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.
“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.
Do you have a favorite chicken recipe made with vinegar? Tell us about it in the comments!
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Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. These days, you can keep your eye out for her monthly budget recipe column, Nickel & Dine. Rebecca tests all recipes with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.