As someone who develops and tests recipes for a living, it's literally my job to describe how and why certain flavor pairings work. Usually, that's a relatively attainable task, but sometimes, when faced with this particular why? I can't think of a better answer than: Just, because!
Think about pork and brown sugar. And seafood and butter. And beer and sausage. And of course, chicken and vinegar. They just . . . work. These combinations have been around for a long time, in countless cuisines, yet are also constantly revived in new recipes.
Today, we're exploring the last. What is it about chicken and vinegar? Let's find out.
Chicken isn't a fatty meat compared with, say, beef, but schmaltzy, well-salted, crispy-skinned chicken is still rich. And there's no better way to cut fat and salt than with acid, be it freshly squeezed citrus or, arguably chicken's favorite, vinegar.
Tangy, salty and sorta sweet, vinegar leaves me wanting more. It's not only that I'm an acid fiend (though that's not not a factor here); it's about culinary harmony.
Chicken with vinegar appears in countless long-standing dishes. Poulet au Vinaigre, a French classic thanks to chef Paul Bocuse, calls for red wine vinegar to be reduced until thick and syrupy, then mixed with cream and seared chicken pieces. In Hawaiian Huli Huli Chicken, an acidic component is vital to the sweet sauce slathered on the chicken before grilling: In her cookbook "Aloha Kitchen," Alana Kysar's version calls for rice vinegar. This ingredient is also used in Amelia Rampe's recipe for the classic Filipino Chicken Adobo, braising in a sauce with a whole head of garlic for maximum punch.
Contemporary dishes lean on the combination, too. Alison Roman's Vinegar Chicken With Crushed Olive Dressing was the most popular recipe on NYT Cooking in 2019, and an adapted version of Kysar's Huli Huli Chicken (calling for rice or apple cider vinegar) also made this list.
"Acid grants the palate relief, and makes food more appealing by offering contrast," writes Samin Nostrat in "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat." "While salt enhances flavors, acid balances them. By acting as a foil to salt, fat, sugar and starch, acid makes itself indispensable to everything we cook."
The first time Nosrat made Poulet au Vinaigre, at the suggestion of a mentor, she was skeptical: "It hardly seemed appetizing." However, Nosrat realized the vinegar mellows as it cooks. Her cookbook's Chicken With Vinegar recipe calls for white wine vinegar, added to the pan along with searing chicken pieces, simmered until the meat is cooked through, and splashed in again to perk up the dish just before serving. "It heightened my appreciation for what acid can do for a rich dish."
In his new cookbook "The Flavor Equation," Nik Sharma talks about using vinegar in marinades for chicken. Characterizing his use of the condiment as a "flavor booster and also as a brining solution," Sharma stirs vinegar into marinades for a grilled chicken salad, roast chicken thighs and chicken lollipops (Sharma's are doused in a brick-red sambal oelek–based sauce). Of the salad, he writes: "Together salt and acid affect protein structure and increase the water retention capacity of the chicken breast. The result is a chicken breast that's juicier and more tender."
When I think of vinegar and chicken, my mind immediately jumps to Chicken Savoy, a dish native to northern New Jersey, where I grew up. Though the dish is simple (chicken parts smeared with an herby paste, baked hot and fast, finished with lots of vinegar), it's attracted a cult following in Essex County. After first debuting at Belleville's Belmont Tavern in the 1960s, the dish has turned up on menus at red sauce restaurants all around the area. And though the official recipe remains a tightly-kept secret, when I crave chicken and vinegar at home, I riff on Chicken Savoy. It's the double dose of vinegar that brings the dish together: Both sweet balsamic and zingy red wine vinegar — a tip shared with me by Steven Amadeo, the owner and manager of Miele's Restaurant in Verona, New Jersey — go into the pan with sizzling chicken. Before serving, I stir in another glug of each vinegar, because you can never have enough.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
- 3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken legs and thighs
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 ounces Pecorino Romano or Parmesan (or a scant 1/2 cup pre-grated)
- 5 large garlic cloves
- 5 oil-packed anchovy fillets
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 2 tablespoons dried thyme
- 1/2-1 teaspoons red pepper flakes
- 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 3/4 cup dry white wine, chicken broth, or a mix
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, divided
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, divided
- Small handful fresh oregano and/or thyme sprigs
- Freshly chopped parsley, for serving
- Good Italian bread, for serving
- Heat the oven to 450ºF. Pat-dry the chicken and season well on all sides with salt and pepper.
- If not using pre-grated, cut the cheese into a couple pieces, place in a food processor and pulse until the cheese is finely grated (or, if using pre-grated, just add the cheese to the machine). Add the garlic, anchovies if using, herbs, red pepper flakes and 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Pulse until a paste forms. (This mixture can also be made by hand: Grate the cheese on the fine holes of a box grater. Finely chop the herbs and garlic before mixing with red pepper flakes and oil.) Season with a big pinch of salt and lots of pepper.
- Heat remaining tablespoon oil in a large oven-safe (stainless steel or cast-iron work best) skillet over medium-high heat. Nestle in half the chicken parts, skin-side down. Sear the chicken until it releases from the pan naturally and is well-browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Flip the chicken and let cook for another 8 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a sheet pan (or plate or platter) skin-side up, then repeat with remaining chicken parts.
- Use a spoon or spatula to smear the cheese-herb mixture over the skin side of each chicken piece.
- Pour the white wine or broth, and 1 tablespoon each of the balsamic and red wine vinegars into the skillet, and use a wooden spoon to loosen any browned bits stuck to the pan. Scatter sprigs of fresh oregano and thyme, then return all the chicken, still skin-side up, to the skillet. Transfer the skillet to the oven and cook until the liquid has reduced by about half and the chicken is cooked through, registering at least 165ºF on an instant-read thermometer, about 15 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a serving platter deep enough to hold the sauce.
- Scrape up any browned bits in the pan and stir in the remaining tablespoon of both vinegars. Pour pan sauce over the chicken and serve topped with parsley.