Last week we talked about how to debone chicken thighs.
Let’s put those thighs to good use this week. We’re going to marinate them in a Vietnamese-inspired marinade and grill them.
One of the reasons Southeast Asian dishes are so delicious is because they embody sweet, salty, sour, and hot — all at once. It shakes up the palate with in-your-face swagger. I’ve loaded this marinade with a little bit of each component.
- Brown sugar: sweet. It does double duty by caramelizing on the grill, adding more flavor.
- Hot sauce: hot. Use any brand you like. I’ve chosen Homeboy’s Habanero. It has both heat and flavor: think sweet fruit hiding behind a pleasant sting.
- Soy sauce: salty. And don’t forget umami.
- Fish sauce: salty. And funk. Fish sauce by itself tastes really funky, but when it’s paired with these other ingredients it mellows out and brings just the right amount of pizzaz. Red Boat is my favorite brand. Three Crabs is also a good choice, although not as strong.
- Lime zest and juice: sour. And acid to balance out sweet and salty flavors.
- Ginger: hot. Well, peppery, anyway.
- Garlic: hot. Adds a bit of a bite and lots of flavor.
Throw a couple of herbs into the marinade mix. Cilantro and Thai basil are my top two choices, but you could also substitute regular sweet basil if you can’t find Thai basil. Mint is a terrific addition, too.
Pour the marinade over the thighs. I use a zippered plastic bag. The bag lets you easily turn the thighs during the marinating time, which can be an hour at room temperature, or up to four hours in the fridge.
Don’t marinate the chicken for more than four hours, because the acid in the marinade will start to break down the flesh, turning it mushy.
While we are on the subject: Marinades are for flavor, not for tenderizing. Pounding (with a mallet) tenderizes meat, but marinades do not. And the marinade doesn’t deeply penetrate the meat, although it does flavor the surface, supremely well.
Don’t confuse breaking down proteins, which is what acid (vinegar, citrus, etc., in marinades do), with tenderizing (no matter what TV chefs say). If you want more facts about the role of marinades in cooking, you might consider adding scientist Harold McGee’s revered textbook, On Food and Cooking, to your library.
Back to grilling chicken thighs, first remove the thighs from the bag and discard the marinade.
Brush liberally with vegetable or peanut oil. You can skip salting the meat — there is ample salt in the marinade — but don’t skimp on pepper.
I’m applying some of the grilling tips I outlined in the grilled halibut post. The key is to get the grill hot (400 degrees) and then brush the grates with oil just before putting the thighs on, skin side down. And then — this is super important — walking away for a few minutes without disturbing the meat so it has a chance to sear.
Use a wide grill spatula to quickly scrape up and flip the thighs, moving them to indirect heat (not directly over the flame), because it needs to cook another 7 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness. If the thighs are over direct flame, they’ll burn on the outside without getting done throughout. Turn the heat down, too, so the grill registers about 350 degrees instead of 400 degrees.
Once the thighs are done (they will feel firm to the touch), pull them off and let them rest for 5 minutes to redistribute the juices. Top with fresh cilantro and serve.
You won’t believe how fantastic these taste. Sweet. Salty. Sour. Hot. … Pow!
- 2 pounds chicken thighs, deboned *
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 3 tablespoons light or dark brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- 1 tablespoon fresh peeled and grated ginger
- 1 tablespoon chopped Thai (or Sweet) basil
- 1 to 2 teaspoons hot sauce
- Zest and juice of 1 medium lime
- 2 cloves garlic, minced (about 1 teaspoon)
- 2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Debone chicken thighs, leaving skin on. (See my previous post on how to debone thighs.) Place deboned thighs in a zippered plastic bag.
- Whisk all marinade ingredients (soy sauce through garlic) together in a measuring cup. Pour over chicken thighs and seal bag.
- Marinate at room temperature for 1 hour or in the refrigerator up to four hours.
- Heat the grill to high (400 degrees).
- Remove chicken from bag. Place on a small rimmed baking sheet or plate. Discard marinade.
- Brush both sides of thighs with oil. Place skin side up.
- Season generously with black pepper.
- Place thighs, skin side down, on a well-oiled, hot grill. Close lid and wait 3 to 4 minutes, or until grill marks form on skin.
- Turn thighs, moving them to indirect heat, and turn heat to medium (350 degrees). Close lid and continue grilling until thighs are done, about 7 to 10 minutes more. Thighs will feel firm to the tough, or register 155-160 degrees on a thermometer. Let rest for 5 minutes before serving.