A two-ingredient marinade that doubles as a sauce

A marinade is the cooking equivalent of self-care — a step that's unnecessary but glorious

Published April 3, 2021 4:53PM (EDT)

Prop stylist: Amanda Widis. Food stylist: Monica Pierini. (Linda Xiao / Food52)
Prop stylist: Amanda Widis. Food stylist: Monica Pierini. (Linda Xiao / Food52)

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Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. That means five ingredients or fewer — not including water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (like oil and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Psst, did you hear we're coming out with a cookbook? We're coming out with a cookbook!

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It's hard, if not implausible, if not impossible, to think of a side dish that doesn't get along with grilled chicken. Whatever is in your pantry-slash-fridge works — potato saladsalad potatoes, the hodgepodge of cucumber and onion and celery in the crisper plus a plop of sour cream.

The only question is: Will you marinate the chicken? And admittedly, this is a trick question. Because the answer is actually another question: What cut of chicken are you using?

If it's bone-in thighs, sure, salt them lavishly, then toss them to the flames. They are fatty and juicy and resilient enough to withstand the heat. But if boneless, skinless breasts are your pick — and they cook up so quickly, so evenly, so effortlessly, why wouldn't they be? — there's only one answer. Of course I'm marinating the chicken.

A marinade is to meat as an epsom salt bath is to me: a place to go after work, unwind wound-up muscles, drink a martini, eat potato chips, and read a magazine that I end up dropping in the tub when my cat leaps up and scares the living daylights out of me.

Maybe the metaphor doesn't hold up. But you get the idea.

A marinade is the cooking equivalent of self-care, a step that's unnecessary, but glorious. Especially with lean cuts that are lacking in personality and prone to drying out, a good marinade boosts flavor and tenderness to infinity and beyond.

Of course, a lot of ingredient lists can get you there. At the minimum, you'll need salt for its savory superpowers, something something fatty (like oil) for coatability and richness, something acidic (like citrus juice) for tenderizing and zing, and something flavorful (like herbs) for, you know, flavor.

On our site alone, we have many marinades with many ingredients: This one with jalapeños, cilantro stems, garlic, olive oil, sugar, salt, and black pepper. This one with kombucha, soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, olive oil, and red pepper flakes. This one with silken tofu, lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, rice vinegar, salt, and black pepper.

But for those days when you want to do less and get just as much, know that you can fall back on these two ingredients: mayonnaise and hot sauce.

As it does to sandwich bread, mayonnaise clings to chicken, expertly enriching it with oily, egg yolky goodness, and paving the path to better browning and charring (read: better flavor). Hot sauce takes care of everything else: the vinegary tang and chile drop kick, not to mention the salt and whatever flavors your chosen hot sauce features (I love the garlickiness of Cholula and the Buffalo wing-ness — a thing! — of Frank's).

The result is a chicken breast that has the confidence of a chicken thigh.

And what's more? These two ingredients aren't only a marinade, they're also a sauce. Just stir them together while the grilled chicken rests, tweaking the ratio to be as creamy or fiery as you like. Then serve it alongside for slathering and dunking, preferably outside, where you can still smell the smoke from the grill, and watch the sun slump in the sky.


Recipe: Back-Pocket Marinade for Grilled Chicken

Prep time: 6 hours 15 minutes
Cook time: 8 minutes
Serves: 2


Marinated chicken 

  • 2 or 3 boneless skinless chicken breasts (1 to 1 1/4 pounds)
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 3 tablespoons hot sauce (see author notes)
  • 1 pinch kosher salt (optional)

Spicy mayo

  • /4 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon hot sauce, plus more to taste


  1. Marinate the chicken: Halve the chicken breasts horizontally. (If you're an overachiever, you can also pound them to an even thickness for more even cooking.) Add them to a container or a zip-top bag. Combine the mayo, hot sauce, and a big pinch of salt (if you're using it) in a bowl. Pour this marinade over the chicken and make sure the meat is fully covered. Refrigerate for 6 to 24 hours. 
  2. When you're ready to eat, heat a grill to high for 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. While that's heating up, remove the chicken pieces from the marinade and use your hands to squeeze off as much marinade as possible (this helps it brown better). 
  4. Oil the grill grates, then add the chicken. Cover the grill and cook for 3 to 4 minutes until charred. Flip, cover again, and cook another 3 to 4 minutes, until charred on the other side and cooked through (165°F). Transfer to a plate and sprinkle with salt. 
  5. Let rest for a few minutes while you make the spicy mayo: Combine both ingredients and taste. Does it need more hot sauce? Adjust as needed. 
  6. Serve the grilled chicken with the spicy mayo for dunking.

By Emma Laperruque

MORE FROM Emma Laperruque

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