Sweet, tangy balsamic marinated chicken is a juicy and mouthwatering addition to any weeknight dinner, and just takes a few minutes to prep in advance! Perfect cooked on the grill, on the stovetop, or in the oven.
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For me, almost any meatless dish can be improved by added a juicy, flavorful piece of chicken. While a simple salt and pepper seasoning is always a classic option, adding just a few more flavorings to mix up a marinade creates a final product that is truly more than the sum of its parts.
This marinated balsamic chicken is definitely a new favorite! I’ve added it to grilled vegetable pasta, roasted vegetable quinoa harvest bowls, and sliced it to top a simple green salad — and each time it makes the meal extra delicious and memorable. Now I want to add it to everything, or have it on its own as a main dish!
About Balsamic Marinated Chicken
I can’t say enough about this balsamic marinated chicken. It is not only melt-in-your-mouth tender and juicy, but the flavor of the balsamic vinegar with a touch of sweetness from brown sugar makes this chicken mouth-wateringly addictive.
There are a few reasons I love a good marinade.
- It flavors the surface and outer edges of your meat (marinades don’t make it very far into a piece of poultry, but that’s okay.)
- Half of your meal prep is done in advance, if you marinate your chicken earlier in the day, the night before, or even weeks before (if you’re freezing it, of course)
- Marinated meat provides a starting point for a delicious meal
For some reason, having balsamic marinated chicken in the fridge or freezer seems to open up so many ideas and possibilities to me. If I just have a “blank” pound of chicken, it can sometimes leave me feeling like I have the cooking version of writer’s block.
Marinated chicken is a great jumping-off point for making an inspiring dinner! It eliminates that “but now I have to do something to it” feeling I sometimes get when thawing some chicken to use in a meal.
What is in balsamic chicken marinade?
I’m going to take a bit of a deep dive into the ingredients in this marinade and what purpose they serve.
- Balsamic vinegar: This one’s easy. This provides most of the flavor for the balsamic chicken marinade. It’s acidic and a little sweet, a rich flavor unique among vinegars.
- Olive oil: Fat not only provides a buffer between the acid and your meat, preventing your meat from becoming mushy on the outside, but it also helps transfer fat-soluble flavors to the meat. As a bonus, once you drip any excess marinade off your chicken, it’s ready to throw in a pan or on the grill without any additional oil.
- Salt and brown sugar: These are really necessary for a marinade to do much to your chicken. While the acid in a marinade doesn’t really penetrate beyond the outer 1/8 inch or so of a piece of chicken, salt and sugar can travel deeper into the meat, adding flavor and helping it retain moisture while you cook it. Salt and sugar are important ingredients in a brine, so consider their presence (and some time to do their thing) essential for getting a marinade to do its magic! Plus, the brown sugar rounds out the vinegar, creating an incredibly addictive flavor that’s well-balanced rather than overly acidic.
- Garlic, oregano, thyme, and pepper: These are the fat-soluble flavors that infuse into the oil and flavor your meat beyond just the pieces that remain on the surface when you cook it. This is another reason why marinade needs time. The herbs and spices need time to infuse into the liquid, which then coats your chicken.
How to make balsamic marinated chicken
It’s really simple. You just mix together the marinade ingredients, pour it over your chicken in a zip top baggie, and seal it, being careful to push out any excess air. Then lay the bag flat in the fridge for at least two hours and preferably overnight. You can flip it over halfway through to make sure both sides of the chicken are well-coated in the marinade.
Fun trick: Flipping over the top edge of the zip top bag helps the bag stay open while you add your chicken and marinade!
Preparing the chicken to marinate
If you’re making boneless, skinless chicken thighs you can just throw them straight into the bag as is, or trim off any large pieces of fat or tendons first if you prefer. I prefer chicken thighs because they have a higher fat content and tend to stay juicier.
For chicken breasts, I’d recommend a little extra prep. Chicken breasts are shaped like a teardrop, with a fat end and a skinny end. If you throw the whole thing in the marinade, you end up with a couple issues.
First, the thick end will take longer to cook than the skinny end, so the skinny end will be dry before the fat end is fully cooked through. You also won’t get much extra flavor in the middle of the thick side, since a marinade doesn’t penetrate very far beyond the surface of a piece of chicken.
The solution? Cut your chicken breast into three cutlets. This creates more surface area for the marinade to adhere to, and creates pieces of similar size that will cook through much more evenly than one big teardrop-shaped piece.
To make the cutlets, cut it in half first to separate the fat end from the skinny end. Then, slice the fat end in half horizontally, with the knife parallel to the cutting board (as if you were butterflying the chicken, but cut all the way through).
You can tenderize and even out the cutlets additionally if you’d like, by putting them between two pieces of parchment paper and using a rolling pin to even out the thickness. If your cutlets are thinner, this will shorten your cooking time.
Cooking the chicken
Once the chicken is marinated, you can cook it any way you’d like. I’ve included instructions in the recipe card for baking, grilling, or cooking on the stovetop.
I’d recommend grilling if you can because it does such a great job at caramelizing the outside of the chicken, adding even more flavor to the meat.
Take your chicken off the heat when it hits 165 degrees Fahrenheit to keep it as juicy as possible. I love my Thermapen instant-read thermometer for quickly checking the temperature of my meat!
How long should I marinate my balsamic chicken?
You can throw together a marinade the night before or in the morning, and then come dinnertime your chicken is ready to go, however you decide to prepare it. Or, if you haven’t planned that far ahead, even a quick soak for 30 minutes or a couple hours is enough to impart some extra flavor on the surface of your meat!
Remember how we talked earlier about how salt and sugar bring moisture deeper into your chicken? This is the aspect of a marinade that will be most affected by a shorter marinating time. While a quick dip into a marinade will still flavor the surface of your meat, you need a longer marinating time for it to work more like a brine to add moisture.
Conversely, marinating too long can turn the outside of your meat mushy. Overnight is great but I wouldn’t push it past a couple days marinating in the fridge.
Freezing your uncooked chicken in the marinade, however, is another great option!
One thing I did when I was pregnant was pre-marinate a bunch of raw chicken breasts with different flavors and throw them in the freezer. That way, even when I had my hands full with a newborn, I could take my pick, let it thaw, and have a meal halfway done already! I’d just add some veggies and rice, throw it on top of a salad, or add to pasta and bingo! It would feel like a well-thought-out and delicious meal.
What to do with balsamic marinated chicken
Oh my gosh, what can’t you do with balsamic marinated chicken?
You can cook it in a pan or on the grill, or even bake it in the oven. And once it’s done, you can serve it so many ways. Here are a few ideas in case you’re stumped!
- Add it to a cold pasta salad (like this Greek pasta salad or sun-dried tomato pasta salad) to turn a side dish into a hearty main
- Slice it and serve atop a green salad for a light, healthy meal
- Add it to grilled vegetable pasta or a roasted vegetable and quinoa harvest bowl
- Bake it on the same pan with some asparagus and serve with rice cooker saffron rice for a quick, no-fuss dinner
- Make a bunch of it to meal prep for the week
- Use it in a pesto chicken panini with balsamic roasted tomatoes
- Make this balsamic chicken pizza with blue cheese
- Top it with pesto, sliced tomato, and fresh mozzarella
Once you make this balsamic chicken you will want to add it to EVERYTHING, trust me!
Recipes to go with your balsamic chicken
Balsamic Marinated Chicken
- 1 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs
For the marinade:
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1/2 tsp thyme
- 1/2 tsp oregano
- If using large chicken breasts, cut each breast into three cutlets (cut in half to separate the thick side from the thinner side. Then hold the thick side on a cutting board with your non-dominant hand and cut it in half horizontally, knife parallel to the cutting board, to make two thinner pieces.) This will allow the marinade to coat more surface area and allow for more even cooking. Boneless, skinless chicken thighs are fine as is. Add chicken to a quart-sized zip-top plastic baggie.
- Combine all marinade ingredients and pour into bag with chicken.
- Make sure chicken pieces are spread out as flat as they will go (not rolled up like you might find some chicken thighs straight out of the package – you want to make sure the whole surface touches the marinade!) Squeeze out as much air as possible and zip the top of the bag. Squish the bag around with the chicken to make sure marinade touches all parts of the chicken's surface.
- Lay the bag flat and marinate, refrigerated, for preferably at least 2 hours or overnight. Even 30 minutes is ok if that's all the time you have! Flip the bag over halfway through the marinating time.
- Remove chicken and drain any excess marinade from the chicken. Cook as desired.
- Preheat a skillet or cast iron pan over medium heat. You shouldn't need to add oil to the pan, since the oil from the marinade on the surface of the chicken should be sufficient. Cook chicken pieces for about 7 minutes per side, or until internal temperature is 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
- If baking chicken thighs, preheat oven to 425 degrees and bake chicken on a sheet pan or baking dish for 20-25 minutes. If baking chicken breast cutlets, cut into evenly thin cutlets as described in step 2, preheat oven to 400 degrees and bake for 15-20 minutes. Chicken is done when internal temperature is 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
- You can also add vegetables to the pan for a quick sheet pan dinner. Just see how long the veggies need to roast and add them to the pan at the appropriate time (for example, you could add asparagus after the chicken has been cooking 5-10 minutes to give the veggies an appropriate 15 minutes of roasting time).
- Preheat grill to medium high heat (400-450 degrees) and cook about 6-7 minutes per side for chicken thighs. For chicken breast cutlets, cook for about 4 minutes on the first side and an additional 1-2 minutes on the second side, or until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Let chicken rest 5-10 minutes before serving.
- Freezing raw chicken in a marinade is a great way to get a head start on a future meal! Just freeze the chicken flat with the marinade in a freezer zip-top baggie, as much air pushed out as possible. The flatter the bag is the quicker it will thaw.
- Thaw overnight in the fridge or in the sealed bag in a bowl of cool water in the fridge to speed up the process (takes a couple hours this way). Cook as desired.
- Alternately, you can freeze the already-cooked chicken to have a quick add-in for salads and pastas! Just thaw or heat and add!