in sauce to spoon over at the end.
Once the grill is going, you just need five to seven minutes per side for the meat to cook through—keeping an eye on the internal temperature (we’re aiming for 160°F before resting) will make sure you’re not winding up with dry, overcooked meat.
Cobbling together veggie and rice bowls in my college dining hall—topped with a grilled chicken breast pulled from the heat lamp heap—was my small way of tapping into the freedom of cooking that I lost while living in a dorm. But even now that I have all the freedom in the world to make whatever I want for dinner (brag), the pull of grilled chicken is still strong. I usually make a few breasts at a time so I have extras to stow in the freezer for days when whisking a marinade together is too much to handle; it’s not a mountain of chicken, but it’s enough for me and wherever dinner takes me.
For more information please see the list of Chicken breat on the grill