Do you ever have those moments when a thought or a new way of thinking about something hits you in the face and you have an epiphany about what to change or do differently? I know this does NOT seem like it would have ANYTHING to do with recipes, but as crazy as it may sound, this Herb-Balsamic Chicken with Peach-Pepper Salsa is the result of one of those lightbulb moments.
Keep reading to find out more!
The Problem – Rubbery Grilled Chicken (even though it’s been marinated!)
Sorry to use the term rubbery and chicken in the same heading, but have you ever experienced this before? Where the chicken doesn’t taste dry, exactly, but it’s certainly not juicy and tender, and if you tried jumping on it like a trampoline, it would probably send you to the moon?
I certainly have and the texture is not pleasant! I knew I needed to figure out what was going.
The Epiphany – Experimenting and Learning
You know how when you’ve done something the same way for a long time, it seems to become the gold standard and you can’t think of doing it any other way?
That’s how I was feeling about marinating chicken. I’d done it pretty much the same way for a very long time, but more and more, I was having these instances where the chicken didn’t turn out as good as I would have liked.
I decided I needed to get to the bottom of it, so I put my food science hat on and scoured articles about marinating to see what the problem could be.
As it turns out, the one marinade ingredient I had always thought was helping make the chicken more tender, wasn’t doing that at all and was actually doing the opposite because I was marinating the chicken for too long.
The lightbulb went off, I made one simple change to my marinating routine, and my chicken has never suffered since.
What I’ve learned as I’ve tried different marinating methods and with further research into what makes a good marinade, is that ending up with juicy, tender grilled chicken has everything to do with a couple of factors.
#1 – The Marinade Ingredients
The ingredients you put in a marinade make a HUGE difference in whether the chicken turns out juicy and tender, or rubbery, or mushy (yes, that can happen too). The main ingredients to pay attention to are…
Acidic Ingredients: Adding acidic ingredients to marinades can help add flavor, however, if meat is marinated in an acidic marinade for too long, the acidic ingredients can cause the proteins in the meat to create stronger bonds, which results in tough, rubbery cooked meat.
Common acidic ingredients added to marinades are:
- Citrus juices (lemon, orange, grapefruit, or lime juice)
- Tomato based ingredients (tomato juice, sauce or paste)
- Vinegars (balsamic, white wine, red wine, rice, cider)
- Wine (red or white wine)
The Bottom Line: acidic ingredients are very common in marinades and can add a lot of flavor. The key is to add them for just a short time rather than the whole marinating time.
Enzymatic Ingredients: I know, this is not a term most people talk about when chatting casually about cooking, but you’ll soon see that there are some very common ingredients that fall into this category.
Enzymatic ingredients are those that have the ability to break down the collagen and protein in the meat. This process can happen quickly, and the result is meat that has a mushy texture.
Common enzymatic ingredients are:
The Bottom Line: enzymatic ingredients are okay to add to marinades; however, the amount needs to be low and the marinating time needs to be short.
#2 – The Marinating Time
Many people believe that the longer you marinate meat, the more tender and juicy it will be after cooking. As you now know from reading about some of the ingredients that are common in marinades, this isn’t the truth!
Marinating meat for too long, especially when the marinade contains acidic or enzymatic ingredients, is not the best way to end up with tender, juicy meat.
So, what’s the sweet spot when it comes to marinating length? The answer depends on who you talk to, as is the case with most things related to cooking. Everyone does it a little differently and has a slightly different opinion based on what they’ve found to work best.
Here’s my take on the matter (which has evolved over time, based on my experiments!)…
If I plan to add any acidic or enzymatic ingredients to the marinade (which I almost always do!), I will add those ingredients for ONLY the last 15 minutes of marinating.
I will mix up the rest of the marinade ingredients and soak the meat in that for up to 12 hours (rarely would I suggest marinating longer than 12 hours).
Then, for the final 15 minutes of marinating, I will add any acidic or enzymatic ingredients and turn/stir the meat to make sure it gets coated with the newly added ingredients. Once the 15 minutes has passed, the meat goes straight onto the grill or into the oven or skillet for cooking.
Is Cooking Time Important?
Yes! Cooking time is actually one of the MOST important factors to ending up with tender, juicy meat. You can do all the right things with the marinade, but if you undercook or overcook the chicken, it can be disappointing.
Here’s the deal…
While it may seem obvious, with chicken breast, it’s most important to not overcook the chicken. I think we’ve all experienced really dry chicken before, and most likely, it’s been cooked too long.
When grilling chicken, which is a dry heat, it’s especially important to watch the cooking time closely and check the chicken early since the heat levels of grills can vary and dry heat cooking is more prone to pulling moisture out of foods.
For chicken thighs or other dark meat chicken (drumsticks, wings, etc.) the cooking time is important too, but dark meat chicken can handle it if you accidentally leave it on the grill for a little too long. This is because it has a higher fat content, which helps keep the meat juicy.
In fact, even though all chicken is considered food safe when cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F, dark meat chicken will be more tender and juicy if you cook it until the internal temperature is a little higher (I prefer 170°F to 175°F, and won’t be disappointed if I get distracted and the internal temp creeps to 180°F). Note that this doesn’t apply to chicken breast.
Simple Summery Salsa
The salsa I had originally planned to serve with this chicken was to grill peaches, sweet pepper and red onion and then chop them and toss with the balsamic and basil.
Sounds really delicious, right? It would have added a subtle smoky flavor to the salsa and the sweet pepper would have softened a bit.
But, when I was testing the recipe for the first time, I realized I really wanted to keep the salsa SUPER SIMPLE for this recipe. So, I simplified it big time and loved the results!
There’s no grilling involved, and there are only 4 ingredients in this summery salsa. It adds so much fresh flavor to the chicken, and I highly recommend you take a few minutes to make it!
Next time you’re marinating chicken for grilling, do yourself a favor and give this Herb-Balsamic Grilled Chicken with Peach-Pepper Salsa recipe a try. I know you’ll love the result!
Herb-Balsamic Grilled Chicken with Peach-Pepper Salsa
- 6 bone-in thicken thighs (about 2 ½ pounds total)
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs, such as sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, and/or chives*
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon coarse ground mustard or spicy brown mustard
- ½ teaspoon coarse salt
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 1 large or 2 small fresh peaches, halved, pitted and chopped
- ½ cup chopped red sweet pepper
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- Freshly ground black pepper (optional)
- Remove skin from chicken thighs. Cut off any visible fat. Place chicken thighs in a large bowl. Add herbs, oil, mustard, salt and pepper. Stir and turn the chicken thighs until they are well coated with the marinade ingredients. Cover; marinate chicken in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or up to 12 hours.
- Remove chicken from refrigerator 15 minutes before you put it on the grill. Add 2 tablespoons vinegar to the chicken; turn and stir chicken until all is well coated with the vinegar. Cover; let stand until you put it on the grill (no more than 15 minutes!).
- For a charcoal or gas grill, grill chicken thighs directly over medium coals or heat for 18 to 22 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink and an instant-read thermometer inserted into sides of chicken thighs registers at least 165°F (I prefer to cook thighs to between 170°F and 175°F so they are more tender), flipping once halfway through grilling. (Avoid trying to flip chicken too early or it will stick.)
- Meanwhile, in a medium bowl combine peaches sweet pepper basil, and 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar. Serve salsa with chicken. If desired, sprinkle all with freshly ground black pepper.
6 servings (1 chicken thigh with about 1/3 cup salsa per serving)