For the juiciest grilled chicken, just add yogurt

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 1/2 and 3/4 teaspoon salt per pound of bone-in chicken — you really can’t go wrong.

Another benefit of yogurt, according to Nik Sharma, 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.

Grilled za’atar chicken with garlic yogurt and cilantro

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Total time: 30 minutes, plus marinating time

6 garlic cloves, finely grated, pressed or minced

2 lemons, zested

1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus additional sprigs for garnish

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more for serving

1 1/2 tablespoons za’atar, more for serving

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or marjoram, plus additional sprigs for garnish

1 3/4 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 1/4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs

1. In a large bowl or container, stir together 5 of the grated garlic cloves, half the lemon zest, 1/3 cup yogurt, the cilantro, oil, za’atar, oregano or marjoram, salt and black pepper. Add chicken and toss until well coated. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.

2. When ready to cook, light the grill to medium or heat your broiler with the rack 3 inches from the heat source. Remove chicken from bowl, shaking off any excess marinade, and grill or broil on one side until charred in spots, 5 to 8 minutes. Flip the chicken and grill or broil for another 5 to 8 minutes, until just cooked through.

3. While the chicken is cooking, place remaining 2/3 cup yogurt in a small bowl. Stir in the reserve grated garlic clove and lemon zest, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cut one zested lemon in half and set aside for serving (save the other zested lemon for another use).

4. To serve, place chicken on a serving platter and drizzle with olive oil and a large squeeze of the zested lemon. Top with cilantro and oregano or marjoram sprigs and serve with yogurt sauce.


If you’re broiling instead of grilling, you can line your sheet pan with foil for easier clean up. Don’t use parchment paper, it may burn.

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