The vinegary bliss of balsamic chicken

a back-pocket dinner you’ll turn to again and again (and again)

Published July 25, 2021 4:29PM (EDT)

Prop stylist: Olivia Bloch. Food stylist: Sam Seneviratne.  (Ty Mecham / Food52)
Prop stylist: Olivia Bloch. Food stylist: Sam Seneviratne. (Ty Mecham / 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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Though balsamic vinegar has been around for centuries, it didn't catch on in the United States until the late 1970s, when an entrepreneur named Chuck Williams started selling the little-known Modena specialty at his little-known San Francisco store, Williams-Sonoma.

By 1980, The New York Times wrote that balsamic vinegar is "at most fine food shops for $2.79 to $3.50." Fast-forward to 1990 and The Baltimore Sun reported, "in a little more than 10 years, balsamic vinegar has gone from utter obscurity to great renown, from the precious stocks of families in Modena, Italy, to American supermarket shelves." And fast-forward to today and you'd be hard-pressed to find a grocery store without it.

And by it, I mean American balsamic, not unlike American Parmesan, an ingredient that has become a staple in the U.S. and, all the while, means something else entirely in Italy. The real deal — the good stuff — is known as aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena, DOP label included. Depending on the bottle and price tag, it's probably older than most of the cast members on the new season of Too Hot to Handle.

All that said? Don't waste the good stuff on this recipe. Whatever balsamic you buy need be neither fancy nor schmancy. Any store brand will still lead you toward your new favorite chicken recipe — and the only other ingredients you need are butter and salt.

Like many Big Little Recipes, the balsamic comes in more than once. First, it teams up with water and salt for a brine-slash-marinade. This mixture encourages lean chicken breasts to stay juicy (aka insurance for when you forget to set a timer and get distracted by how fluffy your cat is — it happens). And what's more, because vinegar is so acidic, a shorter marinade is ideal. Just 45 minutes to an hour, depending on when your workday wraps.

As soon as the chicken breasts are almost done cooking — this happens in about the time it takes for me to toss together a salad, which is to say, next to no time at all — more balsamic and a big hunk of butter join the pan. This effortlessly deglazes the flavorful bits stuck to the bottom, then simmers into a glossy sauce to baste the chicken, and make it feel like the only girl in the world.

And as soon as the chicken is out of the pan — you guessed it — even more balsamic. Like a squeeze of lemon over battered and fried fish, this sunny brightness wakes up all the flavors, turns on the radio alarm clock to their favorite song, tells them, c'mon, get out of bed. Get out of bed, get out of bed, it's going to be a great day.

Recipe: Buttery Balsamic Chicken

Prep time: 1 hour 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Serves: 2


Balsamic-Marinated Chicken 

  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1 pound total), halved horizontally

Balsamic Butter

  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, divided
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic, plus more for drizzling
  • Kosher or flaky salt, for sprinkling


  1. Combine the balsamic and salt with 1/4 cup of cold water. Add the chicken to an airtight container or bag, then pour the balsamic brine on top, making sure all the chicken pieces are coated. Marinate for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  2. Remove the chicken pieces from the marinade and use paper towels to pat them dry. 
  3. Set a large skillet over medium heat, then add 2 tablespoons of butter. When that's melted, add the chicken. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the bottom of the chicken is golden, with some char around the edges, rotating the pan and lowering the heat if needed to avoid any burning. 
  4. Flip the chicken and keep cooking until almost done, another 2 to 3 minutes. When you're about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes out from the chicken being done, add the remaining butter and balsamic to the pan. (You can transfer any thinner pieces to a plate if they're finished before the thicker ones.) Cook until the sauce has thickened, flipping and basting the chicken as the sauce reduces. 
  5. Transfer all the chicken to a plate, then pour the balsamic butter on top. Drizzle with more balsamic and finish with a big pinch of salt.

By Emma Laperruque

MORE FROM Emma Laperruque

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