Tender, flavorful chicken breasts

The secret is yogurt marinade

Chicken breasts can often be quite dry and bland. They have a low fat-to-protein ratio, and fat content is a major contributor to flavor and moistness. Chicken breasts just aren't something you can throw in a pan and come up with something flavorful. Nonetheless, they are extremely popular and convenient because they cook quickly, but by the same token, they are easy to overcook. There is an easy way around these shortcomings.

Chicken breasts benefit greatly from spending time in a marinade. A marinade is basically a liquid used to flavor and tenderize proteins. Most marinades are acidic and the low pH helps change the protein structure so it cooks faster and softens the texture. But for marinating chicken breasts, a vinegar-based or citrus-based marinade can often toughen the proteins to a rubbery consistency.

Yogurt tenderizes meat much more gently and effectively. The reason yogurt works so well as a marinade is due to the living microbes and lactic acid they produce. The microbes in yogurt help break down protein, making chicken breasts moister and more tender. The lactic acid in yogurt is less acidic than vinegar or citrus juice and reacts with the food in a gentler way, which means the chances of a yogurt marinade breaking down a piece of meat too much (making the meat mushy) are pretty low. Yogurt marinades also create a uniquely textured and flavorful crust around proteins due to the caramelized dairy proteins and sugars.

The gentle tenderizing effect of lactic acid in a yogurt marinade has the additional advantage of allowing you to plan ahead of time for a busy week. You can prepare a big batch of yogurt-marinated chicken and divide it up into smaller portions in resealable freezer bags and pop in the freezer for up to two weeks. When ready to use, pull a bag out of the freezer, let it thaw in the refrigerator overnight, and then proceed with the recipe.

Yogurt marinades are popular in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines. Yogurt-marinated chicken breasts lend themselves well to grilling. The combination of caramelized yogurt and smoke is especially delicious.

Yogurt Marinated Grilled Chicken Breasts with Indian Spices

Serve this with steamed basmati rice or grilled vegetables.

Ingredients

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 cup of plain whole-milk yogurt

¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and stems (plus extra for garnish)

½ medium onion, coarsely chopped

3 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

2 teaspoons garam masala

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

½ teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

¼ teaspoon cayenne

2 teaspoons kosher salt plus more for sesasoning

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil plus more for brushing the grill

Thinly sliced raw onion for serving

Lime wedges for serving

Preparation

Using a meat mallet or heavy skillet, pound the chicken breasts to an even half-inch thickness. With a fork, poke holes in the chicken to allow the marinade to penetrate to the interior. Transfer to a resealable gallon plastic bag.

Blend the remaining ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Pour yogurt mixture over the chicken, seal the bag, and turn until well coated. Marinate chicken in the refrigerator for at least three hours or overnight. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator 30 minutes before you are ready to grill.

Prepare coals for direct heat if you are using charcoal. Allow for one side of the grill to be the "cool" side. If using a gas grill, heat one side to medium high (about 425 degrees F to 450 degrees F). Brush grill grates with oil. Let the excess marinade drip off the chicken; season with a little additional salt. Arrange the marinated chicken pieces on the hot, oiled grates. Grill the chicken breasts for 3-4 minutes per side, turning once, until browned and cooked through.

Garnish with thinly sliced raw onions and chopped cilantro. Serve with lime wedges.

Yogurt-Marinated Chicken Skewers with Middle-Eastern Spices and Garlic Yogurt Sauce

Serves 4

Serve this with couscous or a tabbouleh salad.

Ingredients

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size chunks

1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt

Zest of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon lemon juice

3 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

1½ tablespoons za'atar (see note below)

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh mint leaves

2 tablespoons olive oil plus more for brushing the grill

8 wooden skewers soaked in water

For the yogurt sauce

½ cup plain whole-milk yogurt

Zest of 1 lemon

1 garlic clove, grated

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Note: Za'atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend usually consisting of dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, sumac and toasted sesame seeds. Look for it in the international or spice section of your grocery store.

Preparation

Place the chicken cubes in a resealable gallon plastic bag.

Combine the yogurt, lemon juice and zest, garlic, za'atar, cinnamon, salt, pepper and mint in a food processor or blender and pulse until smooth. Pour the yogurt marinade over the chicken cubes, seal the bag, and turn until well coated.

Marinate the chicken in the refrigerator for at least three hours or overnight. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator 30 minutes before you are ready to grill.

To make the garlic-yogurt sauce, place ½ cup yogurt in a small bowl. Stir in the lemon zest, grated garlic clove, salt and pepper.

Prepare coals for direct heat if you are using charcoal. Allow for one side of the grill to be the "cool" side. If using a gas grill, heat one side to medium high (about 425 degrees F to 450 degrees F). Brush grill grates with oil.

Let the excess marinade drip off the chicken. Thread the chicken cubes on the skewers. Season with a little additional salt. Arrange the chicken skewers on the hot, oiled grates. Grill the chicken skewers for 3-4 minutes per side, turning once, until browned and cooked through.

(If using a meat thermometer, remove the chicken from the grill when the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F.)

Serve the skewers with the yogurt garlic sauce.

About The Author

Peter Glatz

After the passing of his wife, Julianne (former Illinois Times food columnist), Peter Glatz decided to retire from a 40-year career as a dentist to reinvent himself as a chef at the age of 66. In his short culinary career, he has worked at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Elizabeth Restaurant, Oklahoma City’s Nonesuch...

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