You should marinate chicken in yogurt

By Emma Laperruque
Ty Mecham / Food52

Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst — we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we're getting the most out of a fridge staple.

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Greek yogurt is one of the hardest working ingredients in my fridge — the sort of staple that can bounce between sweet and savory recipes without blinking an eye. Top with granola for breakfast or mix into chocolate mousse for dessert. Or put it toward dinner: pasta, or potato salad, or a dunking sauce for chicken.

In this recipe, Greek yogurt works double-duty — both as a marinade and a salad dressing.

If you've ever marinated meat before, you already know that you need a few components in addition to salt — something fatty (like olive oil) for better browning, something acidic (like vinegar) to tenderize, and something flavorful (like a spice or herb) for seasoning. Effortlessly, Greek yogurt accomplishes two out of three, thanks to its milk fat and live cultures.

So it's easy to see why this technique has been around for centuries: "It was a common practice during the Mongol Empire, which spanned the 13th and 14th centuries, to ferment mare's milk (that would be from the horse) into yogurt and use this to marinate meat," writes Priya Krishna in her yogurt column for Taste.

While chicken breasts are infamous for drying out, yogurt's lactic acid boosts their cooking confidence, yielding meat that's tender and juicy enough to compete with thighs. You'll salt the marinade more than you'd think is necessary — the yogurt will taste too salty on its own, but modest chicken appreciates this, just like it would a brine.

Marinate for at least one hour, or up to 12. (Any longer in the fridge, and the meat will turn mealy.) If you're a planner, scale up the recipe and freeze portions of chicken right in its marinade — a smart trick I learned from cookbook author Nik Sharma.

Besides the yogurt and salt, the marinade only needs one other ingredient: ground sumac. With a purplish color and lemony flavor, sumac is a staple spice in Middle Eastern cuisines. In Bottom of the Pot (a Piglet winner!), Naz Deravian writes: "Sumac also symbolizes the color of sunrise—a new day." Which sounds wonderful right about now, doesn't it?

If you don't have sumac and are sheltering in place, let your spice cabinet lead the way. Try black pepper, cumin, caraway, garam masala, chili powder, whatever makes you go, "Ooh!" And add enough to be able to really taste it.

But maybe you're wondering about the second way we're using yogurt? Often, cucumbers get tossed with sour cream or créme fraîche or Greek yogurt as a dressing. Here, you're going to salt smashed cucumbers and some slivered red onion until they both weep, then sob — then we'll spoon them and their juices onto a downy yogurt blanket. Separating the dressing from the salad may seem strange, at first, but this way each ingredient is heard more clearly.

The rest of that red onion gets thrown in the skillet with the chicken. So, yes, we have yogurt two ways. And red onion two ways. And even sumac two ways (after the marinade, you'll sprinkle more on the salad). And salt more ways than that. Because if the ingredient is around already, why not use up every last drop?

Sumac Chicken With Yogurty Cucumber Salad

Prep time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Serves: 2

Ingredients

Sumac chicken and sautéed onions

  • 1 cup whole-milk Greek yogurt
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • 2 teaspoons ground sumac
  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1/2 pound each), halved horizontally
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 3/4 red onion, roughly chopped

Yogurty cucumber-onion salad

  • 4 Persian cucumbers
  • 1/4 red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3/4 cup whole-milk Greek yogurt
  • 1 pinch ground sumac

Directions

  1. Combine the yogurt, salt, and sumac in a medium bowl or container. Add the chicken and make sure each piece is totally coated. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 12. 
  2. When you're ready to cook the chicken, make the cucumber salad. Place the cucumbers on a cutting board and smack each one with the side of a chef's knife or rolling pin until it splits like someone sat on them. Now roughly chop. Add to a bowl with the onion and salt, and toss to combine. 
  3. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil, then the chopped onion and a pinch of salt. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onions are mostly translucent and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. 
  4. While the onions are cooking, remove the chicken from its marinade and scrape away any yogurt clinging to the meat (this can cause the chicken to burn or stick in the pan). Discard the marinade. 
  5. When the onions are done, transfer them to a plate, then, immediately add the remaining tablespoon olive oil to the pan. Now add the chicken (it should sizzle). Cook for 3 to 5 minutes per side until the chicken is browned all over and cooked through (about 165°F internal temp). If the chicken feels stuck when you go to flip it, give it a little more time to form a crust; a spatula versus tongs also helps. 
  6. While the chicken is cooking, spread the ¾ cup of yogurt around on a serving plate — this is where you'll build the cucumber salad. 
  7. By now, the cucumber salad should have accumulated a lot of cucumbery juices. Good! Add the olive oil and stir. Taste and adjust the salt if needed. Pour the cucumber-onion salad on top of the swirled yogurt. Sprinkle some sumac on top. 
  8. Plate the cooked chicken on top of the onions, and serve both dishes together.

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More Big Little Chicken

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For those nights when you don't think you have time to make dinner: You do! The supporting ingredients are happy to be futzed with. Try mozzarella or labneh instead of burrata, basil or dill instead of mint. And let me know your favorite combo in the comments.

Quinoa-Chicken Meatballs With Garlicky Greens

Meatballs without eggs, herbs, spices, even bread crumbs. Instead? Fluffy quinoa teams up with ground chicken for a few-ingredient winner-winner. And by ground, I mean pulsed in a food processor. This allows you to start with dark meat which means way, way more flavor.

Lemoniest Roast Chicken

Finely grated lemon zest in the dry brine. More finely grated lemon zest in the butter rub. Lemon halves in the chicken cavity. More lemon halves in the roasting skillet. And — this is the best part — a schmaltz slash lemon juice gravy that's as easy as making a vinaigrette.

Chunky Chicken Chili

Inspired by the chicken chilis my mom made when I was a kid, in this version, sweet yellow onions and spicy poblanos do most of the heavy lifting. Like Marcella Hazan's famous sauce, butter enriches the tomato-y broth, mimicking the richness of beef or pork. Highly recommended with also-buttered cornbread.

This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by Food52 editors and writers. As an Amazon Associate and Skimlinks affiliate, Food52 earns an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.


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