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Variations on a Theme: Grilled Chicken

Rachel Tepper Paley
May 21, 2014

You’ve got burgers covered. You’ve readied a dizzying variety of potato salads. The only thing missing from your Memorial Day feast? Some slammin’ grilled chicken.

Grilled chicken may seem like a straightforward affair, but there are myriad ways to infuse it with flavor. There are three primary categories—spice rubs, marinades, and sauces—each of which is wonderful in its own way. Spice rubs ensure the surface of the meat is bristling with flavor, marinades help the whole thing stay nice and juicy, and sauces are just always awesome.It comes down to, per usual with food, personal preference. Here are a few rock-solid recipes to help you choose your own chicken adventure:

Spice Rubs

Photo credit: Everyday Food

Spice rubs can be wet or dry. Both are applied to meat before cooking, infusing it with flavor. This dry version is sweet thanks to brown sugar, but dried oregano, thyme, black pepper, and cayenne add savory punch.

Photo credit: Michael Brauner/StockFood

Another dry rub option: garam masala. The Indian spice blend is a potent mixture of a whole cabinet’s-worth of spices (many versions include coriander, black peppercorns, cardamom, cinnamon, caraway, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg).

Photo credit: Everday Food

This super-fresh wet rub containing cilantro, fresh ginger, garlic, orange zest, and spicy jalapeño is a gorgeous shade of green. It’s floral but balanced thanks to an acidic splash of orange juice and a drizzle of olive oil.


Photo credit: Everyday Food

A buttermilk marinade lends chicken an almost silky texture and helps keeps the meat juicy. Lemon zest and garlic are the key to this version, to which fresh dill contributes a green note.

Photo credit: Everyday Food

Who’s afraid of a little garlic? Not you. Prove it with this six-cloves-strong marinade (or heck, more if you’re really gutsy). Just be sure to pop a breath mint after the meal.

Photo credit: Everyday Food

Simple ingredients sometimes yield the best results. All you need is a quarter cup of fresh lemon juice, a glug of olive oil, and a few garlic cloves for a winningly tangy marinade


Photo credit: Everyday Food

Eschew bottled barbecue sauce for a concoction from your own kitchen. This tomato-based number is slightly sweet thanks to molasses. White onion, ground mustard, Worcestershire sauce, white vinegar, and garlic deliver savory complexity. (This recipe calls for brushing the sauce on the chicken immediately before serving, but you could use it as a marinade instead.)

Photo credit: Everyday Food

Consider a sauce that conjures Mexican moles, such as this bright, piquant one made with toasted pumpkin seeds and Romaine lettuce. White vinegar balances the flavors, and jalapeños add a touch of heat.

Photo credit: Everyday Food

Hot-off-the-grill chicken begs for a cool foil. Enter pesto-yogurt sauce, an herbaceous, creamy mix of basil, pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan, olive oil, and Greek yogurt. Expert tip: Make extra pesto to serve as a dip for crudites.

So, which strikes your fancy—marinade, spice, or sauce? Don’t worry, no need to declare an allegiance. For every time there is a season. And a grilled chicken recipe.