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I’m gonna make a claim that may sound crazy to you, but I swear it’s true. This is the best, most delicious, super easy grilled chicken you will ever have. Seriously.
Honestly, this ridiculously easy grilled chicken is at every family party, every summer cookout, and whenever I happen to have the ingredients handy. Which is super often considering its only 4 ingredients. Literally everyone in my family requests this, and complain when it doesn’t appear on the menu. It’s one of those lick your fingers, empty the platter, always make extra for leftovers recipe.
It’s been in my family as long as I can remember, sooo I felt that it was just about time to share it! Give it a try and I’m convinced it will become a family favorite of yours as well.
The secret to this fabulously easy grilled chicken is the simplest, 4 ingredient marinade. Soy sauce, white vinegar, lemon, and onion. That’s it. As simple as it is, each of them is a key ingredient in the success of the marinade. But first things first, what is a marinade and what does it do?
What is a marinade?
Marinades are simply acidic liquids used to impart flavor into the meat soaking in it. Historically, during Renaissance times, they were used slow down the spoilage of meat. Nowadays, we use them primarily for flavor, but they can also improve moisture and tenderness.
Often composed of acid, salt, aromatics, and occasionally sugar, a marinade is designed to infuse the surface with flavor. When cooked those flavors caramelize and create an amazing layer of finger licking goodness.
Salt and sugars can break down the meat tissues much like a brine does, but it’s really the acid that plays the vital role. Originally vinegar was the acid of choice and is still used frequently today, but other acids like wine, citrus, fruit juices, buttermilk, or yogurt can also be used.
By immersing the meat in the acid, the muscle tissue is broken down and the potential for retained moisture during cooking increases, but it’s a veeeeery slow process. Letting the meat sit too long in a marinade to increase tenderness can have other not so great effects. Overly sour flavors or stringy, odd textures of the meat can result from letting the marinade sit for too long.
How long should I use then?
That really depends on your goal, but I would advise no longer than a day for larger, tougher cuts like large beef roasts or whole birds. The smaller the cut, the less time needed for the flavor to infuse. Use caution with seafood as acid can quickly affect texture, I limit it to 30 minutes for fish.
For this easy grilled chicken 3 hours is my ideal time to marinate before grilling.
Soy sauce is a product of fermented soy beans. It’s made through a two step process where first molds break down the beans in a warm, moist environment. After two days, the mixture is submersed in a salt brine that kills the mold spores but allows the enzymes to continue breaking down the beans and turning them into a flavorful, complex liquids.
Different regions produce different products. Both Chinese and Japanese soy sauces are made primarily from soy beans but Japanese tamari contains more wheat, leading to a sauce with more sweetness.
For this recipe I use the big brand I’m willing to bet we’re all familiar with – Kikkoman Soy sauce.
Vinegar has been around for millennia. It’s the natural result of fermenting alcohol. Bacteria and oxygen work together to convert alcohol to acetic acid, resulting in a pungent, intense liquid that’s one of the best preservatives around.
It’s been used in so many applications for so long thanks to its ability to slow spoiling of food, but it also adds a really pleasant acid note to our palates when used appropriately in seasoning.
There are many different kinds of vinegars: fruit, wine, ciders, and malts. All of them have amazing flavor notes that come from the alcohol or foods their fermented from. In this recipe however use plain, white distilled vinegar.
White vinegar is made from pure alcohol, no aging, no aromas or flavor compounds from anything else. Which makes it ideal when you want the tangy, acidic notes that don’t overpower the other ingredients, like our soy sauce, lemons, and onion.
Lemons are thought to be a hybrid of other citrus fruits, but they’ve been around for so long I’d wager they’re among the most popular citrus flavors now.
There a so many varieties that’s a post all its own, the standard supermarket lemon is what you’re looking for (the ponderosa most commonly). Avoid meyer lemons for this, you want the acidic, tart, bright flavor, not the sweetness of meyers.
Onions are just one faction of the immense Allium family. They originated in Asia but have since become one of the most common and used ingredients worldwide. There are hundreds of varieties of onion, and for this recipe I recommend using one of the storage onions available at most supermarkets. These are the large, mature onions that store and keep well outside of the fridge.
White, yellow, or red will all work so pick your preference, but avoid the sweet varieties. They get lost in the powerhouse flavors of this marinade. Red onions are my favorite so that’s what I use. If you need help choosing, here’s a guide of the different common onion varieties
Make the Marinade
To whip this easy grilled chicken marinade together, simply gather soy sauce, vinegar, an onion, and two lemons. This is enough for 1 whole chicken broken down, or 8 pieces of chicken.
Feel free to increase the marinade for parties or larger cooking batches, just remember the simple ratio of 2:3 vinegar to soy sauce. For every 3 cups of soy sauce, you’ll need 2 of vinegar. That’s the typical amount I use for my 8 chicken pieces, and for that I use 2 whole lemons, and one whole large onion.
Simply combine the liquids in a very large bowl. You’ll need enough space for the volume to rise as you add the chopped onion, lemons, and chicken.
Chop the onion in large chunks. This will allow the acid to work on the onion as it does the chicken, breaking down the onion and releasing aroma and flavor compounds that will add flavor to the marinade and therefore the chicken.
Cut each lemon in half, squeeze the juice into the marinade then add the lemon halves in as well. Add the chicken, cover the bowl, and chill for at least three hours, up to 1 day.
Cooking Easy Grilled Chicken
Cooking this marinated chicken on a grill results in the most gorgeous, caramelized surface that is really incomparable to any other cooking method.
Heat Your Grill
To do so, heat up either your gas or charcoal grill as needed. You’re aiming for a temperature of about 375°F. Our charcoal grill has hovered between 350° and 400°F and we’ve never had a problem with this easy grilled chicken. While your grill is heating, remove the chicken from the fridge so it can come up to room temperature.
Cook the Chicken
When your grill is ready place your chicken over direct heat skin side down. Allow to sear and crisp for about 5 minutes. When the skin is crispy, move the chicken to indirect heat and allow to cook for 25 to 30 more minutes, flipping twice, until the internal temperature is 160°F. Allow to rest for 5-10 minutes then serve.
Use a Thermometer!
Now as a woman with a grilling family, I’ve received my fair share of teasing for using a thermometer to check the meat on the grill.
I really don’t care.
While I do believe that with time and practice you can learn what properly cooked chicken feels like to the touch, until you’re confident and sure, a thermometer ensures perfectly cooked chicken every time. When not used, I’ve also had my fair share of overcooked or undercooked chicken. That’s not fun for anyone.
I use THIS Instant Read Thermometer and I love it. Works quickly, is waterproof and I can use it inside or over the grill.
I know what you’re thinking – my thermometer says 165°F for poultry, not 160°F. That’s absolutely right. However even after you pull your proteins from the heat, the internal heat will continue to cook it for a few minutes. It will rise that remaining 5 degrees while it rests.
Can I use skinless Chicken?
Absolutely! I’ve used boneless skinless breasts and thighs on numerous occasions. While the skin adds a lovely richness and flavor, it’s not mandatory. Go with bone in, bonless, skin on, or skinless, whatever suits your tastes.
Be aware that without the skin to crisp, cooking over direct heat won’t have the same effect. For any chicken you cook, it is entirely possible to cook it over indirect heat the entire time. Simply allow for an extra 5-10 minutes of cook time.
Can I use the Marinade after I take out the chicken?
Not without extra steps. While there is a lot of acid that would very likely kill bacteria, it’s never a good idea to consume something that has come into contact with raw chicken.
If you’re determined to use it, you can add it to a large pan and bring it to a rolling, violent boil (at least 165°F). Then cool and use as desired. Or, remove half a cup or so before adding your chicken and set aside.
I’ll be honest, I think either is unnecessary. You won’t need it!
I don’t have a grill, but really want to make this!
While I advocate for grilling if at all possible, you can cook this inside as well.
Use an oven safe pan like cast iron or stainless steel. Over medium high heat on the stove, add a tablespoon or so of oil, and sear the chicken until the skin is brown and crispy. Sear other side until browned then transfer to a 350°F oven for 25-30 minutes or until 160°F. Allow to rest for 5-10 minutes then serve.
I hope you enjoy this family favorite. A simple 4 ingredient marinade, a bit of time, and a hot grill is all you need to prepare citrus soy easy grilled chicken for your next cookout. I promise, it’ll be a hit.
If you’re wondering what to serve alongside it, check out my Great Grandma’s Potato Salad! It’s perfect for a cookout.
I’d love to hear what you think, and as always, Happy Eating!
- 3 cups soy sauce
- 2 cups white distilled vinegar
- 2 medium lemons
- 1 large red onion*
- 8 pieces skin on chicken*
- Combine soy sauce and vinegar in a large bowl. Chop onion into large chunks and add to liquid.
- Slice lemons in half and squeeze into liquids. Then add lemon halves into the liquid as well.
- Gently add chicken. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, up to 1 day.
- Remove the chicken and allow to come up to room temperature as you heat your grill. Heat grill to 375°F.
- Remove chicken from marinade and place skin side down over direct for 5 minutes or until skin is crispy.
- Move to indirect heat and cook for 25 to 30 more minutes until the chicken has reached an internal temperature of 160°F. Remove from grill and allow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes. Enjoy!